Review by Emily Burns
Small they may be, but Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Polaroids certainly pack a punch. In ROID, diCorcia’s first show at Sprueth Magers’ London gallery, the New York-based photographer has chosen to exhibit over 100 never-before-seen Polaroids that span his highly influential 30-year career. Although more feted for his large-scale works, diCorcia has always used the Polaroid format - mainly for test shots, but also as a presentation format in itself. The miniature masterpieces are simply displayed, perched shoulder to shoulder on a rail that runs along the white gallery walls. Visitors are able to survey the breadth of the work of one of the world’s most visionary and versatile photographers. Instantly recognisable are new images from diCorcia’s major series, including Hustlers, Streetwork, Heads and Lucky Thirteen, but there are also works from his current project, East of Eden.
DiCorcia first burst onto the scene in the 1970s with meticulously staged but seemingly spontaneous compositions of friends and family in everyday situations. Having honed this trademark, he soon moved on to snapping passers-by in urban settings, most famously hiding lights to theatrically illuminate an oblivious subject, thus monumentalising their otherwise insignificant movements and expressions. Much of diCorcia’s work combines this powerful framework of premeditated artistic conception with the spontaneity of the final moment, grounding his calculated inner vision in earthly reality. Coupled with his use of the instant Polaroid format, diCorcia’s show presents an ideal mix of subject and medium.
The unsettling marriage of artifice and authenticity imbues diCorcia’s work with an aura of melancholy, reflecting his aim of showing ‘both the visible and the psychological sides of a place’ (Photograph 2011). Reminiscent of the work of Edward Hopper, diCorcia’s documentary-style photography encourages a sense of voyeurism as the viewer is drawn in by each enigmatic expression, ambiguous movement and evocative setting. The scenes suggest detachment and unease: a figure reclines on a bed while a topless man stands ominously silhouetted in the doorway; a spot-lit toadstool seemingly grows from gravel against an unexpected backdrop of smooth wood panelling. And so the series continues, one petite but powerful image after the other, all cloaked in an atmosphere you could cut with a knife.
DiCorcia maximises the suspense and drama of his compositions through his mastery of Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro light effects; one work, depicting a circle of three up-lit figures, is particularly reminiscent of Joseph Wright of Derby’s experiments with extreme lighting. Another technique deployed to disconcerting effect is varying focus; in one image, diCorcia makes the stock formula of a mother holding a baby in her arms both poignant and disturbing by blurring the baby’s head. The effect of these theatrical devices is augmented by the Polaroid format, which necessitates visitors to look closely, encouraging an immediate and personal response to each work.
It is, therefore, through a delicate balance of extremes that diCorcia’s work rests - neither hyper-reality, nor total artificiality; the preconceived or the random; the private or the public; defined boundaries or unknown space; the mundane or the exotic, the list goes on. It is this dichotomy that is the constant in diCorcia’s work, and which is so excellently reflected in ROID. However, peering at one diminutive photograph after another, one can’t help but feel frustrated that such beautiful, complex and powerful images are restricted by their Polaroid format. ROID is, therefore, a little jewel box that whets the palate for diCorcia’s work, leaving you delighted but, ultimately, wanting more.