Straight Spectacle: The Staged Photography of Philip-Lorca diCorcia

In 1992,  Contemporary Photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia took quazi-candid color portraits of young male prostitutes working and living on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, California. In what became the series “Hustlers” diCorcia photographed these young men in parking lots, fast-food joints, hotel rooms, derelict buildings and gas stations, all at dusk. Each portrait in the series is labeled with the name and age of the subject, their hometown and the amount of money they were paid for the sitting with diCorcia (equivalent to the fee the subjects would normally charge their johns.)

The images in “Hustlers” are staged - artificially lit, the subjects posed and the settings pre-selected by diCorcia - or are they? Practiced by other artists like Holly Andres, Lee Friedlander, and Gregory Crewdson, this type of Staged Photography borrows from the documentary tradition of street photographers like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand but uses cinematic elements of artificial lighting, prop-positioning, set design, and directed subjects. By playing on the truth-function of photography – that a photograph captures an instant of reality – staged photography produces photographs that look like film stills but still retain the veneer of the straight documentary image.

In Gerald Hughes (ak.a.) Savage Fantasy; about 25 years old; $50 (1990-1992) diCorcia photographs a young prostitute, Gerald, in a motel room. It’s not clear which elements in the photograph are a product of diCorcia’s manipulations and which aren’t. Is Gerald actually preparing to meet a john here or did diCorcia place and pose Gerald in the type of anonymous motel room he imagined Gerald frequented.  

Note the the mirroring of Gerald’s eyes-closed expression and the blurred figure’s in the television set. Consider the lighting. As if the scene has been intentionally lit, a cast of light from the bathroom highlights Gerald’s form while transforming the motel room into a shadowy interior, revealing the seedy wallpaper and over-all sparseness of the space. The combination of purposeful lighting in an actual place, of autobiographical titles but a posed and dressed subject, leaves the viewer unable to identify just where this photograph of Gerald is fiction and where it is authentic, an ambiguity that makes this type of staged photography an effective but unsettling approach to photographic representation.

Explore the Staged Photography Gene Page here  as well as Contemporary Fact versus Fiction and Implied Narrative.