Heads: Philip-Lorca diCorcia

Head #13 Philip-Lorca diCorcia 2000 (the image that led to a lawsuit)

Head #13 Philip-Lorca diCorcia 2000 (the image that led to the lawsuit)

Many photographers subscribe to the idea that a subject’s true nature can only be revealed if they are caught on camera unaware, unposed and therefore not manipulating or influencing the final representation. They see this approach as an antidote to Roland Barthes (1) perception that we transform ourselves into an image when we become aware of a camera. I have previously discussed some of the strategies employed by photographers to capture unaware subjects (here) but now want to look at a single photographer, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and one particular series, Heads, which challenges our preconceptions of both portraiture and street photography.

Echoing Barthes’ point diCorcia said that people often “present themselves as clichés of what they should be” (2) and in Heads he attempts to penetrate those clichés to capture the true self. DiCorcia is quite clear that the series is wholly dependant on the subject being unaware “There is no way the images could have been made with the knowledge and cooperation of the subjects. The mutual exclusivity that conflict or tension, is part of what gives the work whatever quality it has.” (5)

For Heads diCorcia used builders scaffolding above New York’s Times Square as the platform for a strobe light aimed at the faces of pedestrians. Using a long lens on a tripod he positioned himself some twenty feet away  triggering the shutter with a remote release as his subjects passed over a pre-determined spot on the pavement. His subjects were not only unaware that they were about to be photographed but also, because he was working in broad daylight, they remained oblivious after the event. This approach was to spark a controversial debate regarding invasion of privacy including a lawsuit (i) but diCorcia is unrepentant saying “I don’t like the idea of my face on somebody else’s wall. But I have to maintain my right to do it.” (3) Over the course of two years diCorcia collected more than four thousand images, selecting just seventeen for the final series.

In Hustlers diCorcia developed an approach to photography that occupies a unique space between documentary and staged photography by paying gay hustlers in Los Angeles to pose in staged “sets”. This series has a relationship with the work of Gregory Crewdson, whom I investigated here; in particular the appropriation of cinematic lighting and high production values, which when combined with narrative creates what Jeff Wall calls cinematography (here). In Hustlers the actors collude with diCorcia to create the image whereas in Heads the actors are unaware of the part they are playing but there is still a strong element of staging and his lighting retains a cinematic aesthetic.

Photographers always maintain a significant amount of control over the image but when working on the street camera placement, angles, lighting, framing and background involves varying levels of serendipity. By taking control of all these elements, which collectively comprise the mise en scéne, he is only, as he says, “at the mercy of whoever passed by” (4) It appears that diCorcia remained very much in control but in his mind this was a significant shift from his earlier work. When speaking of Streetworks which predates Heads but shares the concept of the street as a theatre and  unknowing passers by as actors he said “After many years of controlling every aspect of the shoot, of arranging objects and even deciding which way the subjects looked, I wanted to see what would happen when dealing with chaotic situations and subjects you can’t control.” (4) This is, of course, a mute point as he is not only controlling the mise en scéne but is the editor of the final series, the selection of just seventeen from four thousand is a significant level of editorial control.

DiCorcia is far from the only street photographer to lay in wait at a likely location. Stephen Shore for example (here) often sets up opposite street corners where he hopes and expects something interesting might happen but diCorcia has taken this idea a step further and by mixing artificial and natural lighting creates what Katherine Bussard (4) calls a “somewhat irrational” and contradictory light which creates documentary theatre instead of Shore’s more pure documentation.

Both Streetworks and Heads challenge the norms of street photography and the conventions of portraiture and paradoxically it is questionable whether diCorcia’s approach to these less staged series tells us more about his subjects that the highly staged Hustlers series. Ëlisabeth Couturier (6) offers an interesting interpretation of his work; she believes that diCorcia is exploring the concept of Marc Augé’s (7) non-places (discussed here) which are what Peter Merriman (8), describes as the “ubiquitous spaces of temporary dwelling” that individuals inhabit without forming any connection. Couturier believes that the expressions of his subjects are perfect examples of the detached, disconnected way in which we pass through non-places such as urban intersections. Viewed through this prism diCorcia’s work becomes a study of “neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude” (7)

Notes on Text

(i) In 2006 one of DiCorcia’s subjects sued the photographer and his gallery of “exhibiting, publishing, and profiting from his likeness, which was taken without permission” (2) The case was eventually dismissed but it is interesting that the judge said “Even while recognizing art as exempt from the reach of New York’s privacy laws, the problem of sorting out what may or may not legally be art remains a difficult one.”  The New York Times explains that “New York state right-to-privacy laws prohibit the unauthorized use of a person’s likeness for commercial purposes, that is, for advertising or purposes of trade. But they do not apply if the likeness is considered art.” 



iCorcia, Philip-Lorca ( 2013) Philip-Lorca diCorcia: published in conjunction with the exhibition at the De Pomnt Musuem of Contemporary Art, Tiburg October 2013 to January 2014. Bielefeld: Gesamtherstellung und Vertrieb

(1) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

(4) Bussard, Katherine A. (2014) Unfamiliar Streets. New Haven: Yale University Press

(6) Couturier, Elisabeth (2011) Talk About Contemporary Photography (English language edition 2012) Paris: Flammarion


(2) MoMa. Philip diCorcia Head #10 2002 (accessed at MoMA Learning 23.2.16) – https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/philip-lorca-dicorcia-head-10-2002

(3) Quine, Oscar and Palumbo, Daniele (2014)
Philip-Lorca diCorcia interview: ‘My Hustlers series was not unethical’ (accessed at Independent 23.2.16) – http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/philip-lorca-dicorcia-interview-my-hustlers-series-was-not-unethical-9428027.html

(5) Gefter, Philip (2006) The Theater of the Street, the Subject of the Photograph (accessed at The New York Times 23.2.16) – http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/19/arts/design/19phot.html?_r=2&

(7) Augé, Marc (1992) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Translated by John Howe) (accessed at the University of Buffalo 16.2.16) – http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jread2/Auge%20Non%20places.pdf

(8) Merriman, Peter (2009) Exploring Supermodernity: Marc Augé in Context(s) (accessed at Academia 16.2.16) – https://www.academia.edu/1206011/Marc_Auge_on_Space_Place_and_Non-Places

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