While Philip-Lorca diCorcia was photographing passers-by on New York’s Times Square he reckons he exposed some three or four thousand frames…of which a mere seventeen subsequently saw publication in the series Heads. Control, restraint and a punitively exacting editing process have, hitherto, appeared integral to his work. His fashion photography for W magazine, for example, is both widely acclaimed and hugely influential…but he undertakes only one shoot per year.

And now the flood. Thousand is an obese, 2000-page breezeblock of a book that lets loose a bewildering deluge of Polaroids taken by diCorcia over a twenty year period. Many of the images derive from his renowned series of staged and choreographed, apparently cinematic, pictures. But there is much else besides – including landscapes, seascapes, still lives, intimate family shots, self –portraits, holiday snapshots, travel photos, skyscapes and more. 

Some are the by-products of his elaborately composed shoots; others were conceived as works in their own right. As he explains, “The Polaroids are a combination of accumulated tests for work that was finally committed to film, and images I made with the instant film as a primary source. I had been working on them with the idea of doing a project for several years.”

“Eventually I accumulated over 3000 and decided to try and put together an edit of 1000 for a show that I called “the million dollar show”, one thousand Polaroids at $1000 each. The idea was cynical and weak, but it got me started on the book. Only maybe 20 per cent were made with the book in mind. Another 30 to 40 per cent were made because I like the process and its obvious gratifications, which seem meagre in the digital age, but I don’t work digitally”

DiCorcia’s published work has usually taken the form of thematically coherent projects; the exception being the fictionalised and suggestive pseudo-biography, A Story Book Life in which he retrospectively collated pictures from a variety of earlier shoots. The scale of that project, achieved in seventy five images, enabled a typically fine-tuned sequencing, and the suggestion of an underlying narrative. Thousand, it seems, has proved considerably less tractable: “Once a book was projected I began to try and edit the images both on formal and subjective criteria. The goal of 1000 images seemed easily achievable at the beginning but proved difficult. Reviewing the work started to establish the thematic criteria for selection and ordering.”

But the sheer, unruly volume of material threatened to negate attempts to impose any order on the work. DiCorcia and designer Pascal Dangin even considered an entirely arbitrary sequencing, “The book is divided into sections which were edited and then ordered. When I first started getting back sheets with numerous images printed out on them, there were many surprising and unexpected juxtapositions. We decided to randomly edit the book by assigning each image a number and then scrambling the numbers with a computer. This too seemed a good experiential model. In the end, I abandoned that idea and ordered the images with small thumbnails which I placed on large gridded boards. I had a very clear idea of the juxtapositions and patterns.”

By dint of its rigorous and repetitive design Thousand subverts conventional hierarchies of taste and proposes instead that its pictures are all equal – Polaroids that were made with the help of models, stylists and lighting technicians are given precisely the same allotted space as a snap from a dinner party.  “There are no heroes”, he says, “No individual image is more important than another.”

“With so many images, hierarchies are difficult to establish; the mental and emotional effects are confused and compounded by the multitude of responses. Concrete mental processes are undermined in much the same way as our experience of life”. 

Further, by virtue of their inclusion in this new work many of the images are separated from their earlier meanings. DiCorcia’s famous series of portraits of male prostitutes in Hollywood, for example, was originally accompanied by captions detailing how much he had paid them to pose. As the work was funded by a public grant it was a tactic calculated to provoke. As with all the images in Thousand though, they now appear uncaptioned and undated – “There was no attempt to allude to the previous identities that some of the images had”, he asserts.

Removed from their original context, many of the images can only hint enigmatically at an earlier incarnation. Ambiguity, allusion and suggestion adhere to this powerfully evocative project marked by retrospective self-appraisal. Perhaps most extraordinary is that the humble Polaroid provides the vehicle for DiCorcia’s voracious, intelligent and always compelling vision.

He includes a picture of an inscription that reads: “Speak to the past and it shall teach thee”. And images of a clock – and of time passing – punctuate the work. “Memory”, he says, “and its subjective bias and shifts over time were obvious themes”.

“I am the protagonist. Time is the culprit”.

— —

by Philip-Lorca diCorcia
2008 pages, 1000 colour plates
18.4 cm x 20.8 cm
ISBN: 3-86521-406-5
UK £50.00

This interview was first published in Art World magazine. 

inks resources
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Street Work – Noorderlicht
Whitechapel Gallery London : A Storybook Life
wikipedia entry:  biography