Philip-Lorca diCorcia Debuts ‘Eleven’ for NYFW

Yesterday evening, the first day of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, New York gallery David Zwirner hosted an opening for Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s exhibit ELEVEN. The exhibit showcases eleven fashion narratives that diCorcia published in W Magazine over as many years, beginning with a shoot in Los Angeles in 1997, and ending in Cairo circa 2008. Dennis Freedman, the creative director for W at the time, traveled with him for the production of the shoots, and edited the book ELEVEN, which has just been released. This exhibit marks diCorcia’s first show in New York, of exclusively his fashion editorial photography. But unlike most fashion stories, clothing is not pre-eminent in diCorcia’s photographs. Rather, the clothing becomes a humble participant in service of a larger, elemental narrative, one that embraces ambitious ideas that are expected from great works of art.

There’s a tension between your appreciation of the photographs as fine art, and the awareness that they were produced in the normal course of commerce within the fashion industry. Thus, the status of the photographs as fine art, or as fashion product, is in constant tension. DiCorcia’s dialogue throughout the press preview for the exhibit reflected an awareness of this tension, and a nostalgia for a time when the fashion industry was able to embrace artful narrative photography without clouding its purity, by having the narrative bow so completely to advertorial concerns. This project flowed from the “end of an opportunity” diCorcia noted, lamenting the impending decline of the type of editorial work shown in this exhibit. “In short, there’s always Armani,” he said, meaning most fashion shoots will have to include some article of clothing designed by Armani, because Armani is the biggest advertiser. The heavy hitters always have the most representation. “Ralph Lauren is second. Calvin Klein’s up there.”

He walked over to a photograph that had three drag queens in the window in drab, stewardess-type outfits, and a man seated out front in a bathing suit or underwear. “Guaranteed not to have any credits,” he said, pointing out that the subjects were wearing their own clothes. “Because that’s all they wear.” Nonetheless, a designer did end up taking credit for the bathing suit worn by the subject, a male prostitute.

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The one time he didn’t have to worry about that was in the shoot with Marc Jacobs, because of the artwork that was included from Jacobs’ own personal collection. He pointed across the room. “Everyone knows he has a big one,” he said. “I mean a big collection.” He walked across the room to a photograph of Marc Jacobs seated on a bed with someone in it. “I think at that time, he was extremely proud of the new look.” He was referring to the time when Marc Jacobs started working out, lost weight, and got a tan.

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DiCorcia has been renowned for his reinvention of street photography and the concept of the “decisive moment” in the manner championed by Henri Cartier-Bresson in the early 20th century. One can see that at play here, with photographs of prostitutes in Havana, the actress Isabelle Huppert playing herself, or a family at lunch, with the World Trade Center looming beyond the window. He explores the balance between the posed artificial nature of fashion photography, and the candid nature of snapshots.

His photographs are sometimes composites of many shots, which may explain the feeling that they’ve been heavily overworked. For one image of Thai kick boxers, he said he overlapped portions of one frame with portions of another. Maybe one image had a “perfect kick,” whereas in another, a boxer wasn’t elevated off the ground. Despite admitting to his combining the photographs, he noted that “people take for granted that everything is manipulated…. There was a time where people actually believed what they saw.”

For diCorcia, the process of creating a narrative begins with the creation of a story, a concept that everyone in the shoot will take part in, and that will inform their idea of how they’re supposed to behave and dress, whether they’re models or actors. He says it almost never has to do with choosing clothing. When photographing Isabelle Huppert, he said Club de Change (wife-swapping clubs) were popular in Paris and asked if they should do a story on that. Huppert said it was too obvious. But he was able to capture her personality.

“His overall concept is really cliché,” said Dennis Freedman, who walked in late wearing an orange scarf. He was discussing the process of developing the story with diCorcia. But then he said through the way diCorcia expresses it, the clichés become elemental. “But I was very nervous every time he talked about what he wanted to do.”

“Doesn’t bode well for my future,” said diCorcia, laughing.

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