Attentive Contradictions: The Photographic World of Philip-Lorca diCorcia

In 2003 Philip-Lorca diCorcia published A Storybook Life, a beautifully printed collection of 76 photographs taken in eight countries over 21 years. As he remarks in the following interview, there is a clue in the book’s title that we shouldn’t ignore. At face value, we are being presented with a life story, and our most rudimentary assumption is that the life inside the covers of his storybook will be discernible. But in diCorcia’s photographic world, nothing is ever what you expect.

What we get is an arrangement of images unaccompanied by any information other than where each was taken and in what year. No text is provided, no explanation supplied. We are on our own, lookers at a story that gives up only what sits on the surface of the images.

DiCorcia has no patience for visual passivity. “I’ve been trying to create photographs in which the emotional and psychological content is time-released… From the very beginning, I was fighting against this media-created idea that imagery is so disposable that it’s exhausted within a very short amount of time.” His tendency is to slow time down, an apprehension that has nothing to do with entropy. Instead, it is a seduction into the act of looking.

If you felt the possibilities for teasing out meaning were rich in A Storybook Life, then Thousand baker-dozens the scope. The image placement reflects diCorcia’s interest in what he calls an “open narrative”; his technique is to run combinations of discrete images and clusters of pictures on certain themes or visual patterns–anything from empty chairs to people sitting in chairs; from skulls to people and their cars; from people in narrow passageways to people framed in windows.

  • Thousand* embodies an associative logic, but not a narrative one, since the connections between and among images are invariably contingent. It is one of the most challenging and irresistible books I have ever encountered. It forces you to adjust the way you have traditionally looked at images.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia was interviewed by Robert Enright and Meeka Walsh at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York on June 17, 2008.

Border Crossings: I’m fascinated by the operation of narrative in your work. Is the first image in *A Storybook Life your father lying down, and the last image a photograph of him in a coffin?*

Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Yes. I began the editing process with those two pictures in mind as bookends and then worked from there. There were some pictures I knew I would use, but then other things were put in as the form took shape. It has always bemused me that people find my work so cold. In some strange way it’s a reflection of the way people receive emotional content through photography, which tends to be anecdotal and a direct reference to something you can understand. I’ve been trying to create photographs in which the emotional and psychological content is time-released and so is its form. From the very beginning, I was fighting against this media-created idea that imagery is so disposable that it’s exhausted within a very short amount of time. At first I was trying to illustrate that, and then I was trying to do things which I felt had an impact that would only be felt by attention. I made images that would be seen alone without reference to previous works, and those things in some way had an emotional half-life that was quite long. Before you could actually say what they were about, you had to spend some time with them. Then I decided I would try to do that with a book; so in A Storybook Life the sequencing decisions were made to build up tension either by deliberately meeting or denying your expectations. I did it as a book meaning that it should be seen from page 1 to page 76 in exactly that order. Part of the clue is in the title: it’s a storybook; you go from one to the other and you don’t start at the end. There are images in there that were never meant to be considered as discrete images; they were bridges, segues.

BC:* Even though the bookend photographs of your father are only a year apart, the book ranges over a number of countries and across 20 some years. So inside the frame a whole series of worlds open up.*

P-LD: When you look at something for a long period of time, you see things that other people see and sometimes they don’t. I got the distinct impression from people that they did understand it, that they did realize there was a certain emotional content that was relayed without it being a strict, linear narrative. I’ve always maintained that good work, whether poetry or art, has the capacity to short-circuit front-brain thinking. Not expecting that things will make a lot of sense leads you to the other parts of your brain which are equally important.

** BC**: I’ve gone through *Thousand half a dozen times now, image by image, and one of the things that fascinates me is figuring out what might be the connections among and between images. There seem to be thematic patterns–the skull, people sitting in chairs; then you realize people sitting runs for about 30 or 40 images. Were you conscious of organizing the images around ideas of a series of interrupted narratives?*

P-LD: What’s strange is that A Storybook Life was never meant to be a show. It was always meant to be a book, and it ended up being the most toured show I ever did; whereas Thousand was meant to be a show and ended up being a book. I was trying to challenge myself and even the conventions of publishing. Steidl said he’ll never publish it again because it was so much trouble. I already had about half the Polaroids, and then I spent lot of time making new ones and going over other things. I started out with 4000, and I thought if I can’t find 1000 out of that number then I should be doing something else. But in the end I couldn’t and had to spend eight months working on it. At that point I would feed the Polaroids to Pascal Dangin at Steidl to be scanned, and they would be given back to me, maybe eight on a sheet. I gave them in random order and they were scanned in a different order, so they would come back with associations I never saw. Then I started to think, why not just make it random? The original idea was to assign each one a number and then scramble those numbers in a computer and sequence the book in exactly that order… So very small images were printed out for me, and I had a huge board–three actually–with a grid, and I started the process of putting them in some sort of order. It took me about two weeks. The interesting thing about it was that when images are reduced to half an inch by an inch you can’t really see the image that well anymore and formal elements start to pop out because form gets reduced…

Buy Issue 108 to read the full interview!