Philip-Lorca diCorcia interview: 'My Hustlers series was not unethical'


Philip-Lorca diCorcia, 63, is an American photographer. Considered as one of the most influential and innovative working today, diCorcia is known for his ability to create images that are a mix between documentary and theatre staged photography.

Born in 1951 in Hartford, Connecticut, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston earning his diploma in 1975. In 1979, diCorcia received his M.F.A. from Yale University. 

Each of his series, Hustlers, Streetwork, Heads, a Storybook Life and Lucky Thirteen caught the public’s imagination with their sense of drama and distinctive use of lighting.

Works by diCorcia are held in public collections internationally, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; The Museum of Modern Art, New York and many more. 

Q: How did you work respond to 9/11?

Initially, I had no idea how to respond. It seemed a bigger issue than photography could encompass. So I didn’t even try to directly approach it. In Lucky 13, the models are all supposed to be upside down, falling. I just had an extremely visceral reaction to the people that had to jump out of the windows, from the 80th floor or something like that. I thought about this a lot. I don’t know how I made the connection to this except I just connected this idea of sex and death. In mythology they are connected as they are in the Freudian psychology, they’re inextricable. I’m not sure Eros and Thanatos are brothers in Greek mythology but they are related.

Q: Your most recent project, East Eden, is a response to the banking crisis. Do you have a sense of apocalypse, now?

It’s about the loss of innocence. People started out believing there are weapons of mass destruction, that they would never have to pay their mortgage back, that they could borrow against the house that they didn’t even own and buy another car, and the people that sold them these ideas knew all along that it was not true. It’s no different than the devil tempting Adam and Eve. It was a temptation and I believe that the consequence was that they were cast east of Eden. It’s a classic story and they suffered: they were meant to suffer as a result of it. I believe that the whole world suffered as a result of the economic crisis and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And once again, the people who were most directly responsible for it didn’t take any responsibility; as the devil never does. It just seemed obvious.

Q: With your street photography, how involved did you become with the ethics of your set-ups and of taking pictures of people unawares?

Very few of those people ever got in touch with me. In a public place like Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, there is no expectation of privacy. How many cameras are in Piccadilly? The idea that they were photographed without their knowledge doesn’t bother me at all. The issue in the case of the Hasidic man was that I sold the photograph and I made money from it. I have to say I wouldn’t particularly like that happening  to me, just because I don’t like the idea of my face on somebody else’s wall. But I have to maintain my right to do it. Is that hypocritical: I wouldn’t want that to happen to me, but I maintain my right to do it? I don’t think it’s hypocritical.

Do you remember when you first picked up a camera?

I think my father bought a camera for himself but he couldn’t figure out how to use it, so he gave it to me. I was in High School. It was a Pentax, 35mm.

With you series Hustlers, what made you think to choose male prostitutes as the subject matter for your first project?

I had lived in Los Angeles. I was completely aware of what was going on because I had a gay friend who was always partaking of it, you might say. That was before the Aids crisis. When that happened and there was the government repression of work by Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance. It also coincided with the death of my brother from Aids. I put a lot of things together and there was also a theoretical thing. Photography is an exchange: they give you something and you give them something. I decided to monetise that. I didn’t pay anyone before that. But a lot of people thought that it was unethical to pay people. So I got a certain amount of grief from people, not because of the subject matter but because it’s almost a documentary realm, seeking out the other side of their lives. But I didn’t really seek it out: I never went home with them; I never really knew anything about them. The whole relationship started and ended in a couple of hours. There was money exchanged and that was, I think, within the photographic community, criticised.

Q: Do you know what became of any of the subjects?

Yeah, I heard a few things. No one became a senator. Usually you hear that they’ve died.

Q: You’ve spoken about the Disneyfication of places like Times Square. Do you worry that the street culture is being lost in places like New York City and London?

I don’t know if you could do what I did. The police would probably stop you. You are not allowed to photograph bridges or government buildings or anything that might be considered scouting for terrorism. People are very wary of that. The other thing is that these places have become tourist traps and you can hardly move.

Q: With the advances in digital technology, do you think there is still space for a photographer to come along with high production values and expensive lighting?

You can still do expensive lighting and high production values with a digital camera. It’s the ones that don’t use digital who are going to have a problem. Right now, I include myself among them. Everything has been eliminated. Polaroid doesn’t exist anymore, Kodak is bankrupt: they are all going under. One side aspect of digital is that you can operate in lighting conditions that you could never operate in before. People don’t need production value anymore. You can shoot a movie with a digital camera and never use a light.

PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA PHOTOGRAPHS 1975 – 2012 is open at the Hepworth Wakefield until June 1st, (

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