(This review originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of artsMedia, a Boston arts magazine which has since ceased publication.)
Intimate Portraits, Anonymous Crowds
Philip-Lorca diCorcia at the Barbara Krakow Gallery, March 2002
The photographs which make up this exhibition are from Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Heads” series of his recent work in “street photography.” The “heads”–busts, really–are those of Times Square pedestrians, anonymous but highly individualized figures who have accidentally become accomplices in the photographer’s project. The effect is arresting.
Portraiture involves an understanding, a pact if you will, between the artist and the subject. But diCorcia has thrown these aspects of the convention to the winds and onto the streets. He has done away with the subject’s explicit cooperation, while retaining the physical and technological prerequisites of the deal.
For more than a year and starting at the end of 1999, diCorcia turned an intersection of Times Square into a studio of sorts, complete with camera and tripod, strobe lights and industrial scaffolding, and an X on the pavement. Every time a pedestrian stepped on it, the stage was set for the strobe lights to initiate the photographer’s intervention from a distance. His great ally in this enterprise was, of course, the light which in these photographs looks like natural light but is in fact entirely artificial. DiCorcia’s ruse extends to the time of day as well; these photographs look as though they were shot at night because of their dark background, but diCorcia took all of them at rush hour, at that moment when people are most vulnerable to the push and pull of time.
But diCorcia’s characters are not necessarily blessed by the artifice and luminosity with which they have been re-made. For light is not meant to make them pretty or happy or particularly heroic. Rather, it creates a shadowy yet very real emotional and physical human presence.
Neither are diCorcia’s pedestrians consoled by the illusory, formless darkness of the night. If anything, such salvation devices have little to do with his portraits. The figures emerge out of dense backgrounds, which show minimal imprints of urban life. The absence of this kind of urban familiarity—a landmark here, a minor but identifiable signpost there — gives to the context of these figures an eerie, inert quality.
Conversely, severed from their urban surroundings, the figures become into atomized, isolated entities, illuminated but not necessarily transparent or open. For instance, the light illuminates the forehead of the portly postal worker and highlights his bold head; it creates pools of shadows around his eyes, which seem to be hiding behind his thick glasses. The man’s expression is difficult to read but it is utterly familiar. We have seen him many times before, perhaps in a crowd or behind his counter at the post office. It is his glasses, though, and the way they turn his eyes into pools of evasion that hold our attention. An attractive woman’s eyes take on an other-wordily quality under the tint of her amber-colored glasses which sit on a face made pale perhaps by makeup, or pensiveness or just plain polluted air.
In fact, many of diCorcia’s characters are defined by their little human signatures —the tiny-stoned necklace of a young woman, the slightly flamboyant necktie of an African-American, the hat of a Hasid. DiCorcia juxtaposes this kind of trivial sign against the intensity of the larger emotions, which his characters both display and hold in check. With this kind of complicated balance, each figure becomes the focus of our undivided attention and at the same time the source of some trepidation. Even the apparent happiness of the young woman in the only photograph where the figure is surrounded by other human beings has a tentative, almost guilty quality to it. Her eyes avoid projection and contact; and we are distanced from it.
It may be that happiness is always momentary while distance and even sorrow last beyond the moment. If so, then these photographs which are such a tight alchemy of artifice and naturalness, of disclosure and withholding certainly last well beyond the moment. In fact, the images begin as emergent figures, but by the end of the viewing they have become characters —burdened and lonely, strangers yet our intimates.
These days, there’s a lot of talk about public grief, so much so that our capacity to feel large emotions—in silence, sometimes inarticulately– is sometimes diminished by the ambush of politicians and pundits, grief counselors and talk show hosts. The approach of diCorcia’s characters and the pace of their step across the pavement are not the dynamic hustle and bustle of urban life but something slower, as though the darkness behind each character is itself a source of peril and foreboding. Against these backgrounds, the characters seem to have been nudged and pushed out of the security of perspective and urban anonymity and thrown into our midst. DiCorcia’s photography is such that we cannot but invite them in, knowing that they’ll stay for a long, long time.