On the first day of “Hustlers,” his new show at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery (today through Nov. 2), photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia led members of the press on a walkthrough. The photographs on view were taken between 1990 and 1992, and were first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1993; the current exhibition marks the 20th anniversary of that show.
The artist had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and, as a condition of receiving the funds, he explained, signed an agreement not to do anything with the money that was contrary to American values. So, as a thumb in the government’s eye, he went to photograph hustlers on Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Boulevard, offering to pay them the same amount to shoot a portrait that they would usually charge for sex.
The resulting images show young (and not so young) men in motel rooms, standing on sidewalks and sitting at fast-food counters. They’re mostly grim-faced, often wearing little, displaying their wares.
Wearing a lime-green button-down shirt, Birkenstock sandals and shorts revealing a knee brace resulting from a torn meniscus, the unassuming artist, 62, explained the project’s complicated emotional and societal dimensions.
“Believe it or not,” he deadpanned, “the government was very conservative across the board at the time.” He also explained that the time he took the photographs was the height of the AIDS epidemic, before the antiretroviral medications that have, for many people, made the disease a livable condition rather than a death sentence became available.
“Anyone who got sick had a good chance of not making it,” he said. “And there was the sense that AIDS was divine retribution.”
His brother had died from AIDS in 1989, diCorcia added.
“A lot of people probably want to connect that [to this series],” he said. “There’s probably a connection. It was not a casual thing.” The artist’s voice broke, and he was silent for several moments.
“A lot of people,” he said, referring to the lost.
There were lighter moments, as when the artist explained what it was like to negotiate with hustlers. The prints are titled with the name of each subject and the amount paid. Some of the earlier subjects got $50, before he wised up that the customary fee for sex was just $20.
The subjects rarely wanted to stick around for an extended session, usually wanting to be immediately taken to where they might score some drugs, typically methamphetamine, which, the artist said dryly, does not lend its users much in the way of patience. One subject lit a crack pipe in his car; guns were sometimes pulled.
As he walked through the show, he noted that an abundance of large fast-food soda cups show up throughout the series. “Lots of Big Gulps,” he said. (A beat.) In view of the subject matter, he said, “They weren’t meant as anything suggestive.”