IMPACT | Philip Lorca diCorcia: Head On
By Ashley Yu
On February 6, 2006, the New York Supreme Court ruled in favour of the defendants Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Pace/MacGill Gallery, dismissing the claims of the plaintiff, Erno Nussenzweig. This pivotal lawsuit began in 2005, when Nussenzweig discovered that diCorcia, the internationally renowned photographer, exhibited and sold images of his likeness without his consent, as part of diCorcia’s 2001 series, Heads, at the Pace/MacGill Gallery. As an Orthodox Hasidic Jew, diCorcia’s reproduction of Nussenzweig’s image, including those printed in the exhibition catalogues taken by the visitors, were violations of his deeply held religious beliefs, and in legal terms, a violation of the Civil Rights Law and New York State Privacy laws. The lawsuit requested the halt of all sales and publications of the specific image, as well as over $1 million in compensation.
DiCorcia’s defense stood by the fact that the Nussenzweig’s photograph was “art” and therefore exempt from such accusations, since “art” is protected as free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Of the 10 photographs of Nussenzweig, Pace sold all limited edition prints, which were priced between $20,000 and $30,000 a piece. Now, is this image artistic expression or commercial exploitation? The dilemma, thus, revolved on the varying subjective legal definitions of what may or may not be “art”; and Nussenzweig’s constitutional right to practice his religion versus diCorcia’s freedom of speech--the First Amendment has come in contradiction with itself.
Though diCorcia walked away unscathed, this lawsuit remains a touchstone for the discourse on the ethics of street photography and the layman’s perception towards the traditional use of public spaces, whether it be a free-for-all for artistic expression or an invasion of privacy. What then should we make of a society in which imagery and information is as free-flowing as water? What happens now as our world grows into a surveillance state and our faces, taken as we are strolling down the street, is captured infinitely.
Andrea Blanch: First, I have to tell you that I love your work. I truly do, and I really loved the Thousand Polaroids you did. The presentation of your exhibition at the Zwirner Gallery just blew my mind when I saw it, and I’ve never seen anything like that since.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: It was David Zwirner that decided on the presentation of that exhibition. It was his conception to do it in this big spiral. I don’t really think about that kind of thing. I had done the book, A Thousand Polaroids, and it’s still in a box somewhere. Zwirner figured out how to take advantage of all that square footage in his space. I know he’s having a war between him and Larry Gagosian or something like that, but he really knows what he’s doing. You can’t put all one thousand Polaroids in a row, unless they built more walls.
Andrea: I was also interested to hear that Jan Groover was your mentor. I loved her work.
Philip: Yes, God bless her soul. Jan and her husband, Bruce Boice, moved to Paris. And then, she died. I don’t know if he’s still alive.
Andrea: That I don’t know either. I was very sad to hear that she died so soon. What did you get from that experience?
Philip: I was a kid. She made me grow up quite a bit, even though I didn’t do anything like what she did. I was in Hartford, Connecticut, where I was born. I started to take things seriously and decided to go to the art school there. Jan was teaching there—her and Bruce—but I didn’t really want to be there. I think I stayed for two years before I left for Boston. Jan’s technical advice was “read the box.”
Andrea: [laughs] I like that. Let’s go on to your series Heads, where you mounted a strobe light on scaffolding in Times Square 20 years ago. Why do you choose to make street photography look more like theater?
Philip: I didn’t really choose it, per se. It was just the way things happened. I’m always trying to figure out some methodology that allows for things that you don’t expect. That was an easy one.
Andrea: Why do you think that hiding strobe light would give you the effect that you wanted?
Philip: The strobe light made full daylight into nighttime. Once the strobe goes off, everything’s different. It doesn’t look the same. It’s not what you see.
Andrea: Do you think that you could do that Times Square now?
Philip: No. I had to get permits back then. I had this woman who was working for me, and she would go to the office and get the permit. They never even asked me for it, but there was so much construction in Times Square back then. That’s why there was all this scaffolding where I could mount my lights.
Andrea: How long did it take for you to finish that project?
Philip: Not long—a year and a half. I estimated that there were around 3,000 people that I photographed.
Andrea: What inspired you to pursue the Heads series in the first place?
Philip: I really don’t know. That was a long time ago. I’ve always dealt with people and portraiture. During the time of Rudy Giuliani [mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001], Times Square began to transform from this seedy, much more interesting place to this corporate Disney World. That’s pretty much what happened. It was, to some degree, my reaction to that.
Andrea: You’ve said that you captured approximately 3,000 images for Heads.
Philip: Yes, if I count every single frame on my camera.
Andrea: And you exhibited 17 images. What was the selection process like? It sounds like it was what struck your eye in a moment.
Philip: Yeah, they just stood out more.
Andrea: Your editing must be something else. Now, street photography is often perceived as capturing a moment of truth. How true do you think that is?
Philip: I never really believed in it. That was part of the point of my work: You can’t tell anything from looking at a picture of a person. The subjects fit into these clichés, but that’s not necessarily true. That’s my point.
Andrea: Would you say photography is a reliable representation of reality?
Philip: No. I think that’s the whole post-modernist spiel, of which I suppose I’m part of. That type of photography doesn’t reflect reality. It reflects perceptions and the artist’s own intention. The only person I’ve ever dealt with that had anything close to do with reality was Garry Winogrand.
Andrea: Would you say your pictures are more of a construct?
Philip: Definitely. I wish it wasn’t that way because it makes it seem like it’s all just “make it up at will,” but it’s not so easy.
Andrea: Your case with Nussenzweig is one of the most prominent legal cases for street photographers. What do you think would have happened, to you personally and to the wider art world, if you lost the Nussenzweig case?
Philip: Ah, I wish I had my lawyer’s argument here with me. You know, Nussenzweig didn’t even see it. Someone told him about it years after my exhibition. The reason I won the case was because of the statute of limitations. My lawyer, who worked pro bono, tried to tell me not to make a big argument. He said, “Let me do all of the talking.” The first time I went to court, there was a group of Hasidic people inside the court and in the hallways. I walked in there, and they were all saying, “That’s him. That’s him!” I had no idea it was such a big deal. I was with Pace/MacGill at that time, and Peter [MacGill] got me this lawyer, who now lives in Italy. The lawyer told me, “Don’t try to make it more than it is.” I had to go to another court all the way in Albany. Then, they basically threw it out. I don’t think I really won anything.
Andrea: Well, certainly if you had lost, it would have been horrifying.
Philip: That was the lawyer’s argument basically—that it would have been bad for me. Nussenzweig claimed all kinds of things against me: I was part of a conspiracy of thousands of photographers who were going to get away with murder if I was allowed to do what I did. It was obviously untrue. They lost their case. I didn’t win it.
Andrea: Did you meet him or see him?
Philip: Yes. He didn’t speak the whole time.
Andrea: Would you say the case changed the way you approached subjects on the street since then?
Philip: I can’t say one way or another. I suppose I’d say no. But the street, and the legality of working on the street as a photographer, is much different now than it was then.
Andrea: In your legal case, it appears like it was freedom of expression versus freedom of religion.
Philip: Nussenzweig’s people said that I violated his religious rights because iconography is banned in their religion. But that is also how they lost. Come on, it’s ridiculous. You can find representations of these hyper-religious figures everywhere. They have posters of them—big posters and billboards on the highway. I go to the Catskills quite often, and there are a million Hasidic camps up there. They all venerate somebody.
For more of this interview, check out the feature in our previous issue entitled “IMPACT” here.