Searching and Unknowing: diCorcia at The Hepworth

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Contemporary / Contemporary Photography / Elation / Exhibitions / Galleries / KatherineCaddy / Photography / Portraiture

The Hepworth Wakefied currently holds the first UK retrospective of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s work, entitled ‘Photographs, 1975-2014.’ The collection allows us to experience a plethora of artworks spanning the artist’s intriguing and varied career. diCorcia is renowned for his creation of semi-real and fictitious works that enable him to explore intense and poignant topics, creating a strong narrative through each series, whether the final images are contrived or actual. He studied photography at university and went on to experiment within familiar interior scenes that gave him the opportunity to engage with the relationship between empty space and human state of mind. This appears to be a primary concern within the artist’s work in the present day; many photographs consist of a lone figure within a simple interior, with little else, leaving us to contemplate the individual’s physical relation and emotional connection to the surroundings depicted.

The gallery space encourages a powerful sense of narrative through a series of large, bright rooms that neatly lead the viewer between each group of photographs, starting with diCorcia’s 2013 series: East of Eden. This series is renowned for its articulation of the atmosphere in the United States following the economic crisis of 2008. diCorcia plays with concerns regarding loss, regret, and desolation, relating the greed of western civilisation to the Fall of Adam and Eve. In ‘Upstate,’ the artist presents a simple image of a large apple tree, gesturing towards temptation. These are overpowering, vast photographs, carefully spaced along the walls, each appearing solitary, allowing for isolated consideration of each work. The artist, I feel, uses basic parallels to evoke the sense of disillusion. These works are grounded within wild landscapes or homely, silent interiors; they are predominantly populated by a small number of figures or vehicles, aspects of living beings that have no effect on the overall scene, their presence dwarfed by the dominant landscapes or cluttered rooms. The works remind viewers of a simple life which must be returned to, in order for the chaos to finish. They are a reminder of what once was, before greed overwhelmed the population.

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The boundless scene presented within the photograph ‘San Joaquin Valley’ highlights a sense of vacancy; the clear sky and lack of presence of life is discouraging, creating a forlorn tone. diCorcia discussed the way in which the timing made the shot what it is: “There are two black cars – I didn’t set it up – they’re going away in the frame, and I thought, “well this is Adam and Eve, they’re in their cars and they’re leaving’”(1). This emphasises the way in which diCorcia strived to engage with Genesis as a theme within this series, sometimes allowing accidental details to spark new ideas for the final images in order to convey his feeling of  desperation regarding the disillusionment in America during this period in time. Poetically, it becomes as though his own work is to a degree out of his control, just as the economic crisis appeared from afar, as he lets outside occurrences play along with his initial ideas to form a final piece.

‘Iolanda’ consists of an solitary woman sitting on a hotel bed, looking out onto the city skyline and sea beyond. A striking tornado can be seen on the television, as she gazes into space, with a hand softly touching the bedspread beside her. This tactility is reminiscent of the strength a person attempts to gain in clutching a solid object having heard shocking news; she rests her hand on the bed, while in the window we are able to see that her other hand crosses over her stomach, perhaps evoking a sense of foreboding. The use of the colours blue and grey is powerful here, linking the natural forces together through the inclusion of land, sea and sky, while the yellowish blinds and pale bedclothes signify domestication and shelter within an interior space. This is emphasised to a greater degree by the photograph’s careful composition: the woman is surrounded and framed by the rectangular window. The face reflecting onto a distant boat through the window may signify a wish to escape from domestic space, watching the outside world go by, but remaining entrapped by fear, implied by the startling image on the television screen, heightening the tension within this work.

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The harsh and sombre atmosphere continues within other diCorcia works. Hustlers is an unsettling sequence of photographs, delving into the world of male prostitutes in Hollywood. Captured in the 1990s, these images stage men within urban settings; there is at once a sense of distressing, high realism and evocative, editorial allure. The titles of these photographs makes them all the more moving. In Brent Booth, 21 years old, Des Moines, Iowa, $30′ the dollars refer to the approximate amount this man charges for sex. diCorcia approached these men, asking them to pose for a photograph in exchange for the amount they typically charged for their services. For me, these were the most poignant works within the entire exhibition. They are constrictive, drawing us to fix our eyes upon each individual, giving little away about their lives or characters: the men’s facial expressions, on the whole, push a sense of strain and disquietude, causing us to long to know their stories, and to begin to create them for ourselves in our imaginations.

“There is very little on the outside that will tell you what the person is really like on the inside. This is a sort of general attitude in my work.”
– diCorcia, 2014. Hepworth video.

The Hustlers series encourages an atmosphere of empty anticipation; these works are devoid of warmth, joy, or even hope. diCorcia’s compositions are exceptional in their ability to express so much in so little. Before I read the signage, describing these as depictions of male prostitutes, I looked around the entire room, at each individual work. I noticed the titles, $30, $20…but wasn’t certain what this denoted. Regardless of being aware of the subject matter, these works are emphatically moving.

 “People respond to things because of their own personal reasons:
I don’t think anybody really wants to spend time, consume, do anything with any of my work because of the backstory…but something has to get you there, drag you into the show.”
– diCorcia (2)

The harsh city light on Brent’s face creates a sense of restlessness, while with folded arms he stares into space, dazed and absent. Andre Smith does not make eye contact with us. His face and bare torso are beautifully illuminated by a harsh white light, while all emphasis is on him through strong focus. There is no need to know that these men are prostitutes. I found these works uncomfortable and mesmerising without this knowledge, perhaps more so, due to the way they entice a natural tension between searching and unknowing.

Within diCorcia’s work there is fierce trepidation in terms of the distinction between fiction and truth. His Hustlers are, we are told, real male prostitutes, but is this all a part of the artist’s game, an attempt to create inherently affecting, alluring and haunting photographs through a vague yet persuasive backstory? If so, do we hope that these are not evasive works, but are genuine images? Do we fear that we may be tricked, or that without authenticity, the works will lose their emotive power?

I feel that regardless of the backstory, of whether these works are fact, fiction, or a combination, they are compelling and cinematic in their staging. We are drawn into jarring scenes, constructed meticulously by the artist. ‘Roy, in his twenties’ draws us in through striking upside-down eye contact. This appears to be a reticent hotel scene, offering no distractions to our gaze upon the young man. Bright white cowboy boots, a chiselled face and furrowed brow give Roy depth and individuality, as diCorcia beckons us to view these men from a personal and balanced perspective. We have invaded a private moment, and now we have become a part of it.

diCorcia’s photography makes us question “the fundamental premise that when you see a photograph, you are seeing the truth” (4). Photographs, 1975-2014′ consists of six series, including Heads from 2000-2001 and Streetwork from 1993-1999, which beckon consideration of the artist’s momentary and documentary works. There is a certain eminence to this exhibition. As the first diCorcia UK restrospective, it is a sign of The Hepworth’s potential as a venue for large-scale contemporary photography, and for displaying the work of prolific international artists. The exhibition runs until 1st June, 2014. Details can be found on the gallery’s website. The Hepworth also created a fantastic video featuring the photographer.

Mentioned Works
1. San Joaquin Valley, California, 2008. Personal gallery photograph.
2. Iolanda, 2011. Personal gallery photograph.
3. Brent Booth, 21 years old, Des Moines, Iowa, $30. Source.
4. Andre Smith, 28, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, $30. Source.
5. ‘Roy, “in his twenties”, Los Angeles, California, $30’, 1990–92. Source.

Article sources are on the Sources page.

Katherine April Caddy, 7th April 2014.

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