diCorcia Heads Exposed
By Naomi Elfred-Ross
I have recently been reading a beautiful graphic novel called Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, by Kirsten Radtke. I say novel, but it is more a piece of research, or an essay with meticulously wrought illustrations. Radtke brought my attention to photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia and his famous body of work; Heads. diCorcia set up his camera on a tripod in Times Square and using powerful strobe lights, which he attached to scaffold, he went on to take thousands of photographs of pedestrians, as they made their way through the crowds. Perhaps they were out shopping, or on their way home from work. The strobe lighting highlighted the features of the individuals, with a rather ghostly effect, who would otherwise be unseen amidst the shadows.
The images, that were taken at some 20 feet away, have an intimate quality as though it were possible to reach out and touch them, the detail is so fine. There is a sense of voyeurism in knowing that the subjects were unaware that they were being photographed, their vulnerability exposed, as they lose themselves in the crowd. Yet I wonder how often we ever feel truly anonymous and lost in the city, in an age of high surveillance, camera phones and social media? Can we ever really let our guard down, or are we always left with a sense that we might be being watched, at any given moment? If it were possible, it may bring comfort to know that we can become invisible, but it may also feel incredibly isolating, as we are social beings and surely most desire and need to connect, to be seen and to be known. However, how we are seen and known is crucial and so we are left in a perpetual state of self-consciousness. It is no surprise, therefore, to note Radtkes observation that diCorcias images seem neither posed, nor candid, but in some eerie liminal space, as if the subjects can sense theyre being watched. (Radtke 2021).
KIM BY BRUCE WANG
I had initially felt entranced by these images, as they appealed to my own vulnerability and sense of isolation. Here, I was being presented with a snippet of another human beings private world. I found myself trying to imagine something of what their lives might be like. Where were they going? Where had they been? Are they going home to someone who loves them, or are they alone in the world? Their apparent vulnerability, as unknowing subjects, felt like a hand reaching out to mine and I felt less alone. Yet I also felt myself being exploited, as I believe the subjects of the pictures were and so the work has a dishonesty about it, for me. Bruce and I have often conversed, in the past, about how the true essence of a person is captured photographically.
Bruce looks for this, through taking multiple snaps, up close, in his studio. He searches through afterwards for those that speak to him. I wonder if it is possible to put into words exactly what he is looking for, or if it is a more instinctive, emotional response, that resonates with something of our own experience of what it is to be alive. If this is the case, then of course the selected images are subjective, and I wonder how the photographer is able to judge that what they perceives is also what others will see too? I wonder what the truth in photography really means, and can a photograph truly be unedited?
I think Bruce acknowledges this in his work and explores the juxtaposition between the self we wish to share with the world and that which we wish to keep private. Surely the selection process is a kind of editing, as diCorcia had to decide on a selection of images taken from thousands. Yes, there is the initial emotional response, but the brain has an amazing knack of categorising and stereotyping.
I wonder if a more honest way to work would be to select at random, but the photographer will be seeking to sell their work and so this would be taking a massive risk. So, is diCorcias Heads simply exploiting our vulnerability and need to be seen, amidst a pandemic of isolation? Our need to connect, to recognise the familiar and to belong. I find myself becoming increasingly cynical the more I consider his motivation. His process feeling somewhat staged and theatrical. A comment on the world we live in perhaps, where we are, more than ever, expected to create avatars of ourselves, to play a part and all the while, we disconnect from ourselves and from the world. Seems pretty bleak. Thinking of what motivates me creatively, in this particular context; I know there have often been times I have passed somebody on the street and longed to take their photograph, just as they are. I would need to take it without them knowing, otherwise they would become guarded and may try to pose. This is the point I decide to keep on walking, because I would not want to invade anyones privacy or intimate revelry. Who are these people who interest me anyway? Are we all drawn to certain associations of what is universally true as reflecting something of humanity? I wonder if it is better to acknowledge there will always be limitations within all art making and make no pretence to the contrary. This, of course, should not deter any artists from expressing whatever it is that inspires them and commenting, in their own unique way, about the world they exist it. In doing this they are sharing something of their own lived experience and what could be more human about that?
-Radtke Kirsten. (2021). Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Pantheon Books, New York.
Hi Naomi, Many thanks for making me aware of the work of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. I have looked and looked at and read about his work for a few days now. The only way I could make a start in replying to you was to send you 6 of his pictures, 2 of mine, 1 by a lesbian couple and the final archive picture of 3 Bauhaus students seen here while taking a photo break from their famous, weekly Bauhaus celebrations circa 1934. My two pictures are editorial narrative pictures inspired by artist Boyd Webb. As editorial pictures, they do not have any text attached, and are meant to stir emotions and Art awareness. Here is just a stream of thoughts which I will edit after my nights sleep: Of all the women on show, I would most like to work with the 3 Bauhaus women. The lesbian couple are excellent photographers in their own right. So that just leaves Mr DiCorcia. Telephoto Lenses as used by DiCorcia, are like using a snipers rifle when Game Hunting. To continue the metaphor, the Game is shot/butchered, packed, and arrives in the Art Gallery/Supermarket a few days later. The same applies to the Hassidic Jew subject who unsuccessfully sued DiCorcia for invasion of privacy. I have never used telephoto lenses as I like to get up close and personal with my sitters. The 4 Caucasian Women. Their photos are very similar to those used by middle class Caucasian women on Singles Dating Sites. Yes, they all appear vulnerable, fragile and unguarded. But look again and see that underneath they all wear iron fists over velvet gloves. The South East Asian Women. I find these photos a bit disappointing. They show South East Asian Women to be sexual playthings and emotional dwarves. Best wishes, Bruce