Planned spontaneity: diCorcia photos a puzzle for viewers

Chris Bergeron

BOSTON - By staging elaborate tableaux, photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia forged a signature style that blurs the distinction between commonplace moments and gorgeous artifice.

Mario gazes into his refrigerator as if frozen by inertia. A male hustler waits for a $25 trick by a Del Taco drive-through. A tattooed dancer named Amber hangs upside down from a pole on an empty stage.

Has diCorcia distilled ephemeral human dramas into charged images or just gussied up street scenes in light-saturated still lifes?

Viewers can decide for themselves by seeing "Philip-Lorca diCorcia," an intriguing retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Showcasing 29 years of diCorcia's work, this engaging exhibit comprises 123 color photos, including examples from six of his best-known series such as "Hustlers," "Streetwork" and "Heads."

ICA Director Jill Medvedow described diCorcia as "one of the most important American photographers of the past 30 years."

This is the first full-scale show devoted to a single artist in the ICA's new $41 million headquarters on Fan Pier in South Boston. Located in the fourth floor West Gallery, it runs through Sept. 3.

Organized by Bennett Simpson, then associate curator at the ICA, this eponymous show presents a broad sampling of diCorcia's major work. Simpson's cogent wall text establishes diCorcia as a major artist who employed technical expertise to achieve his singular vision.

He is a master in creating striking images that appear spontaneous without revealing the meticulous planning that goes into them.

"DiCorcia's photographs are like carefully prepared enigmas," said Simpson, now associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "They are full of cinematic affect, marrying human drama with technical experiment."

Assistant curator Jen Mergel called the new show "the most current to date" of diCorcia's work. "He's definitely one of the most important photographers of his generation," she said.

Though not a household name, diCorcia's photos are instantly recognizable.

Most feature a central figure, seemingly interrupted in a room, a street, a laundromat, bathed in lurid light. While appearing spontaneous, diCorcia carefully staged his photos often using several lamps to bathe his scenes in luminescent color.

We are drawn to what Mergel called "a circumstance that implies a narrative."

In disparate series, diCorcia creates seemingly simple scenes that compel viewers to fill them in. Like painter Edward Hopper, diCorcia uses vivid light to evoke a sense of solitude and stillness in his subjects, Mergel said.

A middle-aged man slumps in a subway holding a goldfish in a plastic bag. A muscular 38-year-old male prostitute named Ike stands shirtless in a parking lot. Mary sits in a chair with a dog in her lap while Bruce slips in or out of his jeans.

Who are they? Why are they there? What happens to them?

By carefully arranging scenes and raking them in florid light, diCorcia transforms us into voyeurs.

Sometimes he titles these portraits just by numbers or the cities where they were shot. While neither anonymous nor identified, his subjects seem to be familiar types the weary cop, the confident beauty, the somber rabbi.

By leaving their stories incomplete, diCorcia makes us into fabulists, daring us to imagine prequels and sequels to his unfinished stories.

Born in Hartford, Conn., in 1953, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and earned a master's degree in photography from Yale University in 1979.

Mergel described diCorcia as a "pivotal bridge figure" between earlier photo-documentarians and later post-modernists who "constructed images" for viewers to interpret.

"He rides the line between control and spontaneity," she said.

DiCorcia goes beyond traditionalists like Walker Evans who chronicled historical events. He contrives his own moments placing his subjects often real hustlers or real strippers into a scenes freighted with recognizable props.

Unlike Cindy Sherman who plays a central role in her own staged portraits, diCorcia compared his own approach to a "director" who brings together his subjects in fluid scenarios.

The show is arranged somewhat chronologically, beginning with earlier indoor photos often using his family and friends as subjects. The middle section mixes images from series shots in the 1980s and 1990s, "Hustlers," "Streetwork" and "Heads," which reveal diCorcia at the height of his powers. For his controversial "Hustler" series, diCorcia carefully scouted locations and plotted his composition and lighting. Then he convinced male prostitutes to sit for his photos, paying them according to their regular rates with grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the 2001 series "Heads," diCorcia fixed his camera beneath a Times Square scaffolding with synchronized flash lamps and snapped photos, often with a remote cord, when interesting people approached. After shooting 3,000 photos, he edited that series down to just 17 images that convey the "chaos and flux of urban life," said Mergel.

Despite their differences, these images, she said, reveal a characteristic inner tension at the heart of diCorcia's work.

"He combines control and uncertainty. He can't control who walks in. He built pictures that take time to unfold," she said.

Occupying two rooms, diCorcia's series "A Storybook Life" is less accessible than his earlier work. It features 76 photos from a book of the same title that he culled from his personal archives.

While many of the images are interesting for the same reasons as his other series, it's difficult to discern any linear or unifying theme, relegating the viewer to the role of Peeping Tom in a surreal dream.

DiCorcia's most recent work, a series of 13 large format photos of strippers called "Lucky Thirteen," is equally powerful and disturbing. While only seven photos are on display, dancers with names like Tennile, Asia and Juliet Ms. Muse have been photographed against a dark background as in a Medieval chiaroscuro.

While Simpson's wall text speaks of the images' "clinical feel (and) life-sized muscularity," the dancers' postures invert Christian iconography.

As they entwine themselves around the poles, often upside down, it is difficult not to think of Christ shinnying headfirst down his crucifix.


The Institute of Contemporary Art is located at 100 Northern Ave., in South Boston.

It is open Tuesday and Wednesday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission is $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and students; free for members and children 17 or under.

For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit