Installation view of PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA’s solo exhibition at David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy David Zwirner, Hong Kong / New York / London.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia

David Zwirner
USA Hong Kong

Street photography is a documentative practice, aiming to capture the essence of urban life in all its complexities. This is what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson designated the “decisive moment,” the ephemeral scene captured spontaneously when one is simply walking down the street. Philip-Lorca diCorcia has challenged this very notion of the decisive moment in both form and content throughout his career.

DiCorcia’s first ever show in greater China, at David Zwirner’s Hong Kong outpost, featured 57 works in total, spanning the photographer’s broad and diversified oeuvre. Each room in the gallery carried a distinctive atmosphere, but the show was unified through diCorcia’s unique practical approach to his medium. 

At the start of the exhibition was an early untitled series featuring friends and family of the artist in images that seem spontaneous and documentative but were in fact elaborately staged. Mary & Babe (1982) presents a domestic setting with three subjects. Mary sits in a faded turquoise chair without supports, with a black dog, presumably Babe, on her lap and a lit cigarette in her right hand. The room is clad with wood paneling on every surface, indicating the era of this image’s conception. Surrounding the subjects on the floor is a black rotary telephone next to a copy of Glamour magazine, a sky-blue ashtray nearly touching Mary’s gold heels, and a coffee mug. Mary and Babe’s eyes are fixed on a faceless man in the foreground, hopping to pull his black work pants over his hips. This is an early example of diCorcia’s interest in facial expression, which he focused on throughout his career. 

PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIAMary & Babe, 1982, chromogenic print, framed: 67 × 78.7 × 3.8 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

DiCorcia spent a decade honing his approach before completing Streetworks (1993–99). Here, the cinematic quality of his work begins to directly challenge Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment, as he obstructed casual movement with overhead and out-of-frame lights. The effect of these lights brings out protagonists amid a sea of people, conjuring a narrative out of a regular bustling street. In Tokyo (1994), for instance, a young woman in a white dress shirt and black pants gazes determinedly forward as she walks. In contrast, an older woman to her right, wearing a blue cardigan with an orange bag hanging from her wrist, has an uneasy expression that leaves the viewer curious as to her destination. Due to his technical approach, diCorcia’s subjects are more than bodies on the street—they are characters following dramatic arcs.

PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIATokyo, 1994, chromogenic print, framed: 85.4 × 117.2 × 3.8 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

The show continued on the lower floor of the gallery, where one of diCorcia’s hallmark series, Hustlers (1990–92), was on display. Here, male and transgender sex workers across the United States are portrayed saliently in their colorful yet dreary environments. In Marilyn, 28 years old, Las Vegas, Nevada, $30 (1990–92), the sex worker poses in a seated position on a street corner. Her makeup is thickly applied, topped with an unconvincing black wig. Through this mask flows emotion, a pensive stare at the photographer that speaks to the weight of her lifestyle. The stark title of this work collides with the humanizing portrait carefully orchestrated by diCorcia. He has used artificial lighting to pull his subject away from her environment, enabling her to connect now with the viewer. 

PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIAMarilyn, 28 years old, Las Vegas, Nevada, $30, 1990–92, chromogenic print, framed: 81 × 113 × 4.1 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

DiCorcia’s show was emblematic of his talent for portraying everyday life as theater, with the streets as his stage and the actors whomever caught his eye. His technical practices pushed the boundaries of street photography, blurring the division between the candid and the staged. DiCorcia enhances the subjectivity of the individuals who constantly surround but are unknown to us, people we may often overlook, and whose stories we can only guess at.

Michael Rasnic is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s solo exhibition is on view at David Zwirner, Hong Kong, until October 12, 2019.

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