Philip-Lorca diCorcia: A Storybook Life

In the first issue of Photoworks, Val Williams reviews Philip-Lorca diCorcia's exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2003.

If anyone is the perfect photographer for the late 20th century it is Philip Lorca diCorcia. His cool images of contemporary life say exactly what we want them to say-that modern life is boring, menacing, mysterious and unintentionally comic. Lorca di Corcia’s photographs do not take on any moral imperative — they are not strictly about anything, but rather convey the fragmentary, illusionary effects of isolation, of separateness which became the modus operandi of vogueish photographers in the 1990s. The photographs which were shown in A Storybook Life at the Whitechapel Gallery, and which were assembled for Lorca di Corcia’s eponymous book are deliberate in their avoidance of agenda. Like a story by John Cheever or New york writer Mary Gaitskill, Lorca di Corcia’s photographs are about a frightening ennui, a vacuum world of dislocated souls in which alarm and menace is always part of the scenario.

Philip Lorca di Corcia is an artist who describes himself in negatives. He talks about his photographs by describing what they are not, rather than what they are. In his artist’s statement for A Storybook Life, he discounts, first of all, the notion of this latest anthology as ‘survey’: ‘A number of publishers had come to me wanting to put together the typical survey book which was too passive to be interesting. So much modern photography has questioned our assumptions about the nature of truth in the media that it would be an exercise in redundancy to play narrative games with a bunch of old photos. I started with the working assumption that meaning is fluid and truth is mutable, not to make that point, but to use these qualities to try and produce meaning completely divorced from a critique of the medium.
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Lorca di Corcia’s rejection of ‘narrative games’ is perhaps one which is central to our understanding of photography’s status at a moment when, more than any other creative medium, its position is an ambiguous one. At a time when novels such as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a structured and highly plotted story of webs of relationships within a US middle-class family, are hailed as novelistic breakthroughs, it is easy to see how photographers using traditional methodologies can be perceived as radical by an audience susceptible to an injection of the surreal. In many ways, Lorca di Corcia is a photographer working within a time-honoured tradition. He works as Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander have done, out on the street, choreographing the real, making stage sets from the ordinary. And just as Frank represented the ‘on the road’ generation and Friedlander the new realists of the Seventies, so Lorca di Corcia is the favourite photographer of Generation X. He is a consummate reader of signs and signals, with an insistence that nothing is too ordinary to be studied, the banal becoming the bizarre and every obscure gesture replete with significance. Like Richard Ford in his novel The Sportswriter, or the Coen brothers in their comedy of menace and absurdity, Fargo, Lorca di Corcia positions himself as the ever-amazed observer of the most telling of small moments.

His work is a triumph of dissonance, a reflection of our feckless, shifting disconnected world in which identities are displaced, interchanged and assumed. But it is a narrative nonetheless, and, in its way, as carefully aware of its anti-plot plottedness as the most sophisticated of modern screenplays. It is this very anti-plot which had stood di Corcia in such good stead, has made him successful in the art world and highly prized by fashion editors, a photographer who is cited in student dissertations as often as Nan Goldin and the Bechers. His photographs, like theirs, are the blank canvasses upon which any number of desires can be drawn. For critics and academics, the ambiguity of his vision has proved valuable. Di Corcia is photographer who leaves large margins for comment. In one important essay written on his work, MOMA curator Peter Galassi has remarked that the photographs are: “suspended moments in unfolding narratives- only the conclusion to the story will explain the story that we see. Since di Corcia provides only the fragment, we must complete the stories ourselves, investing his pictures with our own dramas and dreams. ‘The more specific the interpretation suggested by a picture,’ says di Corcia, ‘the less happy I am with it’. “

Such lack of specificity and ambiguity of intention, sits comfortably in contemporary thinking. And it is significant that, although di Corcia has been working since the Seventies, it is only in the last decade that his work has been celebrated, only recently that it has fitted in to the way that we wish to perceive the world and photography’s place within it. For late 20th century thinking has required photography to become ambiguous, non committal. Their works operate as single photographs, each enclosed within it own terms of reference. When one looks at the photographers who have been most critically acclaimed and valued by the market over the last years, practitioners such as Thomas Struth, Philip Lorca di Corcia and, here in the UK, Hannah Starkey and Dan Holdsworth immediately come to mind. These photographers are all talking, through their works, about the culture which has enabled these works to come about. They are discussing the notion of spectatorship, making myriad references to cultural ikons and effects, referring to references. As such, they fit well into a schema of connoisseurship, in which the photographic object is made in order to fit into a clearly defined and culturally aristocratic market.

Di Corcia’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery was part of a Summer of Photography in London. which included Cindy Sherman at the Serpentine and Cruel and Tender at Tate Modern, In these three exhibitions, the profiling of mainly US and northern European photographers, all of whom are established and firmly ensconced in an art market scenario, seems to suggest that the perception of photography by major institutions is that of an orthodox contemporary canon, widely known by art fair audiences and collectors. And, good as it was to see all these photographs on show in London it was disappointing to see no barriers broken, no agendas reset, even to have seen this canon of photography viewed in a new and more critical light.

Philip lorca di Corcia’s exhibition at the Whitechapel was a beautifully produced and installed exhibition of a fine photographer’s work. That said, it was perplexing that the experience of seeing the exhibition was not so different to looking at the book which accompanied it. This poses the question as to what wall-based exhibitions are for. For many photographers of the classic tradition, the photographic monograph is infinitely more important than the exhibition which accompanies it and photographers are often distrustful of the concept of exhibition as theatre or exploration of space. Unlike the Whitechapel’s Nan Goldin exhibition, which celebrated the notion of the exhibition as spectacle, or the recent Guy Bourdin exhibition at the V and A which spun a compelling narrative which brought fashion photography to life, di Corcia’s show demonstrated the dangers of acquiescing so wholeheartedly to the tight and obsessive discipline of the monograph.

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Published in Photoworks issue 1, 2003
Commissioned by Photoworks

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