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By R. C. Baker
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Philip-Lorca diCorcia on turning the ultimate photographic trick
In April 1993, a show took place at MOMA that turned the world of pictures inside out. The result of five trips made by New York photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia to L.A.'s rent-boy underbelly—the strip between La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard—the exhibition included 21 photographs of male prostitutes hanging around shabbily pedestrian locales: laundromats, empty lots, motel rooms, the insides of cars. Posed, theatrically lit, and shot through a ground glass lens, diCorcia's blistering photographs spotlit a new coastline—the triangular continent between documentary images, fabricated realities, and the camera's POV. His titles made the coordinates of those encounters bluntly explicit: "Ralph Smith, 21 years old, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, $25," or "Brent Booth, 21 years old, Des Moines, Iowa, $30." Tinseltown fictions and street photography would never look the same.
Called "Strangers"—diCorcia's preferred titles, "Trade" and "Hustlers," were shot down by the museum—his MOMA show was accompanied by a catalog whose influence has become ubiquitous, despite being now 10 years out of print. Two decades later, a new exhibition of diCorcia's L.A. images is scheduled for September at David Zwirner, his New York gallery. Set to coincide with the complete publication of Hustlers (steidlDangin), the show features 40 of the series' original 66 photographs. Also on view for the first time in the U.S.: a room-size installation of three synchronized single-channel projections featuring images from diCorcia's 1993 setup shots.
I sat down inside a louvered office on 19th Street to talk with the self-described "misanthropic and cynical" photographer about his upcoming show and the making of a 20th-century photographic masterpiece.
"I had the idea to do these photos in 1990," says diCorcia. "I lived in Hollywood from 1980 to 1981, and I had a friend who was a bit of a criminal and who cruised Santa Monica Boulevard in his old Chevy convertible. At some point, a hustler dropped his wallet in the car, and my friend assumed the guy's identity. There were bars, too—after hours, between hours. I'm not gay, but he was, even though he had a girlfriend. Distinctions were looser then."
The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant during the Reagan-era culture wars, diCorcia remembers being instructed by the agency to avoid work that ran "contrary to commonly held moral standards." Surprisingly, his Hustler pictures escaped the censure of politicians like Senator Jesse Helms. "To be honest, I don't remember any official reaction at all," recalls the 62-year-old artist. "There was nothing from the government that said, 'Hey, you took us for a ride on this one.' Unlike [Robert] Mapplethorpe and [Andres] Serrano, I think they had a much harder time putting their finger on something in my work that was objectionable."
Every bit as confrontational as the work of artists who became preferred targets for 1990s Republicans, diCorcia's portraits included the prices his subjects charged for their services—along with their names, ages, and places of birth. Oddly, these details provided an accidental cover for the artist's overall project. "The price included in the title was often confused with the cost of the photograph," diCorcia remembers. "It had to be explained. This was probably also one of the reasons why the pictures were not a runaway hit."
Opposition to diCorcia's photographs came not from cultural conservatives, but from the ultraliberal photographic community, which felt that the artist had violated norms of journalistic truth. "The closest things to my pictures then were by Larry Clark and Nan Goldin," diCorcia recalls, naming two photographers famed for their identification with their documentary subject matter. "I think people also thought it was cheating to pay people. Now everybody pays everybody. I bet half the student loan money at Yale's photography school is going to pay subjects."
The opposite of candid snapshots, diCorcia's pictures instead proved the result of meticulous planning and lighting. The camera was always on a tripod; lights were arranged and hidden away from the lens; Polaroids were routinely shot to test a scene. "Then, I'd have the assistant stay put while I went down to Santa Monica Boulevard to find a subject," diCorcia remembers. "You don't do this at 11 a.m. because there's nobody there. But if I was going to work outside, I had to do it during the golden hour"—the time before sunset when natural light is warmest. "That was where most of the anxiety came in. I wasn't afraid of the hustlers or the environment, I was afraid of failure, that they would say no. I didn't want to have set the whole thing up and not find anybody."
One of diCorcia's most memorable pictures was taken on his first photographic trip to L.A. The image is of a ripped black man—aka "Savage Fantasy"—in briefs emerging from a motel bathroom, facing a television with the innocuous likeness of Bill Cosby on the screen. "After that I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be great.' I mean, this guy stood out on the street in sneakers and a Speedo, with handcuffs dangling from one wrist and his face painted blue. He was so fit he must have done pushups half the day. He was much sweeter than he looked—like Baby Huey—and clearly smoked a lot of pot. I saw him a year later, and he was totally destroyed."