Writing on photography

Review: Phillip-Lorca diCorcia’s East of Eden at David Zwirner

‘I’ve never read East of Eden, but I’ve seen the movie’ diCorcia admits right at the start of the introductory talk to his show of the same name, his first in London for two years. The title is a reference to the Book of Genesis it turns out, rather than John Steinbeck’s novel (which itself contains many biblical parallels). However viewing these photographs with their themes of American decline, and the fact that the span of the work has coincided with the worst economic dip since the great depression, comparisons between diCorcia and Steinbeck are probably inevitable.

Started in 2008, diCorcia’s East of Eden was conceived as a response to the situation in the United States at the time, particularly the second term of the Bush administration and what diCorcia termed his ‘loss of faith’. The result is a series of photographs that directly or incidentally reference the events of Genesis, and specifically the fall of man. Many are the sort of  staged photographs diCorcia is well known for. In one a gay couple hug, or perhaps fight with each other, while a naked, pregnant woman looks on, the actors representing Cain, Able and their mother Eve. In another diCorcia is shown throwing a dart which is poised to hit his own son, a visual metaphor for the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Some of the photographs on show are however quite unlike diCorcia’s past work though, in the sense that they are more fluid, almost accidential. Whereas his work has always had the sense of being the carefully concieved end product of a photographer with a very clear vision, many of these feel as if diCorcia could have stumbled across his subject matter almost by accident. Equally they are not so people orientated as his previous bodies of work. There are a number of large landscapes for example, a genre I’m not aware of him having previously worked in at all.  One shows a fire ravaged mountainside. Blackened trees throng a single green one in the distance, while a man on horseback rides in from the bottom left, a stunning metaphor of the American west, but one of potential growth and renewal or of an already terminal decline?

The west has always been in effect the American Eden, a place that embodied both the resources of this promised land, and the personal freedom necessary to exploit it. But diCorcia’s west looks tired and worn out, and is studded with scenes of biblical disaster, from forest fires and hurricanes to hints of economic collapse. Perhaps inevitably there is also the presence of 9/11, the ultimate loss of innocence, which only comes close to visibility in one image, a photograph of diCorcia’s mother-in-law in a hotel room overlooking an urban landscape, a tornado on the television echoing the single large tower in the distance.

It’s also tempting to read the work not as just being about an internal loss of innocence, but also about the loss of the assumed status of the United States as God’s chosen nation, a modern day tribe of Israel, encapsulated in those rather cringing phrases like ‘God bless America’. In the wake of two indecisive foreign wars and a series of massive natural disasters (or ‘acts of god’), the nation shown in these photographs finds itself cast out into the wilderness of an uncertainty about its purpose in the world. diCorcia’s photographs show an America which, if ever blessed by a partisan god, appears now to have been completely abandoned.

And yet for all these readings, the thing that lingered most with me was what seemed to be diCorcia’s own uncertainty about the work, evident in the way he spoke to the assembled press. At one point he described the project slightly dismissively as ‘a licence to make images’. At another stage in the talk while explaining his readings of the photographs he motioned towards a photograph of a gravestone almost crushed by a fallen tree and said ‘I could probably make something up connecting this with Genesis’. diCorcia’s work has always been tricky to categorise, mixing the candid and contrived, the subtle with the seemingly self-evident, but for once it feels rather as if even he isn’t sure he’s presenting to us. This just poses the unanswerable question of what we think matters more in art, the makers own interpretation of their work, or the audiences response to it. East of Eden is on at David Zwirner in Grafton Street until 16th November 2013.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is a lecturer in documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2019 he will be a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

  • David Zwirner will host a talk by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A, about the artist’s work, 19 October 2013, 11 AM, RSVP to +44 (0)203 538 3165.

Writing on photography