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Philip-Lorca diCorcia: choice, non-event and truth

Feb 18, 2001

'You may think the parts are contingent, they are, still they lead you to the truth.'
(All diCorcia quotes, unless otherwise noted, from an interview by Josefina Ayerza)


There are three very different types of choice, that of setting, that of moment, and that of the selected versus the rejected shots. In the case of DiCorcia, the choice of setting is informed (if I remember correctly form a source which cannot recall) by preparatory shots at the location that establish the characteristics of the scene: characteristics of movements, natural light at certain times of day under certain atmospheric conditions, possible camera and strobe light position.

Once the setup and framing is complete, chance propels unaware actors onto this carefully prepared serendipitous stage. Seeing the ensemble of figures constantly evolving and changing, the photographer now has the choice of moment, that of releasing the shutter, gambling in this simple act for the quality of the resulting picture(s). With diCorcia, this moment is not the well-worn 'moment juste' in the sense of capturing an event, incident or interpersonal; instead, it implies waiting for just the right non-event, perhaps even, one could speculate, a certain carelessness and inattention to whatever micro-drama may be unfolding (more within than between people). The surplus of the choice of moment is what has not been chosen: the abundance of action present in a more or less crowded setting that the photographer can neither anticipate not fully apprehend while taking the photo. So while choice boils down to one single action, that of releasing the shutter, the complexity of the setting means that the photograph will to a great extent been defined by unpredictable movements, expressions and constellations of the people crossing the 'stage'.

Looking at the high variability of expression in a rapid series of snapshots of people proves that there is no truth in any single moment that the camera happens to capture. Transient facial motion is frozen to expressions of grief, mistrust, mocking or debility. The photographer, in selecting one of a series of pictures, picks the one where the serendipitous ensemble of human expressions produces an interesting tension merely on the level of the picture. Whether choice proceeds to select cliche or anecdote; the surreal; interpersonal psychology; the social documentary guided by a certain concept of what is considered typical; or, in the case of diCorcia, the non-event that eludes easy interpretation is then, finally, a matter of aesthetic judgement in the context of the work at hand.


The initial quote relates diCorcia's work to truth. One can break down the operation of arriving at truth into a level of truthful method (the operation) and the level of aesthetic choice.

Truth at the operational level might be seen in the photographer's voluntary passivity, his melting into the background, his determination not to create or influence the effects that will become the referent of the photograph. The ideal of objectivity is that of the invisible observer who does not pollute the observed. But of course, the observer cannot be bracketed out: 'They know you are taking a photograph.'. The gaze of the photographed becomes a distant message to the viewer (the narrator) of the photograph, a late warning or even a curse. 'He got me - don't you look at me - I'd tell you off if I could.' DiCorcia claims people rarely look at him / the camera: 'I choose photographs where my presence is not important...Only a child looked at me once.' (omission in the interview source - not sure what has been taken out here). Interestingly, and in contrast to diCorcia's claim, there are quite a few photographs in 'Streetwork' where the gaze meets the camera (or the photographer's eyes - this is hard to tell).

Truth at the level of aesthetic choice means selecting from the repertoire of imagined or already captured images—to wait for (or choose out of the many out-takes) those images that bring out the right constellations of the disparate, those that avoid interpretatory clichés (the beggar on the street, the wealthy bourgeois passing) or the anecdotal which would, like a centre of gravity, suck up the field of meaning in one narrow figure—so each constellation must be seen against the background of dozens of others which were rejected (I can only speculate about the ratio of accepted / rejected images).


The term 'non-event' that diCorcia chooses in his catalogue notes to Streetwork points to the evident lack of interpersonal activity—meeting, greeting, recognizing, observing, seducing—in his pictures. There is no gaze exchanged between people; everyone's trained eye seeks its own object in the non-descript public space, or seems to glide off other persons in a matter of milliseconds, in constant fear of an interpersonal link as if it could constitute a personal melt-down. A subdued fear seems to be inscribed in many faces in Streetwork. This is a social phenomenon which might be pinned down as 'alienation' - although diCorcia rightly marks down this label as yet another worn-out common denominator that will prevent more particular and more image-specific acts of interpretation.

So the non-event is a social truth, but there also is something else, only to be perceived indirectly: the situational non-event, the necessary turning-away of the photographer from the photographed. 'I don't talk to those people, the people I choose never said anything to me..' The forced nature of people's gaze may to some extent be a reaction to the presence of the equipment and the impossiblity to establish a connection to the photographer who may be busying himself with setting or checking this equipment. Then comes the revelation by the strobe light: the photographed understands that 'a picture has been taken' just milliseconds after being captured.

The viewer's knowledge of diCorcia's particular photographic technique (—that of setting up in advance strobe lights attached to lamp posts or other elements in the street—) changes his or her perception (it might even be correct to say anticipation) of the photographed scene. First, it explains the dramatic 'unnatural' lighting - a light that sometimes occurs where windows reflect light across the street or artificial lighting mixes with daylight.

Second, the picture takes on the dimension of a quasi-experimental setting, the viewer imagining the imminent disruption, the irritation and restained annoyance as the photographed discover the design and at the same time, realize that it is too late to do anything about it. The seclusion of the photographer not only mirrors that of the photographed, is a necessary element guaranteeing the stability of the situation. The photographer's gaze, avoiding the gaze of those he has just photographed (or is about to photograph), protects him by projecting an assumed intention into some other (probably material) object in the surrounding. This does not fully conceal his actual intention, but adds enough uncertainty to the photographed's interpretation of his behaviour to prevent a direct confrontation. Meeting the photographed's gaze would imply an acknowledgement of a violation of privacy. The job cannot be done this way. DiCorcia: 'They think I'm violating their rights. Maybe I am.' (source: nytimes.com).

It is common to see artists locating the area of their work in the margins of what used to be the realm of aesthetic experience, the schools, sujets, traditions. The choices of subject, material, or practice reach out to appropriate fields outside art, be it ethnology, natural science, engineering, advertisement, video games, social work, or political action. A voluntary pollution by the non-aesthetic serves to reclaim the aesthetic outside its own field, by means of alienating or subverting both the appropriated context and the own means. This implies a certain aggression against the self-indulgence and reflexivity of the aesthetic mode. Working against 'art' has become something of a necessary element in all art work. When diCorcia expresses his dissatisfaction with art discourse ( 'One of the least meaningful situations I have found myself in is the professional Art world' - source: 'Streetwork' catalogue text by diCorcia)), this does not diminish his standing as artist (expressed as market value of his photographs, and demonstrated by the interest shown in his work by representatives of the very context he rejects). Such a stance may be calculated ('reject to attract') - but I guess not in diCorcia's case.

Update February 04, 2003:

There is also a text on diCorcia's new series 'Heads'.

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