I first saw Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “A Storybook Life” in August at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, where its 76 identically sized images were hung in an unbroken row, stopping with deliberate abruptness well before wall space ran out. London was full of big photography shows this summer, the biggest of which was the Tate Modern’s “Cruel and Tender,” a broad survey of realism in photography that included diCorcia’s large-scale street scenes. “Cruel and Tender” was smart and provocative, but awfully daunting, and it was a relief to get back across the Thames to Tate Britain, where Wolfgang Tillmans had installed a retrospective so inviting I wanted to move in permanently.
Like “A Storybook Life,” Tillmans’s show worked by accumulation, not necessarily as a single piece, but as an environment—a busy, sprawling, seductive world. But diCorcia only flirts with the sort of unabashedly autobiographical material that has always been Tillmans’s prime meat, and his artfully composed images are the opposite of Tillmans’s seemingly impromptu snaps. (Even diCorcia’s spontaneous street scenes have been burnished to perfection.) Tillmans called his show “If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters,” and its catalog (just out from Tate/Abrams) sums up his career in 2,400 thumbnail images, at least a third of which seemed to be in the exhibition.
There’s nothing indiscriminate about this inclusiveness. Tillmans has mastered the tossed-off beauty of the snapshot and married it to a generous, optimistic, and politically engaged we-are-the-world sensibility. The overlap between his world and diCorcia’s (mainly in their shared internationalism and sensitive use of color) is intriguing, but their divergence is even more interesting—and encouraging for anyone who cares about photography’s diversity. In any case, I suspect diCorcia might appreciate the quote that closes the Tillmans catalog: “I’m driven by an insatiable interest in the manifold shapes of human activities, in the surface of life, and as long as I enjoy how things are pointless and hugely important at the same time, then I’m not afraid.”