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Philip-Lorca diCorcia: what happened between 'Streetwork' and 'Heads'?

Feb 4, 2003

'Heads' is a hard-bound book with pages in landscape format. The photographs may look different in an exhibition context at the Barbara Krakow Gallery where they were reproduced much larger, at 48 x 60 inches. Interestingly, the exhibition shows some images which, if I remember correctly, were excluded in the book, such as Head #23, a young woman smiling to herself, surrounded by a small cluster of (probably unrelated) other young people.

I will bypass the foreword by Luc Sante to look at the images themselves. DiCorcia's now familiar method of singling out people in street scenes through the use of hidden flashlights has been used again, but has been narrowed down to shoulder portraits in which the selected head appears on a mostly dark background. Behind or in front of the head singled out by the flashlights, occasionally other heads appear, out of focus and darker.

The surroundings have been reduced and largely eliminated, thereby extracting the genre of portrait from the genre of street photography. The defining trait of the latter is the chance interaction of photographic elements lifted from people who were coincidentally captured in one frozen moment of time; i.e., people brought together by chance on the photographic surface and unlikely to meet again (or if they do, they are unlikely to recognise each other).

The genre of street photography stands in the tradition of impressionist and pointillist painting of urban sujets. The artist's choices of formal composition and tonal value determine the distribution of figures in the scene more than any narrative, ethnographical or psychological intent. The clothes of the period, the styles of umbrella or pram, type of glass or hat, may be read as historic referent, but this seems clearly secondary to the achievement of following some generative rule in organising the surface of the painting. A clear motive is the rejection of the tradition of painting that regards the painted surface as conduit to the referent and attributes skill in the composition of the painted rather than the composition of paint.

Photography deals differently with the issue of composition - at least in street photography ('Streetwork' was the title of an earlier diCorcia monograph) - in that the conscious distribution of objects (figures) that the painter may develop through recursive sketching is replaced by a hit-and-miss series of shots from which prints are selected that are suitable to be organised under a common theme or project. In contrast to the painting, there is always an implict relation between the selected and the rejected. 'Le moment juste' is then the prototypical situation or setting which, although nowhere represented in a single shot, seems to constitute the centre of gravity of the series.

In trying to understand or analyse a series as a work of art, it may then be legitimate to distil a prototypical situation from the variants that constitute the series of selected shots, in order to understand the generative formula that ruled selection and rejection. (This method would be utterly inappropriate for work that doesn't aim for closure in the way diCorcia's work obviously does. Some contemporary photographers (such as Tillmans) seem intent to escape the closure or thematic bracketing that becomes the 'brand' of so many artists - see the brand of 'Becher-school' and the various sub-brands developed within it).

Applied to 'heads' it becomes clear that diCorcia aligns himself in a tradition that is less concerned with the portrait in the sense of capturing a particular (psychological) moment of the portrayed, than with isolating, stochastically, through selection and rejection of shots, a certain attitude in the series that is emblematic for what is understood as the 'human condition'. 'Preoccupied - withdrawn - lost in reflection - estranged - numb' may be a cluster of terms that applies to various degrees to the heads in the series. The photographs rarely return the gaze of the museum or gallery spectator (or quiet viewer of the book), who may be as lonely in front of the series as its subjects appeared to be when they were 'caught'.

In his reduction to heads, diCorcia seems to play out an essentialist gesture - cast away what is ephemeral and home in on the face, the carrier of the riddle, the dearest surface that is so telling and at the same time strives to hide its tale. Of course, in 'Streetwork', the faces were the focal point from which the gaze would depart in order to read the rest of the accidental photograph, to pick up situational and locational values and to read the other faces captured by chance in the same shot, only to return time and again to the face where reading originated (recall Barthes' punctum) and depart from it again in further recursive readings.

The complexity of this reading, however, is eliminated in 'heads' - reminding me of those plays by Beckett which feature just a mouth on a black stage, isolated through a sharp spotlight. While in such plays the reduction affects just the visual parameter, there is no voice in 'heads' that would unfold something. There are the other shots in the series, which carry variation but by the same token cast themselves as variants of the 'urban prototype'. While the individual photographs are quite admirable and invite and disappoint at the same time the guesswork of the spectator-as-reader-of-faces, the reductionist approach and the sombre grounding of the series bring it close to metaphysical Kitsch. The inferred prototype has a hint of the devotional, reminding of the oval portraits of Mary or Christ in amulets, and the pious attitude they evoke.

A final note to the foreword: Luc Sante portrays diCorcia's step from 'Streetwork' to 'Heads' as a logical progression already implied in the earlier work. He claims singularity for 'Heads', relating it to much earlier work by Robert Frank - his series of available-light portraits of people sitting on opposite seats in the NY underground, captured with a hidden camera.

The one contemporary to whom the 'heads' series bears closest resemblance is not mentioned in Sante's foreword: Beat Streuli. I guess this will be evident to anyone knowing the work of both artists, and therefore, the omission seems strange. Urban crowds, suppression of background, sharp lighting (sun in Streuli's case, flashlight in diCorcia's), singling out the urban individual in motion, the candid approach with a long lens: they have a lot in common, even if Streuli seems to belong to a more celebratory and less pensive cast than diCorcia.


There is also an earlier text on the diCorcia of 'Streetwork'; Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Choice, non-event and truth and a text on Beat Streuli: "Beat Streuli's paradise"

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