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Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture people in candid moments. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference.

Head #10

Philip-Lorca diCorcia
(born 1953)

2002. Chromogenic print, 48 x 60 inches

Philip-Lorca diCorcia took his camera to public places—in this case, New York City’s bustling Times Square—to capture candid photographs of strangers. He affixed a powerful strobe light to scaffolding and used a radio signal to activate the strobe, releasing the shutter of his camera in time with its flash. In doing so, he captured unwitting pedestrians in a burst of light from more than 20 feet away. Since diCorcia worked in broad daylight, his subjects did not notice the strobe’s flash. The person caught within its light is highlighted in great detail, while the surrounding crowd recedes into the background. In describing his process, diCorcia said: “I was investigating things: the nature of chance, the possibility that you can make work that is empathetic without actually even meeting the people.”1 The artist pursued this project over the course of two years, taking more than 4,000 photographs, of which he selected only 17 to include in the series.

When Art Infringes on Privacy…or Privacy Infringes on Art

In 2006, the Heads series became the center of a debate between free speech advocates and those concerned with protecting an individual’s right to privacy. One of diCorcia’s subjects sued the artist and his gallery for exhibiting, publishing, and profiting from his picture, arguing that it was taken without his permission and therefore violated his right to privacy (and his religious beliefs). DiCorcia countered 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.”2 The artist ultimately won the case.

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 judge who presided over diCorcia’s case touched upon the complexity 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.”3

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, quoted in "Exposed: Philip-Lorca DiCorcia," Tate Modern, September 14, 2010.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, quoted in Philip Gefter, “The Theater of the Street, the Subject of the Photograph,” New York Times, March 19, 2006.
State Supreme Court Justice Judith Gische, 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 person or thing in a work of art.

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 mechanical device for controlling the aperture, or opening, in a camera through which light passes to the film or plate. By opening and closing for different amounts of time, the shutter determines the length of the photographic exposure.

The way a figure is positioned.

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

A genre of photography that aims to objectively chronicle a subject or event.

The area of an artwork that appears farthest away from the viewer; also, the area against which a figure or scene is placed.

All the World’s (Un)staged?
DiCorcia is known for making work that challenges assumptions about the authenticity of documentary, snapshot, and street photography. His photographs are often the result of staged situations crafted to look unstaged. He believes that even when people are not intentionally posing for the camera, they often “present themselves as clichés of what they should be”4 when they are out in public.