Seal of approval

By GREG COOK  |  June 6, 2007

BRENT BOOTH, 21 YEARS OLD, DES MOINES, IOWA, $30 (1990-’92): Prostitutes or Hollywood
myths of prostitutes?

In diCorcia’s Streetwork photos (1993-’99), he rigged sidewalk posts with lights, set up his camera on a waist-high tripod, and waited for unsuspecting pedestrians to walk into his frame. In one, a stubbly beggar, with his eyes covered, reaches out his hand as if feeling his way down a New York street. A couple of guys stand around twin phone booths watching him; others seem lost in their own world. A man with a microphone could be a street preacher. Is it just coincidence that an advertisement on the phone booth reads “legendary days”? Everything suggests a “decisive moment” is about to occur, but the more you ponder what’s going on, the more all meaning evaporates.

For Heads (2001), diCorcia rigged lights underneath scaffolding in New York’s Times Square and photographed pedestrians with a telephoto lens from some 20 feet away. The technique caused daylight to drop out, making it appear to be night or a studio shot. He edited down a few thousand images to 17 detailed head-and-shoulder portraits: an elderly bearded Hassidic man with a wrinkled brow, a pimply boy in a Yankees cap, a security guard whose eyes disappear into shadows. A teenage girl smiles, her hair blown up as if in some shampoo commercial. The closeness and the detail suggest intimacy, but we’re shut out of these lives.

A Storybook Life is a mini retrospective of 76 photos from 1975 to 1999 that diCorcia published as a book in 2003. Its dust jacket was a photo, turned on its side, of a neat house with a green lawn, white fence, and three-car garage standing in dry desert. This is about the fantasy of the good life upended.

The Storybook Life sequence begins and ends with photos of the same rotund bearded man — diCorcia’s father, it turns out. In the first, from 1979, the man lies on a bed; it appears he’s fallen asleep watching television. In the second, from the following year, the man lies in a coffin in an empty funeral parlor. Many of the photos are blah throw-aways: the inside of a freezer, a frog, Boy Scouts. What stands out, for me, are photos of an elderly woman standing up from a wheelchair, a man fallen down at a street corner and groping for his glasses, a baby lying on pine needles in the shadows of trees with its arms open as if in some holy rapture. In Wellfleet (1992), a nude woman washes a child under an outdoor shower behind a house in the woods. Light — I assume rigged by diCorcia — shines down the falling water like heavenly rays and spotlights the woman’s back. These images are artfully composed, but they stick in my head because they keep flickering between the mundane and the uncanny.

The show concludes with seven of his stripper photos from his 2004 Lucky Thirteen series. As with the prostitutes, he’s looking at people who make their livings by selling a fantasy. DiCorcia rented out clubs and hired strippers to perform just for his camera, but he freezes the topless ladies in positions of stress. Their faces are tense as they spin around poles or dangle upside down. One woman grips the pole with her legs and spins with her eyes closed, her hair flung out. She looks impaled. It calls to mind old-master paintings of martyred saints.

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