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Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture candid images of people. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Head #10

Philip-Lorca diCorcia
(born 1953)

2002. Chromogenic print, 48 x 60 inches

To create his Heads series, diCorcia rigged a powerful strobe light to a scaffold high above the street in New York’s Times Square. He activated the strobe by radio signal and captured unwitting pedestrians in a flash of light from over 20 feet away. Remarkably, the strobe was imperceptible to his subjects since the photographs were taken in broad daylight. Using this technique, the figures appear to emerge from inky darkness, spotlighted and haloed and as if there was almost no distance between the camera and the subject. Over the course of two years diCorcia took more than 4,000 of these photographs, though he chose only 17 for the series.

Controversy: Free Speech vs. Privacy Rights

DiCorcia’s Heads series was at the center of a debate between free speech advocates and those concerned with protecting an individual’s right to privacy. In 2006, one of diCorcia’s subjects sued the artist and his gallery for exhibiting, publishing, and profiting from his likeness, which was taken without permission. While critics claim that the project violated his subjects’ right to privacy, diCorcia explained that he did not seek consent because, “There is no way the images could have been made with the knowledge and cooperation of the subjects.”

Free speech advocates argue that street photography is an established form of artistic expression and that the freedom to photograph in public is protected under the first amendment to the United States Constitution. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the presiding judge suggested the complex nature of this issue, stating, “Even while recognizing art as exempt from the reach of New York’s privacy laws, the problem of sorting out what may or may not legally be art remains a difficult one.”1 The debate rages on.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, quoted in Philip Gefter, “The Theater of the Street, the Subject of the Photograph,” New York Times, March 19, 2006.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, quoted in Tim Griffin, “Private Eye: Photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia Takes the People of Times Square as his Subject,” Time Out New York, September 6–13, 2001, 113.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

Fast bursts of intermittent light used to illuminate moving subjects.

A type of photography that captures subjects in candid moments in public places.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

All the World’s (Un)staged?
DiCorcia is a photographer who challenges assumptions about the truthfulness of documentary, snapshot, and street photography. His photographs are often the result of staged situations meant to look unstaged. He believes that even unposed, people often “present themselves as clichés of what they should be.”2