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A Storybook LifeReview - A Storybook Life
by Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Twin Palms, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Nov 20th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 47)

Philip-Lorca diCorcia's A Storybook Life is a subtle and disorienting collection of photographs.  On first viewing, it is hard to know what unifies these pictures.  The only title they have is given in a list at the back of the book providing the location and date it was taken, and there is no accompanying text to explain diCorcia's project or to put the pictures into context.  The photographs were taken between 1977 and 1999, in cities around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Singapore, Berlin and Milan.  But for most, there are very few identifying marks in these images to reveal even which country they showing, let alone which city.  Since the pages are not numbered, it is not feasible to look up where they were taken. 

As diCorcia explains it in the press release accompanying the book, "The disparate photographs assembled here were made over the course of twenty years. None of them were originally intended to be used in this book. By ordering and shaping them I tried to investigate the possibilities of narrative both within a single image and especially in relation to the other photographs."  So it seems that some of them have been published elsewhere, and are collected here to create new meaning from a different context.  However, there is no thematic unity to these pictures, and indeed, most of them look like they are meant to suggest they are part of a longer separate narrative on their own, and it is hard to see how those different narratives could be integrated.  Yet the concept of narrative does not shed a great deal of light on these photographs. 

While most appear to be shots of real life, for some of the images, one suspects that they were staged.  For example, one shows an African-American man holding a white person by the neck.  He has sunglasses in his hand and somehow what looks like some kind of bicycle helmet is at his back.  The white person's head is buried in the man's shoulder and we can't tell the person's gender.  The black man looks over his shoulder at the photographer with apparent suspicion or hostility.  They seem to be on a sidewalk outside some kind of storage facility, and there are shadows of palm trees on the wall.  The two people seem to be lit by bright sunlight from low in the sky, suggesting that it is either early morning or near sunset.  It is not clear what is going on between the two.  Instead of being emotionally moved by the contents, one is puzzled and even discomforted by the juxtaposition of the divergent elements.  Many of diCorcia's pictures have this effect, and after viewing them, one gets the sense that while at first they are depicting ordinary and banal events or places, on closer inspection they seem surreal, bizarre, comic, and even menacing. 

 Another photograph that looks staged shows a middle aged man in a business suit and shiny leather shoes, his hair disheveled, looking like he has just fallen on the street, with his sunglasses and New York Times lying next to him on the ground.  The street is deserted, with some old cars parked outside some rather run-down buildings.  It would be remarkable if diCorcia had managed to catch the moment when a man actually fell down on the street, and one also imagines that if he did see the event happen, diCorcia should rush to help the man.  As with the other photograph discussed above, the picture raises the question of the role of the photographer and his relation to the people in the photograph.  What's especially strange is that there's a faint transparent image of a newspaper superimposed at the bottom of the picture, further destabilizing the illusion that one is looking at a real scene, and calling attention to the preparation of the picture by the photographer.

The presence of these staged and prepared photographs in this collection throws into doubt the veracity of those that seem like straightforward shots of ordinary life.  For example, the last picture in the book shows a funeral parlor with an open casket, surrounded by colorful large floral arrangements.  The room has no people in it apart from the man in the casket.  It's a strange scene, leaving the viewer unsure how to react.  If it an actual corpse one is seeing, then one feels one should feel some reverence or sadness appropriate to death, but it's also comical because the man is dwarfed by the profusion of gaudy flowers lit in the cheaply furnished room.  Other images feature no people at all.  For example, one shot is of the contents of a freezer in serious need of defrosting, containing a package of Stouffer's French Bread Pizza, a cut of meat wrapped in plastic, and some larger items covered in aluminum foil.  As with most of the other pictures, one's first reaction is to wonder why it is included, and what one is meant to be noticing.  Then one wonders what is in the foil packages.  Has this been staged or is it just a shot of a friend's freezer.  Is this some sort of joke, and if so, then at whose expense? 

Aside from the postmodern themes of calling into question the relation between artist, public and reality, there is a shared emotional tone to most of these  pictures.  When people are depicted, they are either alone or shown as lacking strong connections with others.  The colors are either washed out or artificial.  Another theme seems to be an old-fashioned America or even Americana.  In one picture, a young policeman with blond hair and a toothy grin leans into the open window of a distinctly American car.  The driver's seat is empty, but in the passenger seat is a woman in a bright yellow bikini, smiling back at the young man.  It looks staged, yet still has the capacity to make one feel uneasy and curious about what is going on.  There are several panoramic views of large cities, one of a trailer park with mobile homes, and one of a television satellite dish nestled in what looks like a small group of holiday cottages.  However, it is hard to know what diCorcia makes of these themes.  These pictures may express skepticism or may force the viewer to question his or herself, and there is a bleak tone to most of them. 

When one first looks through this collection of pictures, one is just puzzled what they are about and even why the Twin Palms thought it worth publishing them.  However, after looking over them repeatedly over a period of weeks and months, they transform into striking and memorable images.   DiCorcia's work is one of the most intriguing of modern photographers. 

 

 

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© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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