This Week In Photography Books: Philip-Lorca diCorcia

by Jonathan Blaustein

A couple of years ago, I noticed a pattern. I’d throw my back out every year, during the first week of December. Every. Freaking. Year.

I realized it was not a coincidence. A year is a natural cycle, and come December, we’ve all hit the wall. It’s been eleven months worth of work, drama, and all the other things that slowly sap our life-force. By now, we’re all feeling weak and wobbly. (But my back has held up this year…knock wood.)

With the New Year just ahead, we limp into the holidays. Little problems loom larger. We find ourselves distracted and worn down, like a football player in extra time. I’m here to give you the good news: it happens to everyone.

You are not alone.

Just the other night, for example, I bungled badly while answering the phone. We’d just put the kids to bed, after a very long day. I’d sat down a minute earlier, thrilled to finally be “off-duty” for the day.

Then the phone rang.

At that time of night, it’s almost always my mother-in-law. Almost always. So when I pressed the button, I had some clear expectations.

Instead, I was met by a strange voice. A solicitation call. “What do you think about same sex marriage rights,” asked the unnamed caller? In a flash, I was angry. Just leave me the f-ck alone, I thought, so I can watch some vapid television.

What I said was, “It’s none of your business what I think.” Then I hung up.

Thirty seconds later, I cringed. Not only was I impolite, but I realized there was a decent chance the call was made by an organization supporting same sex marriage. Oh shit. They might put me on the homophobic list. What if anyone found out?

I actually thought that. What if people suspected me, the super-liberal-art guy, of secretly hating gay people?

Yes, we’ve come a long way here in the US in a short span of time. “Will and Grace” might have seemed revolutionary ten years ago, but we have officially entered the Gay-Mainstream phase of American culture.

Barack Obama’s election obviously did not erase 200+ years of institutionalized racism. So I’m not here to suggest that homophobia has been conquered, only that it is no longer an acceptable position, in most of society. (Again, thank goodness.)

Because one only has to look back to “Hustlers,” the seminal photo series by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, for a reminder of how far we’ve come. It’s waiting for us, conveniently enough, in a new large-scale, hardcover, yellow book from Steidl.

This is one of those books where there’s only so much I can say. It’s a masterful project that has been revered, rightly, through the years. Now, you can own it, in an exceptionally well-made object. But it costs more than PLdC paid each of those lonely boys and men, back in the day. (To take their photo. Not for a quick hummer in the alley behind MickeyD’s.)

The photos are titled by the name of the subject, where he came from, and how much the artist paid to take the picture. But that last piece of info is not provided until the end. A viewer might guess that it was the amount the “sex worker” charged for some actual action. (The closing statement reveals that the two prices were meant to correlate. It also states that the project is a tribute to the artist’s brother, who died of AIDS. Not something I knew beforehand…)

It goes without saying that these hustlers were down on their luck; plying their trade on Santa Monica Boulevard, one penis at at time. The pay was poor back then, and I doubt it has kept up with inflation. They just grab the coin, and use it to buy some booze, or drugs, or maybe a date with a higher class sort of fellow.

The pictures are so excellent that at first, they do pass for “taken,” rather than “made.” Then you reach the page where the guy is draped ever-so-gently across the sidewalk, covered with a blanket. Even a guileless viewer, who knew nothing of the artist’s meticulous set-ups, might question that reality.

Throughout, while flipping, I would be temporarily floored by the lighting in a certain image. Or the interplay between bodies, when more than one subject was present. Truly fantastic photographs.

Now, we see them as artifacts of a time that seems ancient. But it’s not. Sometimes, culture moves so quickly that decades can seem like centuries. Do you really remember what it was like not to have a cell phone in your pocket? I don’t.

We’d like to think that with the battle for equal rights on the upswing, we’d turn our thoughts to immigration issues, or prison reform, or our antiquated drug laws. All of which do intersect with this book, as well.

But sometimes, on a bleak December day, it’s nice to remember why you feel so tired. (B/c it’s the end of the year. Remember?) And it’s also nice, occasionally, to be happy with the progress we’ve made. Such as it is.

Bottom Line: An instant classic. Get one if you can.

 To Purchase ”Hustlers” Visit Photo-Eye.

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. hey! thanks for another wonderful review! I’ve always liked Philip-Lorcia diCorcia’s photographs, concept over technique. with that said, looks like I’ll be adding another book to my library. :)