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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Still lives

At the ICA, diCorcia's cinematic images reveal the otherworldly in the mundane

Some 120 of Philip-Lorca diCorcia's photographs make up a rich retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art. In 'Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20,' the subject is in the background, visible through the window of a coffee shop.
Some 120 of Philip-Lorca diCorcia's photographs make up a rich retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art. In "Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20," the subject is in the background, visible through the window of a coffee shop. (Courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art)

In Don DeLillo's novel "Libra," a CIA operative assigned to write an agency history of the Kennedy assassination comes to realize that "his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms." Men in small rooms (women, too) are also Philip-Lorca diCorcia's subject. Some 120 of his color photographs, spanning more than three decades, make up a rich retrospective that opens today at the Institute of Contemporary Art. It runs through Sept. 3.

"Small" is a relative term, of course. Each picture in diCorcia's "Heads" series of street portraits is 4 feet by 5 feet, and those in his "Lucky Thirteen " series, about pole dancers, are even bigger.

"Room" is a relative term, too. Some of diCorcia's best-known photographs are of street scenes, and he's photographed exteriors the world over, from Salonika to Singapore to Wellfleet. Yet even these works have a faintly claustral quality, a rare capacity for conveying confinement. DiCorcia's city scenes remind us that a street is, in effect, a large open-air room; and his exterior shots are cut off by the frame conceptually no less than they are physically.

DiCorcia, a Hartford native who went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, got a master's of fine arts at Yale. His graduate thesis posited two types of filmmakers: those whose work exists as part of a world beyond what's on the screen (Renoir and Truffaut , for example), and those who present a world that seems to have no existence beyond the frame (such as Fritz Lang and Hitchcock ). It's the second to which diCorcia's photography declares its allegiance .

A cinematic quality has long been noted in his work, as if his images were stills in search of some ultimate director's cut. DiCorcia has a significant body of fashion and editorial work, none of it included in the show. It's easy to see how his style lends itself to such assignments. He often arranges his photos, and even his spontaneous pictures can feel staged. As Peter Galassi, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art, has written, diCorcia presents "suspended moments in unfolding narratives."

There's an abiding stillness to diCorcia's work. Lang and Hitchcock banished any world beyond the frame -- but at least another would come along 1/24th of a second later. For diCorcia, the banishment is total. No image precedes the one we see, and none follows. In that singularity lies much of the fascination of diCorcia's work, as well as its tendency to unsettle.

There's one significant exception to this rigorous discreteness: his "Hustlers " series, from the early '90s, consisting of portraits of male prostitutes in Hollywood. It's the titles that make the connection to the rest of the world. They include each man's name, age, hometown, and how much he charges his johns (diCorcia paid the subject the same fee to sit for him). As a photographer, diCorcia's concerns are artistic, not moral; but he's not such an aesthete as to reduce these men to just their boy-toy builds and thousand-mile stares.

Their portraits are contaminated versions of classic movie star publicity shots -- except that rather than lounging glamorously by a pool or tennis court, these men sit in a laundromat or convenience store, looking louche, ravaged, or both. In one portrait, "Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas, $20," the subject is in the background, visible through the window of a coffee shop, a hamburger resting on the counter in the foreground. DiCorcia's composition is implicit but unmistakable: Here are two pieces of meat waiting to be consumed.

DiCorcia shoots exclusively in color. Color can do many things for a photograph. The two most basic are imparting a greater quantity of information and a heightened quality of emotional expressivity. Another is allowing for richer gradations of texture. For the most part that aspect of color has little appeal for diCorcia. Texture can obscure meaning and redirect emotion. Instead, he shoots with often-stunning precision. Such clarity, in his hands, can verge on accusation (the plastic covering part of that hamburger could be a shroud).

Such preciseness of detail helps diCorcia make the surreal seem normal. You have to look extra hard to notice the frequent oddity in his pictures. Doesn't everyone on the subway carry a goldfish ("Igor") ? Why shouldn't a woman taking a bath keep a sock on ("New Haven") ?

Yet you don't have to look hard to sense the oddity even in ostensibly normal images. DiCorcia's best-known early picture, "Mario, " shows his brother in profile looking into a refrigerator. What could be more ordinary? Yet diCorcia has lit it so that Mario could be staring into a sepulchre, or Ali Baba's cave. Or there's the way he manages to make the lavishly decorated Christmas tree and wrapped presents (wrapped presence?) in "Hartford, " from 1978, seem creepy in the extreme.

This supernatural sense is a corollary of enclosure. With space cut off, everything allowed within the frame assumes a greater weight of meaning. Again and again, profane content somehow seems to take on a sacred aspect.

The emblematic diCorcia image -- not just self-contained, but otherworldly in its mundaneness -- may be another "Hartford," from 1979. It's part of his series "A Storybook Life, " comprising 76 pictures taken from throughout his career and sequenced purely in terms of content and form, rather than date, subject, or location. (They're also printed smaller than the rest of the show, 16 inches by 20 inches. This makes sense as a way to distinguish "A Storybook Life" from the other series. But one can't help but regret the shrinkage. DiCorcia's images are so precise and detailed -- so strong -- they're at their best big.)

A man wearing a tie and white dress shirt stares out an open window. A dusk sky is visible in the upper corner of the picture, above neighboring rooftops. Yet the man looks straight ahead, ignoring the beautiful twilight. We ignore it, too, drawn to the room's honeyed glow. In his early work especially, diCorcia plays with artificial light sources: flashbulbs, televisions, even that light inside the family refrigerator. Here it's a table lamp that transforms the room and transfixes our gaze. It's almost as if diCorcia were taunting the viewer. Look beyond the frame? You won't even look outside this room.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

'Related'

Philip-Lorca diCorcia

At: the Institute of Contemporary Art, through Sept. 3. 617-478-3100 , icaboston.org

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