Thursday, December 27, 2007

Thousand by Philip-Lorca diCorcia

I know I have lifted this little piece of wisdom from someone and recited it before but every time someone puts a camera to their eye there is the potential to make a masterpiece. Mostly though, with the same movements and intellect, we wind up making sketches. Whatever it takes to elevate a photo into the category of masterpiece does not happen often (5-10 times in an artist’s life?) and the near misses or failed opportunities stand as reminders of the artist’s weakness. This is why, for some, looking at contact sheets or letting others look at their contact sheets can induce feelings of embarrassment or bring about insecurities about one’s talents - as if the contact sheets will prove that the artist is a fraud.

Contact sheets are probably the closest and purest form of a ‘sketchbook’ that a photographer has. Like in the sketchbooks from other disciplines, we see the artist working something out; an idea, a curiosity or a random impulse. Frame by frame, we are privy to a process taking place conscious or unconscious. In almost all cases, the sketch is seen as something less important to a ‘committed work.’ Not that with time we can’t elevate a particular sketch to the status of great art but when sitting side by side with a ‘finished’ work, we usually create a hierarchy even if one shouldn‘t exist.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s book Thousand just published by SteidlDangin is one thousand polaroid photographs; or might I say, one thousand sketches.

I say sketches for many reasons. First and foremost, I cannot help but to create the hierarchy I mentioned above as many of these polaroids were made to answer a technical question; is the lighting correct? Is the exposure correct? How are mixed light sources going to read? Do I like this framing? Am I barking up the wrong tree with this situation? We know this because while flipping through this book we recognize many of the same set-ups where diCorcia achieved a great photograph afterwards with his film camera.

These are sketches because we also may see diCorcia working out the potential for meaning for the final photograph. A polaroid allows the photographer to see how a particular expression or body language ‘reads’ on film. DiCorcia’s subject is often, as Tod Papageorge has written, “the melancholy occupations of those young for whom stepping over a threshold is as significant an act as anything that might occur once they’ve entered the room in question and started to talk.” What subtle or grand gesture might be explored while shooting can be revealed in polaroids.

These are sketches because from a book standpoint, that is how we are asked to see them. They are printed in a way that makes all of them equal regardless of whether the image is ‘good’ or not. As they are presented, each photo averages 3 by 4 inches in size on the page and they are printed on a thin translucent paper that lacks the ability to reproduce the full detail of the original. In some, it is almost impossible to ‘read’ the image at all either because of the reproduction or because of the state of the original.

And lastly, by including ONE THOUSAND of them in this book, it becomes obvious to the viewer within the first dozen that ‘masterpieces’ aren’t the point of this book.

So, what is the point of this book? That’s an interesting question for I see this work as inescapable from being a record of anything other than the process of photography itself. With each turn of the page I see diCorcia, as a photographer, working with photography. This is a photographic sketchbook. The photos may describe life and try to be a kind of diary of a life, but I can’t see it that way because of the physical materials. If anything, this is a diary of photography.

What I see are photos of great stages without characters. Great characters without worthy stages. Bad lighting. Perfect lighting. Potential meaning. No meaning. DiCorcia the photographer being clever. DiCorcia the photographer being heavy handed. Great form but little content. Close but no photo of a cigar. And sprinkled among them are approximately 50 fine photographs that stand out screaming for a better forum but they are silenced and pushed from our memories by the hundreds that might as well just be a numbered page.

This book is interesting for what it seems to ask from the viewer; impossible amounts of patience, attention and stamina (if you turn one page every second - not even able to take in each image - it would take you over 16 minutes to get through from cover to cover). The production is interesting for its choice of material, printing and design that allows the book to flop open and lay spread like some passive gluttonous beast. But my interest dies quickly when all I have are those superficial curiosities.

I may not be able to see the forest for the trees, but I do know that seeing one thousand of diCorcia’s polaroids does not excite me more than seeing one of his masterpieces.

Buy online at Steidlville