Their faces are larger than life-size, lit dramatically and looming out of the darkness. They could be actors in a stage play, but in fact are strangers photographed on the street, caught as they walk into the pool of light created by the photographer’s flash gun positioned overhead. They all have the slightly blank expression of people walking through a crowded street, and have been caught unawares by Philip Lorca DiCorcia’s camera. The images are in colour, with rich black shadows, and printed to a massive scale (48 x 60 inches / 122 x 152 cm), and the scale reveals all the detail in their faces and clothing. These photos are clearly not all they seem to be on first viewing, and challenge preconceptions about the fleeting nature of “street photography”. These photos are premeditated and set-up in the sense that the lighting has been installed and carefully angled to produce the desired effect, and the camera is pre-focused on the correct spot, waiting for the unwitting subjects to walk into the “studio”. Unlike Joel Meyerowitz, who spends his time stalking the streets, camera in hand, waiting for the magic to happen in front of his Leica, DiCorcia sets up his hefty medium format equipment and just lets the subjects find him.
The exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield is a large retrospective of his work from 1975 onwards, spread across several rooms in this airy, spacious gallery. From the outside The Hepworth looks somewhat ugly – brutal grey concrete blocks piled up on the banks of the slightly scruffy river – but once inside the atmosphere is calm, the ceilings high, the walls white and there is plenty of room to allow quiet contemplation of the work.
The “Heads” series dates from around 2000, and is complemented by an earlier set called “Streetwork”: street scenes that take a wider view, often involving crowds of people going about their business. They appear to be random groupings of people, in typical “street” style, but when studied closely (and you can get really close to these massive prints) you notice the clarity of focus and the exquisite lighting and start to wonder if this is some kind of strange advertising image. In “Tokyo, 1998” the pedestrians appear to be organised and posed so that the young couple are the focal point of the image, and the young man’s hair is picked out by a shaft of light coming from above. This is not staged, but the result of simply waiting and shooting until the right combination of people and light is arrived at.
Not all of the work is immediately striking: “Storybook Life” is a large scale “series” of 76 apparently unrelated images that I personally found difficult to engage with – I felt they lacked the striking visual appeal of some of his other work, and the seemingly random collection of photos soon began to pall.
The Pole Dancer series lack the visual grace, elegant lighting and sheer wit of his street photos, and the recent “East of Eden” images, while very striking in their physical scale, are somewhat mystifying in their content and significance. They seem to allude to Greek mythology and apocalyptic themes, but personally I felt they required some further explanation.
Despite these reservations this show is definitely worth seeing – it is original and ambitious in scale, and it’s great to see photography getting such a prominent showcase in a mainstream art gallery.
“I have never directed myself towards that [art] world, but rather worked as a professional photographer since leaving university. I have been as influenced by working in the media as I have by contemporary art. I refuse to practice the job of Art. I have never described myself as an artist – when people ask me, I say I am a photographer.” diCorcia, 1997
Interestingly, DiCorcia is a prolific commissioned photographer, producing work for fashion houses, Adobe software, and various magazines. The work he makes for his clients looks remarkably similar to his personal work, the only apparent differences being the intended purpose of the images and the use of models instead of passers-by. The use of dramatic lighting is there, the staged-looking images, saturated colours and deep shadows.