Art

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Cinematic Ode To Hustlers and Vintage Porn

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Eric Holt, 19 years old, Santa Fe, New Mexico, $25, 1990-92 Chromogenic print (all images courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York)

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Eric Holt, 19 years old, Santa Fe, New Mexico, $25, 1990-92
Chromogenic print (all images courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York)

From Andy Warhol’s My Hustler featuring chiseled and masculine Paul America to the premier hustler icon of the underground cinema Joe D’Allesandro to the preponderance of hustlers in sleazy movie houses as seen in Tennessee Williams’s short stories set at the Joy Rio, hustlers have always seemed to have a touch of the cinematic.

Following in the footsteps and aesthetic of these cinematic visions of sex work, photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia‘s exhibition Hustlers at the David Zwirner Gallery features diCorcia’s esteemed early 1990s photographs of hustlers in Los Angeles, as well as a more recent video installation Best Seen, Not Heard. Even though diCorcia’s celebrated hustler photographs are stunningly beautiful portraits, Best Seen, Not Heard, which integrates his hustler photographs into its three screened installation, reveals a deeper, and, for me, more fascinating look into diCorcia’s play with the notions of artifice, Hollywood and sex work.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Best Seen, Not Heard, 2012 Installation composed of 3 synchronized single channel projections, 6:36 min (loop), color, silent

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Best Seen, Not Heard, 2012
Installation composed of 3 synchronized single channel projections, 6:36 min (loop), color, silent

Shown for the first time in the United States in the back of the David Zwirner Gallery, Best Seen, Not Heard presents a slideshow of diCorcia’s Hustlers series flanked by the opening and closing credits of porn films from the 1920s to the 1950s. Juxtaposing the moving black-and-white credits for oh-so-trashy film titles like “The Heathens,” “The Dentist” and “Double Date,” with his own still, saturated colored photographs, diCorcia allows for complex comparisons to be made between hustlers and actors, photography and cinema and the silences inherent in both.

Pulling back the heavy curtain into the video installation, there is a distinct sense of pleasurable transgression (Who is going to be daring enough to jack-off in David Zwirner? Somebody’s got to do it). Like going into a porn theater or picking up a hustler, the viewer waits in anticipation for a climax and yet, there isn’t one. By only showing the title and the end credits on either side of the photographs, diCorcia places his photographs in the role of the fetishized climax, creating a tension between reality and artifice, real sex work and fictional homoeroticism.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Ralph Smith, 21 years old, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, $25, 1990-92 Chromogenic print

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Ralph Smith, 21 years old, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, $25, 1990-92
Chromogenic print

Completed between 1990 and 1992, diCorcia’s photographs of hustlers jump-started his photographic career, which is quite surprising given the tense atmosphere of the Culture Wars during the early 1990s. Using the money he acquired from winning a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, then embroiled in a homoerotic and photographic controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous posthumous exhibition of his S&M-filled X-Porfolio, diCorcia traveled through the streets of Los Angeles picking up hustlers and paying them for photographs rather than sex. In 1993, many of these photographs were shown at MoMA under the title Strangers.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tim, 27 years old, Orange County, California, $30, 1990-1992 Chromogenic print

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tim, 27 years old, Orange County, California, $30, 1990-1992
Chromogenic print

Throughout the David Zwirner Gallery, these photographs, which are titled with the hustlers’ names, ages, hometowns and how much they charged for the photograph, which is assumed to be comparable to their *ahem* services, reveal a landscape of seedy motel rooms, greasy fast food restaurants and trashy bus stations. Showing the other side of the glitzy Hollywood dream, diCorcia’s photographs are not judgmental of sex work nor do they try to inflict some redeeming social commentary onto the subjects or the viewers (thank god).

More shocking than his subject matter, diCorcia’s Hustlers photographs are heavily constructed with a focus on dramatic and almost cinematic composition and lighting. Even before he approached each individual hustler, diCorcia already extensively planned out the final composition of the photograph. Playing with the inherent assumption that most photographs preserve and document the real, diCorcia erases the division between the real and the artificial.

With this disruption between the real and fake, it is certainly no coincidence that the Hustlers series is set in the home of Hollywood, the porn industry and all things artificial: Los Angeles, which brings me back to Best Seen, Not Heard.

In an interview on the installation of Best Seen, Not Heard at the Grand Palais in Paris, which can also be glimpsed in the clip, diCorcia describes his hustler subjects as living in the “shadow of the bright lights in Hollywood,” as many of them came to LA to pursue their starry-eyed Hollywood dreams. Like hustlers, porn actors and actresses, like the ones in the films in Best Seen, Not Heard, also live in these same shadows, turning their own constructed fantasy of Hollywood into another’s constructed fantasy of sex. Through diCorcia’s photographs, his references to porn and Hollywood and the fantasy inherent in sex work, diCorcia’s subjects traverse the boundaries between reality and fiction, fact and fantasy.

As hinted by the title of Best Seen, Not Heard, diCorcia revels in silence whether the silence of the subjects in his photographs or the literal silence of the video installation. Rather than give the viewers what they want: answers, reality or even blatant sex, diCorcia tells us just to look, to appreciate those silences, the spaces they leave and the questions they raise. Fantasy and anticipation is sometimes better than the release.

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