DiCorcia used government money to photograph prostitutes

By Jude Jones

In this spotlight piece, staff writer Jude Jones looks at American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia and his project Strangers (since renamed Hustlers), portraits of male prostitutes he took on the streets of West Hollywood in the early ‘90s using a U.S.-government endowment. The images, which contain elements of documentary, the cinematic, and the Baroque, became cutting commentaries of life on the margins of the American dream, considering loneliness, lies, sex, and violence in Reaganism’s wake.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Marilyn; 28 years old; Las Vegas, Nevada; $30 (1990-92). Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. government’s National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found itself embroiled in a culture-war controversy. After awarding money to a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition that depicted gruelling BDSM sex acts and an Andres Serrano image that showed a plastic crucifix drowned in the artist’s own urine, a coalition of conservative Christian figures and Republican politicians lobbied for the NEA to be defunded and restricted to giving federal money to ‘decent’ artistic projects. Amidst this media maelstrom, Hartford-born and Yale-trained photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia chipped into by taking a $45,000 NEA endowment, the exact amount Republican politicians would eventually curtail the agency’s budget by, and using it to proposition prostitutes on West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard.

DiCorcia slinked onto the photographic scene at a moment of medium renaissance. Associated for much of the twentieth century with journalistic documentary and an unspoken pledge of sincerity – an adherence to the ‘real’ life – new postmodern experimentations by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall in the late 1970s began to explore new potentialities for the camera, introducing elements of narrative fiction, Baroque composition, and big-screen cinematography to the humble still image. These melodrama-filled inquisitions brought a new fine art interest to photography that had rarely been seen since the days of Man Ray and Lee Miller back in the 1920s; in fact, it was under Jan Groover that diCorcia studied at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the still-life photographer whose images of mundane household objects arranged in Dalí-esque momument-scapes caused The New York Times to announce that “photography had arrived in the art world – complete with a market to support it”.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mario (1978). Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

DiCorcia’s earliest contributions to this transformation were intricate experiments conducted within the family home, so intricate that all traces of intricacy seemed to disappear. Mario (1978), one of his earlier works, is emblematic of this, at a cursory glance showing the banal scene of a man in pursuit of a late-night snack, illuminated by the glow of the refrigerator light as he examines its offerings. Yet this seemingly mundane image was in truth the fruit of obsessional planning by a demiurgic diCorcia, who planted an electronic flash in the fridge to intensify the lighting and took several Polaroid test shots, adjusting and readjusting the camera position and light each time, before settling on the perfect conditions for the final product. The result was an image that wrestles the line between truth and artifice, never leaning as brazenly into the latter, as did Sherman or Groover, but rejecting the unrelenting commitment to the former that defined the works of diCorcia’s own idols, like New York street photographer Garry Winograd. Through this careful staging and planning, diCorcia transcended the realm of the quotidian to which his photos could have belonged, producing instead curated pictures that at times seem shots taken from a David Lynch film or the time-travel outputs of a latter-day Caravaggio.

Strangers represents the outwards expansion of this ethos as DiCorcia dared beyond both the comforts and confines of the domestic world. Using his NEA endowment to fund a series of road trips to America’s mythic East Coast, diCorcia would cruise through infernal West Hollywood’s “Boystown” strip and solicit the young rent boys he saw there for a session, asking them their names, ages, hometowns, and their standard charges. Then, taking them to seedy motel rooms (his favourite was Highland Gardens, where Janis Joplin famously died of a heroin overdose on 4 October 1970) or stagnant city streets, he would snap a photograph in the mauve urban California twilight and pay the boys their prices. The only direction he gave to his makeshift muses was not to look at the camera.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Major Tom; 20 years old; Kansas City, Kansas; $20(1990-92). Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

The information he gathered on each subject – name, age, hometown, and fee exchanged, in that order – would form the title of each portrait. “I thought of people as puppets who were unstrung”, diCorcia would later comment on the boys he photographed, “mercilessly disempowered – not preyed upon, but living on the edge and not by choice”. In Major Tom; 20 years old; Kansas City, Kansas; $20 (1990-92), a young man lies comatose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, draped ever so gently, ever so phyrrically, in a blanket and sprawled lifelessly like the titular revolutionary in Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat. In Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20 (1990-92), a shaggy-haired, naked-torsoed Eddie basks through a diner window with the same glazed indifference of Mario’s tragic protagonist, through which an American-blooded burger sits tauntingly like Tantalus’ fruit.

The works thus become Hollywood personified, a dusk-drenched city of liminal existences and dreams both failed and slaughtered. DiCorcia exposes the masturbatory self-mythology of Hollywood, and the America beyond it, as just that, myth, and makes of the commodified bodies that populated its purgatorial underbelly its new-age stars, its new-age gods. The use of NEA money to fund this project therefore becomes a defiant statement of resistance and protest by diCorcia: at a time when blue-blooded congressmen were bickering over a posthumous Mapplethorpe’s right to photograph himself shoving a bullwhip up his arse as young people lived and died on America’s streets, diCorcia was swiping money from right under Congress’ nose and giving it to some of society’s most vulnerable, those the government could not bring itself to care for under its coda of ‘decent’ art and ‘decent’ people. To bring in some academic jargon, it was all a matter of what Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe calls ‘necropolitics’, the state’s deiform power to choose who may live and who must die, to choose whose lives are worth more than others. This, tragically, was a power with which diCorcia was by then uncomfortably familiar. “During [the period I photographed Strangers], 1990-92, the [U.S.] government officially condemned homosexuality while AIDS made death commonplace,” he would later reflect in a book print of Strangers, “My brother, Max Pestalozzi diCorcia, died of AIDS on October 18, 1988. How much is too much? My brother was very free. I loved him for it. […] He died unnecessarily. I dedicate this book to him”. By photographing these strangers at society’s edge and giving them names, diCorcia made the men of Boystown immortal.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20(1990-92). Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

Jude Jones is a staff writer at GAY45. He is also an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge primarily researching the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA.

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