The American photographer talks to us about his exhibition at The Hepworth – & asks who’s really accountable for the recession?
Who was to blame for the 2008 economic crash? Wisdom has it that it was not the likes of you or I. It was greedy investors, a financial sector out of control, the banks being in bed with politicians. That’s certainly the view of American photographer Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. “They knew the consequences of what they were doing, and they did it anyway,” says the artist of these bad-apple financiers. “The guile that was applied to convince Eve to tempt Adam was the guile applied by the financial sector and the political sector; they did not tell us the truth.”
This was the inspiration for DiCorcia’s latest photographic series, East of Eden, which has just gone on display as part of a bigger show at The Hepworth. In it, eight large-scale photographs depict apparently unconnected scenes: a couple at a table strewn with empty glasses, a lone cowboy riding through a valley, a woman beneath an apple tree. But while these photos may at first glance appear less connected than, say, the street photographs on display elsewhere in the exhibition, the title of East of Eden suggests an underlying theme, one found in both John Steinbeck’s epic novel of the same name and a much older, Biblical tale.
“It is loosely based on the act of being evicted from the Garden of Eden, which to me represents the loss of innocence,” says DiCorcia. “We all know that what happened in 2008 was a loss of innocence: people didn’t think they’d ever have to pay their mortgages, we all thought we’d emerge glorious from Afghanistan and Iraq.” It is a curious idea, one that absolves us of responsibility – but, surely, if we were happy to take on debts we had no intention of ever paying off, we are as culpable as Eve plucking the apple from the tree?
“Complicity involves knowledge,” argues DiCorcia. “I don’t think the general public was innocent or guiltless, but it’s a matter of degree – and in the end who suffered? I don’t see any bankers in jail. I see a lot of people who have lost their homes and their jobs. So I agree – but does the punishment fit the crime?”
The guile applied to convince Eve to tempt Adam was also applied by the financial sector
Whatever the answer to that particular question, the fact is that DiCorcia’s photographs leave plenty of room for both questions and for us to make up our own answers. We can’t help but make up stories about the lives of the people snapped in Heads, for example, the portraits taken of strangers walking through Times Square, and it’s a temptation made all the harder to resist when DiCorcia notes that out of the thousands of images he took, just a few made the final grade. “There are maybe 3,000 shots in all, and on show in the gallery here, just seventeen. Because of that people imprint their own meaning onto them, they attach meanings to them that I never intended.”
Although in person DiCorcia appears bemused by his audience’s desire to “attach meaning” to his pictures, according to Hepworth curator Sam Lackey, it’s entirely intentional. “DiCorcia doesn’t tell you who the people are but instead he gives you hints; it’s like a detective story and you fill in the rest.” And it’s true: there are just such hints, sometimes supplied via the use of flash lighting that highlights one person out of half a dozen, say. Sometimes, as in the case of a series of portraits of male prostitutes, clues come via image titles that tell you their subject’s first name, age and how much they charge for sexual services. Even walking round the gallery with DiCorcia, he can’t help but lob the odd detail in to conversation: “that guy there sued me,” he says casually of the portrait of Mr. Nussenzweig, one of the most striking in the Heads series. “You can look it up online.”
While DiCorcia is sometimes known as a street photographer, that description doesn’t do his work justice. His rich, cinematic photos may sometimes appear as hurried street snaps, but each is meticulously planned. Yet even his most staged photographs, such as those of pole dancers, where a chiaroscuro-like light picks out each muscle of each woman suspended in mid-air, pull you in. “Although everything about DiCorcia’s photographs are carefully composed, there is space for the viewer to be able to connect with the subjects,” says Sam Lackey. “It does not stop you having an emotional response to the works.”
Inevitably, your response will be determined by your own ideas, prejudices and experiences. Some may look at DiCorcia’s pole dancers and see strong, powerful women; others may just see fallen ones. Some may look at East of Eden and see landscapes of American life; others may read them as a parable. And as for that idea around innocence and who was to blame for 2008? Well, in DiCorcia’s world, that’s also up for debate. “Supposedly we would all be living in some idyllic, Edenic world if it wasn’t for Adam and Eve,” he says. “But maybe they are just absorbing the blame. After all, religion is about finding a myth to explain away the things you don’t want to think about.” So perhaps we’re not quite so innocent after all.
Planning a visit to The Hepworth? Read our day trip guide to Wakefield.