Richard Kern on Philip Lorca-diCorcia’s ‘Hustlers’


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.

It seems that once the idea has been born the work involved is an evolution.  Where did the idea come from and what is DiCorcias personal connection to the hustlers series?

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.

Did DiCorcia in a way feel like he was saving his subjects by paying their fee but not for illegal activity.  The vivid portraits that were created in this series are both intriguing and quite sad.  The ‘fee’ puts an added highlight on the despair of the young rent buys but is this merely a further exploit of these vulnerable individuals?

I think it’s clear from the images that DiCorcia had willing subjects who were happy to pose for the same fee as carrying out sexual acts.  In the scheme of things posing must have seemed a lot easier at the time but what about now?  Where are these boys currently in their lives?  Is the Hustlers series a constant reminder of a time they were less fortunate?  Are they able to move on from this once their history has been made public for all to see?  Such issues are more acceptable in the name of art.

My personal view is that the subjects are no more being exploited than the photographer taking the photographs.  If we, the viewer, weren’t made aware of how some people have to live their lives than how can we ever empathise with them or try to change their outlook?  These important works are invaluable in recording history and the rent boys that took part are both brave and intuitive.  From an artistic point of view the photographs are beautifully composed and lit to really show the personalities emitting from the people in them.  Thanks to DiCorsia we are given a glimpse into a world that we otherwise wouldn’t see.

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.  DiCorcia must have found it amusing that a portion of his grant was being used to pay prostitutes.

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



Exercise: Conversation recall


  • Record a real conversation with a friend. (It’s up to you whether you ask permission or not!)
  • Before listening to the recording, write your account of both sides of the conversation.
  • Then listen to the recording and make note of the discrepancies. Perhaps there are unfinished sentences, stammers, pauses, miscommunications etc.
  • Reflect upon the believability of re-enacted narratives and how this can be applied to constructed photography.
  • What do you learn from the conversation recording process and how can you transfer what you learned into making pictures?


I recorded a conversation with my sister and started with a discussion about life before I was born.  She is nine years older than me and remembers a lot of our family history so I thought it would be a challenge to remember the details of the conversation.  She didn’t know I was recording at the time.

The Recall

Although I recalled a lot of information about the conversation I was was surprised at the extent to which I had misinterpreted what was actually said.   I’ve always prided myself on being a listener and I have the patience to do so but I have made assumptions about where the conversation was going and dismissed the rest of key sentences.  I didn’t realise I did this and I wonder if it’s frustrating to my sister or even if she notices?

My sister tends to interrupt my conversational flow quite often and then apologies for it however, I then divert my thoughts to what she interrupted with.  This results in lots of unfinished sentences.

Applying to photography

On reflection this exercise reminded me of ‘recreating a childhood memory’.  This is something I have carried out recently with my sister.  My account of the memory was an incident we had whilst cycling a four person cart around a camp site.  I remembered it as a red cart, just the two of us cycling and crashing into bins.  I would have been very young at the time maybe around five years old.  My sister being fourteen at the time has a much more reliable memory.  She said it was a green cart and we were cycling with our two brothers.  Also it wasn’t bins we crashed into, it was an ice cream van!


Re-enacted narratives are only as accurate as the memory will allow.  Be carrying out this exercise I have learnt that the mind is not the most reliable source when trying to recall details from years past.

If I was to create a re-enacted narrative in the future I would research the memory to a greater extent by obtaining the recollections of those present and also to draw out more details.  In my childhood memory, the incident is isolated and I can’t recall any other people in the scene but we were at a holiday camp and it must have been full of people.  What were their reactions?  These are the important details that add to the narrative that I need to find out.

The Archive


Look at the work Nicky Bird carried out in the project ‘Question for sellers’.

  • Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?
  • Where does their meaning derive from?
  • When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?


Nicky Bird had an interest in old family photographs and was shocked to see many can be found for sale on Ebay for very little money.  Why shocked?  We all hold our family photograph albums so very dear as a record of our heritage for future generations so why are they being sold off for pennies?  It may be that those families no longer exist or a house clearance has uncovered antique photographs.  Whatever the reason old photographs are easily attainable without a great deal of effort.

In the guise of research I carried out my own search for old photographs for sale on Ebay and there were lots to chose from.  Bird had spoken about photographs being priced as low as 99p back in 2002 and fifteen years on the prices haven’t changed too much.  There are auctions starting at £65 for an album or £95 for a job lot but it isn’t necessary to spend this much money.

“Nicky Bird makes work using material from the past, with the aim of examining the contemporary relevance of found photographs. Question for Seller is fuelled by her interest in family photographs that appear on eBay. The artist buys photographs no-one else bids for, with the connotation that they are unwanted, and therefore with no significant value. She approaches the seller with the question: How did you come across the photos and what, if anything, do you know about them? Their replies, however brief, are as important as the photographs they are selling, sometimes alluding to a part of a discarded family history, or the everyday, where personal photographs have long since lost their original meaning.  On the 1st of February 2007, Bird’s one-off physical ‘family album’ – which combined original photographs and eBay sellers’ statements – was valued similarly, auctioned off on eBay for £205.”

Seesaw magazine, 2007

Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?

How can it not?  We’re talking about unwanted photographs being re-contextualised and exhibited in a gallery.  Their status has rocketed compared to where they were.  It reminds of these singing competitions you see on television where people, who can sing very well, go from nobody to an international star over night.

Nicky Bird has come along and rescued these old photographs that no one cares about any longer and given them a purpose.  We may not know who the people in the portraits are but we know they were part of a family once and were valued.  Selling the photographs on ebay is dramatically decreasing their sentimental value and the reason the price is so low on them is they have ceased to hold sentiment.  Repurposing has given them a new lease of life so yes, I think their status has been elevated.

Where does their meaning derive from?

What were once visual narratives of family life and history, these photographs original meanings have been lost over time.  With the help of Nicky Bird the photographs have a new meaning and we can draw this from their narrative counterpart ‘questions for sellers’.  New meaning has been derived from the sellers answers and give us some context behind the image in most cases.

One such example is a collection of portraits of Afro American men and women which on the face of it seem to indicate some sort of historical archive for the family album showing different family members.

nicky bird

The sellers description leads to a much more sinister narrative explaining that they were originally his friends mothers photographs although he didn’t know who the people in the photographs were.  He went on to explain that the lady in question ‘wasn’t a saint’ and was ‘active in the community’ of an army town.  Suddenly the meaning of these photographs changes given a little knowledge and then we draw the blanks.

When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?

There are plenty examples of a seemingly worthless items drastically increasing in value when it is declared ‘art’.  In 2011, Andreas Gursky’s photograph Rhein II sold at auction for a staggering $4.3 million.


Every budding photographer in the world will have images like Rhein II in their early collection only later to discover whilst gaining composition knowledge that this defies the rule of thirds.  So how can this bland and unbalanced photograph be worth so much money?

Ken Rockwell writes,

It is valuable because it is art, not just a photo.

Rules are worthless. If he was just a photographer instead of an artist, he would have been crippled by the nonexistent “rule of thirds” myth, and put the horizon someplace else. In his case, the horizon slams right through the middle, which adds to the power by giving a sense of unease. Our minds ask “what’s up with this? This is so barren and empty; where is this place?”

So we know that being an artist and producing art via a photographic medium can increase the value of the photograph.

In Nicky Birds case, the sale of her ‘family album’ from the series ‘question for seller’ must have been very disappointing.  Although the monetary cost of the photographs was lower than the final auction sale price of £205, this isn’t a large sum of money.  Although the value increased due to its ‘art’ status the final value was no compensation for the extent of the work involved.  For all the hard work, years of collecting and hours spend repurposing and exhibiting a higher value should have been placed on this particular art.  When all is said and done, art is worth, what someone is willing to pay.


Gone are the days when photography was about taking photographs as Nicky Bird demonstrates you don’t need to use a camera to make a statement using a photographic medium.

The art side of photography is one thats difficult to decipher and doesn’t come naturally to me.  I can understand and appreciate other peoples work although the ideas aren’t so forthcoming.  The more I learn the more I think about ideas but I’m yet to find ‘the one’.

Resources (Accessed 26/08/17) (Accessed 26/08/17) (Accessed 26/08/17) (Accessed 26/08/17) (Accessed 26/08/17)


Gregory Crewdson

Look up the work of Gregory Crewdson online.

Watch this YouTube video about Gregory Crewdson and his work and consider the questions below. [accessed 24/02/14]

• Do you think there is more to this work than aesthetic beauty?
Gregory Crewdson’s work looks stunning.  The photographs he produces are so striking they’re difficult to look away from.  I want to look for every clue and don’t mind spending time doing so.  The depth of colours really emphasise the aesthetics in addition to directional lighting.

Part of the beauty within these images invokes some deep visceral meanings  coming from Crewdson.

gregory crewdson boy hand in dreainFig 1. Untitled – Boy with hand in drain (2001–2002)

In the documentary film ‘Gregory Crewdson’s Photography Capturing a Movie Frame’ by Ben Shapiro, Crewdson talks about the above image and goes into detail about his inspiration and where the idea came from.  As a boy he was always thinking about what is down there?  What lies beyond what we can’t see?  He has his own questions and poses them to his audience through his photographs.

• Do you think Crewdson succeeds in making his work ‘psychological’? What does this mean?

Crewdsons photographs rely on your own imagination  to think about whats happening, obtain the clues and play the scenario over in your own mind.  The possibilities are limitless.  Crewdson is giving us clues about his own psychological state of mind whilst the story relies on your own psyche to draw the blanks.

The images are psychological in the same sense of a cinematic psychological thriller.  They really draw on the emotions and experiences of both the photographer and the viewer.  You never quite know for sure whats going on but you can come to your own conclusions.

gregory crewdson car in streetFig 2. Untitled (north by northwest) (2004)

This image was spoke about at length in the documentary.  It looks like a pinnacle scene in a psychological thriller.  Why does the street look deserted?  Where are all the people?  Why has the car stopped in the middle of the street?  Where is the driver?  They have clearly left the car, the drivers door is open.  Why is the passenger still in the car on her own?  Why isn’t she getting out?  Is she disturbed by the scene?  The fog is adding to the suspense.

All this questions are making me think about what’s happened here?  Its playing with my mind.  I’m searching for more clues hoping all will become clear.

• What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not?

I read recently that there are two types of photographer, the ones who take nice photos and those who tell stories.  I used to just want to take nice photographs and they were admired by everyone who knew me.  I then started taking photographs to include more clues as to the story I’m trying to tell and the compliments stopped coming from friends and family, they started coming from professional photographers and photography academics.

I don’t think there is anything wrong in wanting to produce beautiful photographs.  Lets face it, it what everyone wants.  If you can tell a story at the same time then you’ve just moved into the realms of being an ‘artist’.

Beautiful photographs are always a pleasure to view regardless of their intention.  When I photograph newborn babies the main brief is to make that baby look as cute as possible.  My clients already know all the other details about the baby, they don’t want to put clue in the photograph.  Theres nothing wrong with that and they are fit for purpose.  When taking photographs you always have to consider why your taking that photograph.  Is it to look good or to document something?  Regardless of the purpose its possible to make the photograph beautiful in the process.


Fig 1.  Crewdson, G. (2001-2002) Untitled – Boy with hand in drain. At (Accessed 13/08/17).

Fig 2. Crewdson, G. (2001-2002) Untitled (north by northwest). At (Accessed 13/08/17).

Setting the Scene

Tableau vivant (plural: tableaux vivants), French for ‘living picture’, is a style of artistic presentation, often shortened to simply tableau. It most often describes a group of suitably costumed actors, carefully posed and often theatrically lit.

mise-en-scène; this literally means ‘to put in the scene’ and refers to the process of setting a scene or a stage for a story to be enacted upon.

Watch this famous scene from Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese in 1990: [accessed 24/02/14]

• What does this scene tell you about the main character?

• How does it do this? List the ‘clues’.

The main character is a very influential man and is well known by those around him.  He has lots of connections and commands special treatment.  He is a wealthy man who rewards those that help him.  He is Good looking and charming.  He is respected and liked.  He lies easily.  He’s smarter and a quick thinker.  He enjoys nice things and good entertainment.  He is illusive and mysterious.

The clues that paint set the scene are:

  • He doesn’t wait in line like all the other customers, he has his own entrance.  The staff at the restaurant all know him and either have a part to play in his wellbeing or ‘look the other way’.  He’s never challenged about his presence in the kitchen despite a long walk through domestic areas.
  • He hands out $20 dollar bills to people who look after him.  This is for things like, looking after  his car, opening doors, getting him a table etc.
  • On entry to the restaurant he is greeted by the owner/manager who has a table setup at the front immediately.
  • He has an attractive woman on his arm who is bewildered by his lifestyle.
  • The group of gentlemen at the table next to him all greet him by his name.
  • The men on the next table have sent drinks to his table.
  • His ‘lady’ questions how he can afford to give out $20 bills like sweets and asks ‘what do you do?’.  He says he works in construction.  When this is challenged he has a story ready.
  • He wears nice clothes, looks good and drives a very nice car.  His date couldn’t believe he would trust someone to look after it.
  • The club is dark, the walls covered in red, with minimal lighting.  Easy to slip in and out of.


Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs

In Sophie Howarth’s, Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs (2005, London: Tate Publishing), I read the chapter of an Essay by Liz Jobey of Diane Arbus’, A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing.

Jobey’s initial approach is to draw parallels between Arbus’ work and the work of other artist using different mediums, for instance, Raymond Carvers stories of ordinary people with flawed fates.  Using this idea as a spring board Jobey found her introduction into a comprehensive analysis of an assuming ill fated family.

Using French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s base model for the Deconstruction of a photograph: Essentially, in order to fully comprehend how something has been made, you have to take it apart before you can put it back together; Jobey sets about doing exactly that.

Whilst reading the essay the first thing that strikes me is how accurately Roland Barthes use of semiotics come across from beginning to end although not in the clinical way I approach things.

Jobey begins by questioning the motives of the subjects ‘why did they agree to be photographed?’, ‘Will they fight, separate, divorce, marry other people?’, ‘Will they die an early death?’.  A lot of assumptions have been made purely based on the look of these people, however this is recognised as our natural reaction to judge people based their appearance.  I like how Jobey is questioning the viewers reaction to the photograph taking us out of the realms of what sits within the frame.

Following this is a description of the photograph (signifier) itself ‘the leopard skin coat, the leatherette handbag, the camera case, her wedding ring’ etc.  Different viewers will pick out different things from the photograph and Jobey certainly mentioned things that I didn’t see.  She mentions the boy grabbing his crotch and the mum mimicking this behaviour with the baby.  These parallels are looking deeper into the photograph than a first glance.

Jobey then continues to interpret what she sees in the photograph, a down trodden family with problems who may not even be together for much longer.  A woman who’s past her sell by date and a man who’s gripped with anxiety (Signified).  None of this may be true however, it’s what Jobey interprets the image as signifying.

Jobey goes on to work her way through Roland Barthes theories of semiotics in photography using Denotation, connotation, punctum, stadium and intertexuality describing the elements of the photograph, theorising on what they mean and making assumptions on cultural, political and social standings.  Also drawing on her own experiences to interpret the photograph in the way she has leads me to believe she is of quite a negative mind, assuming that alls not well and the people in the photograph are poor and living difficult lives.  The way we see things is dictated by our own culture and background and by the experiences we have throughout our lives.


Wells, L. (2015) Photography A critical Introduction. London: Routledge.


Deconstruction 2

Having reached the end of my ‘Deconstruction’ studies I can can now break down the elements even further.


The French Philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘Deconstruction’ and beleived language to be polysemous.  He thought that to understand how something is made, you have to take it apart before putting it back together.

In photography language the tools for deconstruction were produced by Roland Barthes, through his study of semiotics.  In this study of signs of language that, Barthes provied us with the terms and tools that can be helpful in interpreting photos.

Using the above advert as a focus point, I have deconstructed it as follows:


Signifiers (whats in the photo)

A baby dressed in pink in a ballerina pose looking towards the sky.

An adult ballerina mimicking the pose.

A baby’s nursery.

A blue teddy bear.

A blue footstool.

Product images with nutrition information.

Signified (what it means)

A healthy start in life provided by Aptamil with aspirations of becoming a ballerina.  The baby is pointing to the milk with her toes suggesting its what she wants.  She is also looking and pointing towards the sky meaning the sky’s the limit with this formula.

Aptamil helps the baby become a professional ballerina who’s healthy, fit and happy.

A milky coloured nursery full of milky dreams.

The blue bear placed next to the cot reiterates this milk is also for boys.  The blue footstool is sending the male message across whilst offering support to a vulnerable new walker.

Its a healthy formula and full of all those important nutrients.

Denotation (objective translation)

A baby of standing age in a ballerina pose with an adult ballerina in the background. Both situated in a baby’s nursery with baby formula shown and text saying ‘Their future starts today’.

Connotation (subjective interpretation)

If the baby drinks this formula she can be healthy and strong enough to fulfil her dreams.

Punctum (disrupting elements)

The UK Law prohibits advertising and promotion of infant formula only (marketed for use from birth). Follow-on formula (marketed for use from 6 months of age) and milks for older babies can be advertised and promoted – BUT this must not cross-promote infant formula through similar branding or by it not being obvious the product is for older babies.

This advert states that breast milk is best for your baby, in contrast some of the products made by Aptimil.

Stadium (cultural, political and social meaning)

This is a baby who lives in a nice home and is cared for.  She has nice furnishings in her room which suggests that the consumers of Aptamil formula are working/middle class families.  The advert also suggests this baby was breast fed up to six months old in line with the governments efforts to promote the benefits of breastfeeding.  The furnishings look quite neutral but predominantly British or of a Western Culture.  We can see beyond this frame and imagine the family of this baby with a professional father and caring mother.

Intertexuality (individual perception)

Memories and experiences of my own upbringing and bringing up my own children will will fill in all the gaps in this advertisement.  I can picture mum and baby going to baby yoga classes and being strapped into the latest car seat of the latest mpv to get them there.  The baby smells of Johnsons baby powder and her clothes all smell of it too.  All these things from my own experiences filling in the gaps of the story even though they’re not present.