outside the Hepworth Gallery at Wakefield
After a day in Leeds listening to Gerald Deslandes talking about modern art, I accompanied him and some other art students to see the Hepworth at Wakefield; there was of course a good selection of artworks on show yet also an exhibition of photographs by Philip-Lorcia diCorsa which I had heard about but not got to see. The fine art students did not seem to think very much of this exhibition neither did Gerald but as a student of photography, I gave it more than a cursory glance. I have always found myself questioning diCorcia’s use of flash in the street on purely practical grounds since flash can cause epileptic fits and other reactions yet here was a full body of work revealing much more about this important photographer of contemporary life.
Gerald Deslandes talks to students
I try to explain to one of the art students that photographs are different that one looks at a photograph in a different way to a painting or piece of sculpture. “One looks at a painting, one reads a photograph!” She replies that one also reads a painting. I am not going to get into an argument and am long used to people with an understanding of painting (my father was a watercolorist and hence many family friends were likewise inclined if not themselves active) who consider photography a lesser art if indeed an art at all. When I began studying photography, the question of photography as art did interest me but nowadays I am more concerned with what photography is about and where it is going. People who regard it as a “handmaiden of the arts” seem to be missing something. It was good however to be accompanied by Gerald Deslandes who was able to give a considered view; photographers tend to boost one’s impressions perhaps because photography still struggles to be accepted for what it is
entrance to the diLorcia exhibition
The first gallery of the exhibition is called Hustlers
and comprises of photographs of male prostitutes. It is good to see this subject focusing on males for a change and is no less disturbing. The photographer has paid the individuals photographed for posing for the images, the rate they would normally charge for a sex session; the amount appears in the caption. These are all carefully constructed photos that are rehearsed beforehand as is the case with much of diCorsa’s work. Gerald pointed out that there is a sense that all the people being portrayed here are being made to look like losers which is not necessarily true and suggests a preconceived notion of what these people are like rather than an attempt to discover what they are about. Are they really victims? Nowadays more positive images tend to be required rather than the tragic figures seen here.
There is a large gallery space for another section called A Storybook Life
that is available as a photo book
; it comprises of 76 photographs that may look like scenes from everyday life but have been constructed. There is no obvious continuity to these images rather a denial of narrative but there is an inter-connectedness in their portrayal of a life lived at a certain time in which the photographer is looking at marginal content rather than big events. The size of the photographs affects their reading; their much smaller size than others from the exhibition reminds one of the relevant insignificance of such situations as well as helping to reinforce the idea of the photobook. Examples of images are “Bethel, 1992” which is about detritus but shows a strange living creature in slime; the fridge interior of Hartford, 1980 appear to be about death as dead fish are being stored in the freezer alongside beer bottles; Wellfleet, 1993 seems concerned about primitivism! In the photograph captioned Naples, 1995 there is a partially obscured face, a trope diCorcia uses in his work, while in the photograph New York City, 1984, one sees a man who has tripped in the street or at least, an actor who who is portraying a fall in the street, which seems remarkably well portrayed being both convincing and yet sensitive in the way the individual is responding.
Heads – photographic portraits made on the street
The next series I see is called Heads and is the one body of work I am familiar with. The people pictured are photographed on the street using a flash arrangement that allows for special lighting and the making of finer quality photographs; the use of flash though does make me question this because flash can give someone an epileptic fit. As Gerald points out, diCorcia is still involved in the selection process and is selecting people with a similar sense of anxiety and so is labelling? The people are all engrossed in themselves and seem archetypal even cliched. Head 7, 2001 shows a woman hidden by large yellow hat while Head 13, 2000 is an impressive portrait of bearded man.
photographs made of the street
In the adjoining gallery, there is an innovative approach to street photography with large format images of views across streets in cities around the world. There is a lot to absorb in these images and I don’t really have the time to spend with them in what amounts to an hour spent in this exhibition.
entrance to Lucky 13 carries further warnings about images of an adult
In a smaller gallery space, a series of images called Luck 13 shows photographs made of pole dancers. In these, women are shown wrapping themselves around the poles that help them make a living. There is a strange kind of eroticism here since the bodies of the women look tense and contorted; one might be reminded of Mapplethorpe and other images in which a sadism is implied. These women are not being portrayed as victims though and have a certain dignity. The names of the women are given with the date of photograph. Is this work demeaning to women? it does not seem directly to be so.
The East of Eden gallery
The final set of photographs I encounter are called East of Eden which are much larger and reward the viewer; One starts to see images that although constructed are worth looking at.
One image that Gerald likes is a Malborough style image showing someone on a horse riding into a canyon behind and above which is a typical image of the wilder American West. There is a portrait of Lynn and Shirley, 2008 that shows a seated black man by whom a white woman stands suggesting a reversal of sexual roles; a middle aged couple by whom a dog, a dumb animal, lies while behind one sees an open kitchen. In Lacy, 2008 a woman is seen highlighted by a low sun yet obscured partially by a dark tree. In Abraham, 2010 it looks as though a red dart is heading for someone’s head but on consideration one can see it is going towards a dart board. In Iolanda, 2007 a woman is sitting in bedroom looking out over a harbour; the TV is on, her image is reflected in the window.
space for video about the work and photographer
There is a corner near the entrance to this series of galleries where one can watch a video about the exhibition which contain some interesting points of view that throw light on the work. “People represent things, they are not personal more archetypal – subtle clues to what person is like!” DiCorcia gives the viewer authority over meaning of work, distance between image and viewer; he was never comfortable photographing people and so adopted a distanced approach. There is a cinematic quality but lack of narrative; the photographer wants to focus on interiority. Di Corcia contribution to photography is significant, making us rethink our view of photography.