Richard Kern on Philip Lorca-diCorcia's 'Hustlers'

This is the first installment of Art Gallery, a regular column that mimics an art exhibition and displays work by current and/or under-appreciated artists. This week celebrated photographer Richard Kern writes about government-funded photographs of...

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Nov 13 2013, 4:30pm

All photographs courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London

To find subjects for his series Hustlers, Philip-Lorca diCorcia drove around Hollywood between 1990 and 1992 looking for male prostitutes. Although many of the photos look perfectly timed, off-the-hip candid photos of street hustlers, diCorcia pre-selected the locations and did lighting tests with an assistant before searching for a subject to put in each setting.

DiCorcia approached his subjects in LA’s “Boystown,” an area of West Hollywood where, in the 80s and 90s, a small fee would buy time with available young rent boys found hanging out on Santa Monica Boulevard. Instead of paying them for sex, he paid them to pose for a photo. The men he found came to LA from all OVER the country for a glamorous new life that they believed could be found in Hollywood. The titles of the photos included the subject’s name, age, hometown and the fee exchanged.

This series was funded by a $45,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant that was awarded to diCorcia in 1989. This was during a time when the government agency was under fire from religious groups that believed the NEA was funding art that embraced controversial gay, religious, political, or obscene content.

Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ (a photo of a crucifix in a glass of piss), Robert Mapplethrope’s photos of naked black men, and Karen Finley’s performances in which she covered her naked body with chocolate to illustrate that women were “treated like shit” are just a few examples of the government funded artistic pursuits that made Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club furious. In this environment, DiCorcia must have found it amusing that a portion of his grant was being used to pay prostitutes. 

These photos were taken at a time when photography was beginning to reemerge into the art world as fine art (Man Ray, Lee Miller and others did big art with cameras in the 20s), because artists like diCorcia, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Jeff Wall started using it as a means of expression that distorted the medium’s traditional journalistic role.

Because the Hustler photographs were staged, they became part of an academic debate on photography’s role as a reliable depiction of reality. In the late 90s, DiCorcia responded to this debate by placing an “X” on a sidewalk in NYC, lighting the area with hidden portable strobes, and setting his camera up on a tripod with a long lens attached. For two years, he worked every day photographing people as they passed over the X. The results were 17 incredible portraits that became the series Heads and an invasion of privacy lawsuit that went through three appeals before diCorcia won. One of the 17 subjects, who saw his face being used to promote the exhibition, believed it was illegal for diCorcia to profit from his image.

Twenty years later, the Hustler series remains an honest depiction of the loneliness and individuality of young men in Hollywood who sold their time to provide pleasure. Who would have thought that $20 to $50 spent so many years ago would still be providing intellectual pleasure today?

Philip Lorca-diCorcia's Hustlers was recently released by Steidl

Art Gallery is a regular column that mimics an art exhibition and displays work by current and/or under-appreciated artists with commentary provided by celebrated photographer Richard Kern.

Marilyn, 28 years old, Las Vegas, Nevada, $30

Chris, 28 years old, Los Angeles, California, $30

Eddie Anderson, 21 years old, Houston, Texas, $20

Gerald Hughes (a.k.a. Savage Fantasy), about 25 years old, Southern California, $50

Major Tom, 20 years old, Kansas City, Kansas, $20

Mike Vincetti, 24 years old, New York, New York, $30

Mike, 26 years old, $40

Ralph Smith, 21 years old, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, $25

Roy, 'in his 20s', Los Angeles, California, $50

Tim Morgan Jr., 21 years old, Los Angeles, California, $25 / Joe Egure, 18 years old, Los Angeles, California, $25

Tim, 27 years old, Orange County, California, $30

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