The first thing Philip-Lorca diCorcia said to me on the record is, “I didn’t see the Björk show, because I have no interest in anything Klaus Biesenbach does. Frankly, I think he should be fired.”
That is a more mundane example of diCorcia’s total aversion toward sentimentality, a quality that gives his photos their trademark stiller-than-film-still appearance. Which is not to say his work is cold; rather, diCorcia captures his subjects in the most emotionally canny way—in moments between moments, leaving them paused for eternity, like hyperrealist statues, in cinematic chiaroscuro.
His subjects have ranged from strippers in L.A. to sad dads in Hartford, Connecticut, and if his passive approach seems du jour now, it’s because his style has seeped into our culture’s collective consciousness; case in point, diCorica has a formidable string of commercial credits (particularly fashion editorials, mostly for W) to his name, and is currently in the business of directing short, 90-second films for French heritage brands like Dior and Hermès.
But we’re here for “East of Eden,” diCorcia’s ongoing photo series in response to the 2008 market crash, on view at David Zwirner in New York after showing at the gallery’s London location in 2013. (He has added two new photos.) He was angry right after it happened—not at the economic downfall, but at the Americans who “thought they were just going to keep getting rich and buy another car,” as he said once in an interview. So, feeling a bit like the God of the Old Testament, he set about documenting America in its fall from grace, invoking Biblical references when serendipitous.
DiCorcia has never read John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel East of Eden, nor the Bible, unless you count R. Crumb’s comic strip version of the Book of Genesis. He’s not particularly interested in American history either (“I won a history prize in eighth grade,” he said, looking blankly, when I asked). But the idea of God punting Cain out of heaven—east of Eden, as the story goes—for his sins, and the loss of innocence in general, is universally appealing, he said.
We sat across from each other at a table in a back room at Zwirner for a leisurely hour and a half, him sipping an espresso, with a book of his photos open between us. Below are some notable moments in that conversation, more or less in chronological order.
“I don’t really think this series reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. My mother had five kids in six years and then left, so my dad brought us up and never remarried. My dad was an architect, and we lived in a kind of modern house—you know, flat roof, glass walls. It was built when I was born in the early ‘50s. We were kind of wild. It was not a suburban existence. Hartford’s a weird place. It’s two and a half hours from New York City, and I came to New York a lot as a child to see things. My mother actually lived in New York and she had some visitation rights, and she was a big reader. [She took me] to see Waiting for Godot. That’s the way she was. She really thought she was doing something good. She was actually sort of certifiably insane. She spent her last twenty or thirty years in state housing that used to be an old convent, strangely enough, because my mother was a complete atheist. I was never baptized—nobody was ever baptized.
ON “EAST OF EDEN”
“David [Zwirner] saw it in London and said we should bring this to New York. [The gallery] mentioned it to me awhile ago, and then not very long ago they said, “What about April something or other?” I had planned to do a couple more things for this—I was going to double the size of the series, because it’s a way of forcing me to work. In the end I actually produced three new photos for this show, but one of them wasn’t finished in time because of a technical issue, so this is pretty much the exact same show that was just in London.
I have a couple of photos that didn’t make it into this round for various reasons, or I flopped and need to do them over—I guess that’s the ongoing part. I don’t see any reason to keep doing this. I’m already stretching it quite a bit. I mean, Adam and Eve is one thing—everyone knows about them—but when you keep trying to find things and relate them to the Book of Genesis…Then there’s the issue of disappointment. Is that even relevant anymore?
Photography right now is highly conceptual for the most part. The things that exist in the art world on the lower end of the market right now, like identity politics for example, are not things that I involve myself with. At this point in my career I have somewhat of a fan base, but other than that I don’t expect much from this show.”
ON MOUNT ARARAT, PENNSYLVANIA, 2012 [PICTURED ABOVE]
“Sometimes I’m not looking for these things. When I found this place [Mount Ararat, Pennsylvania], I thought it was kind of incredible that it had that name, but I was actually looking for a fracking well. I never ended up finding a well. It was taken at the end of the day, and it was in winter, so after I did that I went home.”
ON LYNN AND SHIRLEY, 2008
“I started out with blind people, because of the general theme of [the series], and someone told me that blind people don’t dream. That’s only true if they’re born blind, and only a small percentage of blind people were born that way. The people that were born blind don’t have an image bank—they form something in their minds, but I don’t know if it represents a narrative as most dreams do.
One of the reasons this photo wound up being a part of this is because it’s very much more formal and frontal and posed than most are, because I don’t ask people to look at me. I actually ask them not to look at me, and if they do while I’m photographing them I’ll edit it out. In this photo, they’re looking at me, but they can’t see.”
ON THE HAMPTONS, 2008
“These were rent-a-dogs, and this was taken at a friend’s house. I rented three videos: one was vintage porn, one was anime porn, and one was I guess, contemporary porn. I used the vintage one in the photo. My friend wasn’t there [when I took the photo], the house was empty, and some people were over fixing the roof or the gutter or something. So there were these workmen around, and I had these lights outside the window pointing inside and these dogs were actually watching Bambi. I put the porn video in later—I left the camera in exactly the same position and ran these tapes, and then just took a picture of them, so the perspective would perfect. It’s really very simple to just take it and move it to the next frame. But for some reason, as fancy as [my friend’s] house was, he didn’t have fast-forward for his TV, so we had to watch all of all three videos before I chose the vintage. In some ways this is the jokiest picture that I think I’ve ever made.”
ON EPIPHANY, 2009
“I knew that club—it’s in L.A., it’s called Jumbo’s Clown Room—and I had seen that woman walk on the ceiling, basically, without her hands, with just her thighs holding herself in place. But I didn’t have any idea who she was, and even though it’s a really friendly, almost avant-garde strip club, you still don’t just go up to them and say ‘Who are you?’ It’s almost illegal for them to give you their number, because it’s considered solicitation. For the pole dancer series I did, ‘Lucky 13,’ I would never approach them. I would go with a woman, and the woman would approach them and explain what was happening. Then I would speak to them, if they were cool about it. It’s sort of like when I was doing the ‘Hustlers’ series, most of [the men in the photos] didn’t believe that all I wanted was to take the photograph. Even if they give you their real number or name, a lot of times they just blow you off. We never photographed them where they actually worked, because the clubs are always closed.”
ON IOLANDA, 2011
“That’s my mother-in-law—well, I’m not married to her daughter anymore. It was taken in a room at the Standard Hotel. This was kind of a lucky shot, in the way that I couldn’t have made that boat cross her eyes like that. If I were making the photograph for her, I would have chosen one that didn’t distort her face. I rely on serendipity more and more because I don’t have the systematic way of working that I used to have. I used to have a restricted means of working where I would keep repeating the same shots and within that, variations would happen, but if you were to describe the format, it would be pretty much the same. I kind of gave that up after ‘Lucky 13’ and that’s part of why it’s taken quite a lot of time to get the 15 photographs for the ‘East of Eden’ thing. It also happened around the time I one day woke up in 2007 and said, ‘I don’t want this life anymore.’ I told Pace, the gallery I used to work with, and I had an agent for commercial work, and I told them both, ‘I’m out of it.’ Neither of them believed me.”
“In 2008 everything crashed, and 2008 was when I did my last photos for W magazine. They didn’t have the budget anymore, and that was the year they fired Dennis Friedman, the creative director I had worked with. The people who followed asked me to work with them, but I just didn’t want to work for his replacement. I didn’t think he was any good.
I was also with Pace McGill at the time, and even though I showed here on 25th Street at Pace Gallery, there was really a distinction between artists with Pace and artists with Pace McGill. There was a photography subculture within the larger culture and it didn’t mix. If you were to go to Pace Gallery on 25th Street and ask to look at my work, you couldn’t find it there, because they never kept it there. You’d have to go to the building on 57th Street, to the one floor Pace McGill had.
I was at Arne Glimcher’s house once in the 15 years I was with Pace McGill. It was a party for Karl Lagerfeld, of all things, back when he was just starting to get skinny. It’s not that I felt slighted by not going out and hanging out in the Hamptons with Arne Glimcher, but….On the other hand, I’ve been to David’s house a lot; I know his kids and his family, and it’s a totally different kind of thing.”
“I don’t know what’s worse: getting sick of living, or getting sick of living old. Living old is no fun. But I don’t care about [looking] old. I mean, I don’t want to wind up looking like Marlon Brando or something, but the only thing that really bothers me is that I’m probably not as healthy as I should be. Drinking is the problem more than anything else—I drink maybe three liters a week of vodka, and a few bottles of wine. My mother was an alcoholic, and I’m pretty much an alcoholic. I don’t get up in the morning and immediately start drinking, but everyone has a coping mechanism and this is an age-old proven one. But I actually have to stop, though, because it’s affecting my heart.”