Noir in Miniature
Roid, Philip-Lorca diCorcia — Sprüth Magers London 13th May – 18th June 2011
Review by Isabel Stevens
"Nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty" was Walker Evans’s maxim. It was only at that age, when Evans’s fingers started to fail him that he turned to the small and instantaneous image to revisit the street signs and scenes he had shot early in his career. And it was only at that age in his view, when a photographer had mastered working with larger prints and more finely-tuned instruments, that they could relinquish control and work with the Polaroid.
In contrast to this, Philip-Lorca diCorcia – a photographer heavily inspired by Evans’s experiments on the subway in particular – has spent his 30 year career building up an alternative body of work on Polaroid. On show at London’s Sprüth Magers Gallery are over a hundred of these images – some lighting tests, some discarded compositions, others intended as actual artworks, but all never seen before. Certainly what the Polaroids do alert us to is the time, effort and thought involved in the creation of diCorcia’s narratives. Whereas this small gallery would normally only be able to accommodate a few of his big photographs, here looking at a multitude of his images one after another allows an appreciation of how layered and complex his work is, often incorporating as it does a palimpsest of shadows, reflections and views through windows and doorways.
Previously, an encounter with diCorcia’s work involved standing a few feet back. Now it entails peering up close at the long line of images arranged at eye level on a thin rail across the gallery’s walls. Such is the dominance of the monumental photographic print that it marks quite a change to see a career overview in miniature in a private gallery. (Photography’s meteoric rise in the contemporary art world over the last two decades seems to have gone hand in hand with expanding print sizes). Indeed, one suspects that if all these images were combined together, they would only fill one or two of diCorcia’s large-scale photographs. What’s interesting about this exhibition – in addition to the glimpse behind the scenes these Polaroids give of diCorcia’s practice – is the critique it offers of his more renowned larger works, from his series Hustlers to Heads.
Certainly his early minutely orchestrated interiors don’t give up their secrets so easily on a smaller scale. They’re more voyeuristic and demand closer scrutiny. DiCorcia really forces us to search for narrative clues amidst these private moments in empty spaces – a woman sitting at a table surrounded by balloons which have sunk to the floor, a man lurking in a doorway – waiting ominously for someone or wishing perhaps someone might return. True, the power of his subjects’ contemplative, lonely stares might be somewhat diminished as their facial expressions aren’t so defined, but these subtler, shadowy images have much more of a noir feel to them compared to his large photographs with their intense saturated colours. Here the muted palette of the Polaroid has all the melancholy of a Hopper painting.
It has often been noted that diCorcia goes to lengths to avoid Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’. With his actors and elaborate , he is instead a poet of the manufactured moment who leaves the audience to speculate on what might have happened were the shutter to be released a few minutes earlier or later. Here diCorcia offers us even more variations on his famous quasi-narratives: a young man not standing in the doorway of a motel as we have seen him before, but sitting slumped on the bed. Some of these alternative scenes you suspect were discarded correctly: in an ornate room in Bangkok a group of strippers stand on a grand table, their bodies being assessed by a man and woman sitting at their feet. In the final image chosen for fashion magazine W, the man is creepily scribbling notes and there’s a shadowy near-naked female body in a doorway in the foreground. Yet in the Polaroid, the man is looking up and the female figure is missing, and as a result it loses much of its power. Others though easily make a case for their selection with the smallest of details – in one particularly Hitchcockian scene, a woman alone and out of place on a hillside with her high heels and slinky dress turns her head to check behind what’s behind her. In the image actually selected for the final series in W, she’s just obscured by tree branches.
Problems though start to arise in the rather haphazard, jumbled nature of the images’ display. The sequencing recalls that of Wolfgang Tillman’s diaristic outpouring – views of forests, close-ups of dandelions, images of buildings at night and blurred family scenes from early in his career all alongside diCorcia’s urban-hinterland-set stylized tableaux. In particular, diCorcia’s intricately choreographed fashion photography narratives – all played out in covetable couture naturally – tinged with sinister undertones, definitely demand to be viewed in a series (or at least in greater depth as in his recent book of Polaroids Thousand). Here in the gallery, the individual images, divorced from a continuing story sequence, too easily resemble beautiful but slightly unsettling advertisments.
In many ways, this exhibition could be seen as an attempt by diCorica to rebel against the cinematic label he’s been tagged with. The intimate size of the Polaroid distances him from big screen associations alone. (Although viewed side by side in a long line they do somewhat resemble a film strip.) Many of the images have no interest in narrative at all. Yet these rather wispy, painterly shots of flowers and frosted vistas don’t arrest in nearly the same way that his fictional scenes do. For diCorica is at his best with people and their strange, vulnerable moments as his subjects.