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He may be one of the leading photographic artists of his generation, but Philip-Lorca diCorcia is still anxious about having two shows of his work opening almost simultaneously next month, one in New York and one in London. “It makes me nervous as hell,” he said on the phone from upstate New York. “I think every artist gets the jitters every once in a while. I’m not so worried about the Hustlers – whatever its shortcomings, it’s because it was done 20 years ago and the world has caught up in a way.” Hustlers is the series of portraits he made in Hollywood in the early 1990s, when he asked male prostitutes to appear in the pictures and charge him roughly what they would have charged a customer for sex. Neatly hitching together ideas about commodification, sex and imagery, it led to his first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993. The pictures he is more concerned about are the ones in London, which he has grouped under the title East of Eden, a series he started in 2008.
“That was obviously a traumatic year for a lot of people,” he said. “I felt I needed to respond to the situation, to what was the culmination of George Bush’s era. So this idea of the Fall, this ejection from Eden, is what inspired the pictures, a sense that everybody’s optimism and fever to have a great life had been completely overturned. And to some degree, as in the Biblical story, it was knowledge that did it.
“Suddenly people realised that they don’t get everything for free; that you can’t have a mortgage that you don’t have to pay back; that you can’t constantly leverage your life on your credit card. And we’d been led into two wars that were disastrous failures and misguided to begin with. I just took that as a jumping-off point for the imagery.”
DiCorcia first came to prominence with staged photographs of apparently ordinary scenes that gained significance from the way he lit and dramatised them, setting up a tension between their often banal external narratives and the complex inner narratives they implied. One of a group of artists who radically changed the way photography was seen and thought about, for the past 17 years he has been a sought-after teacher and critic at Yale School of Art.
In 2001, exploring portraiture further, he set up a strobe light among scaffolding in Times Square and took pictures of pedestrians as they passed. (The strobe was activated by a radio signal.) The resulting isolated headshots captured the strange, self-absorbed quality of street life that a conscious portrait would never achieve. One subject tried to sue the artist for unlawful use and sale of his image, but lost.
These recent photographs, though, have come about much less systematically. “With the Heads or the Hustlers, those images have a self-generating metaphorical quality. With these [recent pictures] it was much harder in a way. I kind of impose it upon the image deliberately. These are much more contrived in their metaphorical content and it’s a really delicate thing to get away with.”
The images shown here: the woman in the pristine hotel room with a tornado on the way; the cowboy (he is real, he arrived by chance) heading towards an idealised landscape of the American West that has been laid waste by fire; the crop-haired, overweight blind girl with her dog – his alternative Eve – facing a woodland garden she is unable to see; are all expressions, to a greater or lesser degree, of his sense of national disillusion.
Talking about his picture of the false Eden of the San Joaquin Valley, he said, “The thing that clinched it in that particular picture is that there are two black cars – I didn’t set it up – they’re going away in the frame, and I thought, ‘Well this is Adam and Eve, they’re in their cars and they’re leaving.’”
‘Hustlers’ is at David Zwirner, 525 W. 19th Street, New York, September 12 to November 2, with a book of the same name published by SteidlDangin. ‘East of Eden’ is at David Zwirner, 24 Grafton Street, London W1, September 25 to November 16.
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