Philip-Lorca diCorcia

Perhaps photography offers an experimental science of coincidence. In the street scenes that are Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s best-known work—represented in this exhibition by ten images taken from the same vantage point on a Havana street over a two-hour period in 1999—people seem to stride purposively forward, but into an abyss. Faces and gestures emerge from the crowd with distinct individuality yet seem disconnected from any context in which they might be consequential. After all, there is a reason each person at a certain street corner happens to be there at a certain time, but there is no particular reason why all of them are there together. Their copresence is unaccountable, insignificant—not coincidental. Only if some unexpected event—say, a photographer’s flash—were to weave these passersby into a single story would their having a place in common be transformed into coincidence. Instead, life goes on, and a few minutes later the scene is filled with a new cast who will never be dramatis personae.

In “A Storybook Life,” the sequence of seventy-six images that made up most of this exhibition, diCorcia turns toward and away from narrative. Taken between 1975 and 1999 but put together in 2003 (first as a book, then as gallery work), they range not only in date but in place and subject: cities, nature, and suburbia—peopled and otherwise. A pensive stillness invests everything. If diCorcia’s street scenes seem to reinterpret Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand via the cold eye of the post-Becher Germans, “A Storybook Life” feels more homegrown, suggesting unanticipated affinities with photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. The series includes pictures that seem staged and others you’d swear were caught on the fly; on the whole, they make it very hard to tell where “life” leaves off and “storybook” begins. One somehow begins to accept them all as both fact and fiction. The man lying on the bed in one image (Hartford, 1979) is the same one glimpsed in an open coffin in another (Hartford, 1980); learning he’s the artist’s father, one might be reminded of Philip Roth’s autobiographical fictions.

“It’s not a picture book,” diCorcia has said enigmatically of “A Storybook Life.” I can only imagine he was implying a focus on the flow of the series as opposed to the individual images (something like Eggleston’s comment that “I see my pictures as part of a novel I am writing”). Certainly, it works on that level, and yet picture after picture sinks in as an indelible memory. My favorite, perhaps, is another Hartford, 1980: A man wearing only shorts sands a ceiling of claustrophobic lowness, his gesture reflected in a dust-covered polygonal mirror set on a radiator behind him. The entire atmosphere seems blanched, permeated by the white dust of his efforts, yet the light pouring in from the windows to the left seems to touch each surface as carefully as he himself touches the ceiling. He’s focused on it to the point of self-forgetfulness. To work, we remember, is to give one’s attention to the object of labor rather than to oneself—and when I need to imagine myself working, I suspect my mind will conjure this image.

Barry Schwabsky