Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s big, ambitious, and unexpectedly moving new show gathers 76 photographs made between 1975 and 1999, but it’s hardly a conventional retrospective. Although it includes several of his earliest published images, most of them have never been printed or shown before, and his most famous work—including “Strangers,” the Hollywood hustler series first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993, the international street scenes that followed, 2001’s monumental “Heads,” and his much-imitated fashion photographs for W—is absent. DiCorcia calls the exhibition, and the hefty Twin Palms book that accompanies it, “A Storybook Life,” but it’s not exactly a personal history, either, even if it does begin and end with pictures of the artist’s father and count a sister, a brother, his ex-wife, his son, and a number of friends and acquaintances among its subjects. Instead, “A Storybook Life” is a kind of fictional memoir, what a brief wall text calls “both a story and a life.”
What else would you expect from a photographer whose pictures have always played documentary truth off against cinematic staging? There are photos here that are as close as diCorcia comes to snapshots and others that look like movie freeze-frames. Hung side by side in a deliberate progression around the gallery, the pictures set up a choppy, rhythmic ebb and flow, and fact and fiction bleed into one another. Though that same wall text insists that “the images could not be ordered otherwise without corrupting the effect that they produced,” the sequencing follows no obvious logic, certainly no chronological one. The opening and closing photos of diCorcia’s father—the first stretched out in bed, already fighting cancer; the second in his coffin—were made only a year apart, in 1979 and 1980, and in between, years and locations (including Naples, Los Angeles, Cairo, Paris, Milan, Coney Island, and Hartford, the photographer’s boyhood home) are constantly shuffled. The result, diCorcia writes, is “completely true to nothing but itself”—a rushing stream of consciousness, a memory bank in which every image, every moment exists simultaneously. “There’s a parallel to the way you experience your own history,” diCorcia says, “overlapped in ways that are not rational.”
Rationality definitely seems beside the point once you plunge into “A Storybook Life.” However opaque diCorcia’s narrative, it’s as open-ended and allusive as a dream we’ve somehow wandered into; strangers look oddly familiar and places that we’ve never been seem like home. That doesn’t mean that we—or diCorcia—feel entirely comfortable here, or that the situations appear in any way hallucinatory or unreal. Even when he fabricates his images, diCorcia sets us squarely in the hectic, modern world. But he always seems to find a quiet spot. A few photos in the show have the eerie, arrested stillness of his street photos. (For those, see diCorcia’s knockout foursome in ICP’s first Triennial, all shot from the same vantage point on a busy street corner in Havana.) More often, though, diCorcia locates a private zone—a bedroom, an elevator, a patch of lawn, a windowsill—and further insulates it with the hushed, contemplative quality of his concentration. The importance and meaning of these pictures to diCorcia’s personal narrative might be lost on us, but nearly all of them are tantalizingly open to our curious probing.
“The more specific an interpretation suggested by a picture,” he has said, “the less happy I am with it.” Because he sees “A Storybook Life” as a single “object,” any interpretation would have to be extremely fluid and flexible. How to accommodate the frog peering out of a pine needle-choked pond, the middle-aged man sprawled on a Soho street, the living room on Christmas morning, the nighttime view over the roofs of Singapore, and the tiny baby on the forest floor in one sweeping view? MOMA’s Peter Galassi wrote that some of diCorcia’s images—like that babe in the woods—are “so primal that they read like fables.” (Even more primal when you know the child is diCorcia’s own.) No question, diCorcia is a great storyteller—a master at conflating fact and fantasy. But the most constructed of these photographs have the sort of terrifically compressed, cinematic charge we get all too regularly from the work of Gregory Crewdson, Taryn Simon, Steven Meisel, Katy Grannan, Justine Kurland, and a slew of others.
What makes “A Storybook Life” so enthralling isn’t diCorcia’s proven skill at crafting a convincing fiction, it’s his ability to invest the whole nearly indigestible enterprise with feeling: longing, confusion, regret, tenderness, dismay, love, and, above all, a kind of bruised optimism. It’s the accumulated weight of this emotion—however muffled, disguised, or denied—that gives the work its power as a piece. DiCorcia is no sentimentalist; he’s far too smart and too subtle. He’s not spilling his guts, he’s constructing a riddle that even he doesn’t know the answer to. All the more surprising that, in the end, he’s also created a piece that doesn’t seem to be just about his life, but ours.