Philip-Lorca diCorcia

Galerie Klemens Gasser/Tanja Grunert

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s compelling new urban sociological portraits arc reminiscent of his “Hollywood” series of 1990–92, which consisted of images of male prostitutes and drug addicts in Los Angeles, each titled after the subject’s name and the fee he requested to serve as a model. Because of his affinity for certain social milieus, diCorcia’s work has often been associated with that of photographers like Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, or Jack Pierson. Unlike those artists, however, who often live among the communities they document, his approach is typically detached though equally impressive.

A sense of distance can also be detected in his recent portraits of passersby that were shot in nine European, American, and Asian cities. A photograph of a homeless person moving along a crowded sidewalk, begging while wrapped in layers of shawls, powerfully conjures one kind of misery that can be experienced in a big city. The story hinted at in this image is set amid a topography of consumption comprising street signs, traffic lights, and advertising billboards.

DiCorcia’s subjects often appear to have been more or less accidentally photographed, and, in the tradition of Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and Gary Winogrand, he views the street as a stage and those moving along it as actors in the comedies and dramas of the everyday. A child dancing joyfully in Odessa, who appears to be blind in one eye, is reminiscent of those playing in Harlem that were photographed by Levitt during the ’40s. Even if diCorcia’s work sometimes possesses a certain immediacy, however, it is still fundamentally different from most documentary “street photography.” One should note, above all, his distinctive lighting technique, which involves natural light as well as carefully placed flashes. The often dramatic effects realized in this fashion combine with figures frozen in motion to evoke certain film stills.

The photographs that appeared in this exhibition all revealed the same technical and conceptual approach. For each, people were secretly photographed on the street. Unlike Beat Streuli, who uses a telephoto lens, diCorcia manages to capture his subjects at close range, often even head-on. From many images taken of a stream of passersby, he will often only choose a single shot; an essential part of his method thus lies in the isolation of the right image. Each work is then titled with the name of the city in which the portrait was taken.

The filmic quality evident here recalls the work of artists like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Sharon Lockhart, and Tina Barney. However, while most of those photographers carefully stage the arrangement of figures, clothing, and even marginal details, diCorcia’s photographs achieve their captivating radiance by documenting chance events. Before he gives himself over to the free fall of the unforeseen, he anticipates the light relationships, the viewpoint, and the timing of the shot—all of which, together with the selection from a pool of images, ensures an exciting result.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.

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