Philip Lorca diCorcia

Posted on January 27, 2013


Philip Lorca DiCorcia was a reference for my Museums work. Specifically I quoted his Streetworks and  Heads series (Simpson 2007, pp 46-63) , both of which are candid portrait series shot in the streets. DiCorcia work stands out from most other candid street portraiture because he used remote flash guns  to illuminate and isolate his subjects. The Heads portraits in particular have a chiaroscuro feel to them, with the backgrounds almost blacked out.

DiCorcia’s biggest influence on my own work is not so much his approach to portraiture rather it is the way he goes about a major project. There is a short video made as part of the Tate Modern Exhibition  Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera in 2010 which gives an insight into his working method. In the video he also discusses his response to being sued by one of his ‘candid’ subjects (DiCorcia won his case). Click on the image below to see the video. Some of DiCorcia’s photographs can also be seen here.

Phillip lorca video

From this video it is clear that DiCorcia is very methodical. Having defined the conceptual basis for a project he sets out a clear process to explore his idea. For him the planning seems to be key. For example with the Heads work he planned in advance where the lights needed to be in the street, he worked out the the exact prefocus distance for his telephoto lens, and worked out exactly when to trigger the camera/flash.

In the case of the Heads it is apparent that DiCorcia was not sure what the outcome of the work was going to be. In his words the project involved a great deal of ‘serendipity’. It is also very clear that he was prepared to invest a huge amount of time and effort. He photographed 3000 people to get the 17 photographs which he ultimately exhibited. His biggest difficultly was trying to get images which were different from one another. This is something which I have experienced with my own Museum and Urban Artists at Work projects. The only solution is to keep going until one is satisfied.  In the end, perhaps ironically, he discovered that all of his subjects were in fact  the same. All were going about their own business, keeping themselves to themselves and were in effect ‘hiding’ in public.

DiCorcia appears to approach all his personal work in this highly structured way.  Another example is his seminal work Hustlers (DiCorcia et al. 1995, pp 50). This  is a series of portraits of male prostitutes in Los Angeles. Here again he followed a strict process for the production of each portrait. DiCorcia began by invented a scenario for his next photograph. He and his assistants then scouted out a suitable location for the portrait, generally in the Santa Monica Boulevard area of Los Angeles. Next he decided on the composition, set up the lighting and made some test shots.Then and only then did he go out on the streets to find his next subject. The subjects were all offered the fee they required for their ‘services’ as a fee for him to photograph them. Once the deal was struck DiCorcia and his subject returned to  the original location  and made the portrait; finally he captioned the photograph with the subject’s name, age, birthplace and the amount of the fee. He repeated this process for each of the portraits.

Like much of DiCorcia’s work his Hustlers photographs have a very open narrative. Rarely did he make his subjects’ profession obvious. The images are highly cinematic (although apparently DiCorcia dislikes this term) and have the deliberate appearance of being staged. The ‘cinematic’ quality is enhanced  by his consistent use of the landscape format, theatrical lighting and tight control over detail within the composition. Most of his subjects are looking out of the frame and only a few engage the viewer directly. Their expressions vary from outright laughter to deep melancholy.

As I have said earlier my most signifiant learning point from looking at DiCorcia is the way he uses a structured approach for executing his projects. Once I have come up with an idea/concept, my next step should be to come up with a process to investigate it. Working this out will take time as I have discovered with my recent long exposure portraits project. This approach seems to suit me because of my mathematical background (I have a Masters in Maths). Others might find it totally unacceptable preferring a more freewheeling approach. I have also learned that following through a process in not easy. It takes persistence (to get through periods of self doubt) and lots of hard work…good work doesn’t  come easy and quickly. I should also keep an open mind and be prepared to modify the process and accept outcomes which I had not originally anticipated.


DiCorcia P-L. & Galassi P. (1995) Philip-Lorca diCorcia New York: MOMA

Simpson B. (2007) Philip-Lorca diCorcia Gottingen: Steidl