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I couldn’t stop thinking about the first-century Greek sculpture known as the Laocoön Group, with its central figure’s writhing body and strangely detached facial expression, while I looked at photos of pole dancers by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, presently on view in a small survey of the artist’s work organized by Charlotte Cotton, LACMA’s curator of photography. The images, from diCorcia’s 2004 Lucky 13 series, show ladies named Hannah, Asia, Tennille, Amber and Heema, caught by the shutter, often upside down, in displays of gravity-defying gymnastics. But these are not action shots. The women are holding poses for the camera, and the clubs they inhabit are emptied of customers, becoming studio backdrops. The bodies and faces are oddly separate, the limbs and torsos eliciting a combination of arousal, empathy and wonder — present in a way that can make you blush — while the faces vary between pandering, and mostly vacancy, and perhaps even distant reverie. The upside-downness of some make the faces appear only more removed. In the case of Tennille, looking into her eyes is like looking into the hollowed-out pupils of a statue. The images also toy with conventions and limitations of media and genre — documentary, action, portrait and “glamour” photography, as well as Baroque painting, from which the pictures borrow their lighting, and the more dramatic of Hellenistic and Baroque sculpture. In fact, the photos are more akin to sculpture — literally and metaphorically — as they deal in the very problem of trying to capture in static form (in this case the actual posed bodies) a sense of moment and movement in space and time, and, in a kind of reverse and perverse Pygmalion plot, in converting people into statues in a context wherein objectification is a given. The photos also offer an uncanny blend of palpable naturalism (flexing flesh on film) with a high degree of theatricality.
The Lucky 13 photos, and the complexities and problematics accompanying them, exemplify diCorcia’s practice, which bridges the street-photography approaches of William Eggleston or Miguel Rio Branco and the work of artists like Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman, who more overtly stage their photos and tinker with the conventions of photography and cinema. Such uncomfortable play is found as well in diCorcia’s Hustlers series (1990-92), for which he selected and prepped locations in Hollywood (diners, motel rooms, parking lots) and then trolled the neighborhood for mostly male prostitutes he then cast as themselves in settings that were, in a sense, their scene.
For the Streetwork series (1993-98), diCorcia lay in wait with a tripod-mounted camera and flash on city streets, snaring passersby, from beggars to corporate types, as they went about their business — most of them too consumed with their thoughts and routines to look toward the camera before becoming instantly cast players. And for his Heads series (2001-03), diCorcia went from trapper to sniper, setting up remotely controlled strobes and lurking at a distance with long lenses to shoot subjects unaware of his position. In so doing, diCorcia caught their private expressions up close — flash-illuminated as their ambiently lit surroundings dropped away in relative darkness — with a resulting sense of conflated intimacy and intrusion.
On view for the first time at LACMA is Thousand, a 2007 work comprising 1,000 Polaroids shot by diCorcia, often dovetailing with his series of larger photos, but fleshing out a broader range of both subject matter and approach. In general, these seem quicker, cruder and, in instances, mundane. In recorded comments that play over a projection of images from the project, and which accompany the actual presentation of the 1,000 small photos, diCorcia speaks of an interest in the possibility that these photos risk being underwhelming, but as a collection, they raise the clamor of what diCorcia’s larger images announce: the complexity, even conflictedness, and perhaps the combined curiosity and addiction of the photographer as producer/consumer in the theater of the everyday.
MARLENE DUMAS: MEASURING YOUR OWN GRAVE | MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A. | Mon. & Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. | Through Sept. 22 | (213) 626-6222 or www.moca.org
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA | LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Mon., Tues. & Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Fri., noon-9 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. | Through Sept. 14 | (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org