all photographs by PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA
interview by SABINE HELLER
All artwork images courtesy of PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA, David Zwirner, New York, and Sprüth Magers Berlin London
Whether shooting in a constructed environment or an urban jungle, PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA reinterprets longstanding American photographic tradition, leaving one with a welcome feeling of uneasiness.
Talking to the 59-year-old photographer, however, triggers no such discomfort. In this colorful conversation, diCorcia traces the 30-year evolution of his art, from the controlled observation of domestic scenarios to the highly cinematic exploration of artifice in Hustlers and Lucky Thirteen, his series on pole dancers.
SABINE HELLER — You’re known as PL. How did this come about?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I’ve been called PL since I was a child. It’s a good conversation starter — or stopper. People think that my last name is Lorca diCorcia, when in fact, my first name is Philip-Lorca.
SABINE HELLER — Where does your name come from?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — My mother named her children after poets. My older sister’s name is Auden. I was meant to be just Lorca. But my parents didn’t agree, so they gave me both Philip and Lorca — my father’s name was Philip.
SABINE HELLER — Do you remember your first conscious experience of your own imagination?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I don’t really know the difference between imagination and the subconscious. I’ve never really thought of myself as having an imagination. I think my work isn’t imagined; it pretty much arrives as an almost logical process. It’s not gathered from thin air, which is the way I think imagination works. I’ve always thought that, you know, your brain gets sprinkled with fairy dust and you end up with an idea that seems to come from outside of you, not from within you. I’m pretty sure that most of my ideas come from somewhere: a combination of inchoate being, — and observation.
SABINE HELLER — Mario 1978 is such a seminal work. I’m interested in your family, your relationships with your two brothers, Mario and Max.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — My mother had five children in six years, three boys and two girls. Then she walked out on us. My father brought us up. As so often happens when parents separate, we took sides. The girls sided with my mother, who didn’t live with us, and Mario and I sided with my father. Max sided with my sisters, probably because they were older and, I don’t know, maybe because he was gay, although I don’t think that really had anything to do with it. Max died from AIDS in 1989. Mario lives in Pittsburgh and works in architecture. I don’t really speak to him. The fact that I took his photograph in 1978 had more to do with observation. That photograph
was taken at my father’s house during my second year as a graduate student at Yale. I started to use members of my family in photographs mostly because they were accessible and malleable, not because I thought what I was saying was particularly apt about them.
SABINE HELLER — You began studying photography at the University of Hartford, right?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Well, I was wandering around without plans, having not even graduated from high school. It was the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I found myself in the midst of the whole socio-political situation
everybody mythologizes. There were hippies and counter-cultural anti-war movements. I got caught up in that and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The University of Hartford allowed me to take courses without a diploma because my father knew somebody there. I attended one semester and didn’t really like the academics, but they had an art school. I had no portfolio, no experience of photography, but they agreed to let me take some courses in the summer. That’s how I started in the art world.
SABINE HELLER — You had an important teacher there, didn’t you?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Yes, Jan Groover. But when I first got there I didn’t know she was important. She was very conceptual, and it informed my approach to photography
SABINE HELLER — So you began to think conceptually before you went to Yale.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Yes, in fact Yale was a jump backward. The program was very literal-minded in terms of what was appropriate. Walker Evans had resigned by the time I got there, and there was a two- or three-year search for his replacement, so there were three different department heads while I was there. They eventually settled on the man who is there still.
SABINE HELLER — You must have been at odds with the faculty, given its focus on a more traditional style of documentary photography.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — They really didn’t like what I did. I don’t think I was admitted as a fluke, but maybe because they were in the interim process of finding faculty. The people I had as teachers probably wouldn’t have let me in. But it did force me to reconsider what I did, and I don’t think it compromised my studies. It was challenging, but in a way that
I don’t think they intended it to be.
SABINE HELLER — After graduating, you took photos of people you knew, as well as doing some commercial photography.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Well, the term “commercial photography” almost sounds like you make money off of it. I worked for magazines. Actually, it was Leslie Simitch who enabled that process, because she worked at Magnum, and when people who came to town needed freelance assistants, she would recommend me. She knew editors at magazines. I didn’t have a portfolio. I had a box of prints if anybody asked, but I didn’t really seek out work. Eventually, through working, I met editors. They asked me to do things, from small images to larger ones, as they began to trust me. I guess I never really stopped, although I haven’t really done magazine work for a few years now.
SABINE HELLER — During that time, did you consider yourself an artist?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I was actually quite defensive about being a photographer, because once photography started being exhibited in galleries, there seemed to be a mad rush to distance fine art photographers from commercial ones. I always felt that that was not only a false distinction, but also one that was highly dependent on the kind of amnesia that exists in the art market. So I always called myself a photographer. I never really pretended that I was an artist, or called myself one.
SABINE HELLER — Eleven consisted of images originally shot for W magazine under the art direction of Dennis Freedman. Do you think that because it was shot under editorial auspices, it is, by definition, precluded from the realm of art?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — It seems much more real and valid to me to be making something with which you have freedom for a fashion magazine than it does to be putting it up on the walls of some white cube that’s going to deal it to a stockbroker. I don’t see the distinction as being a qualitative one. People’s methodology for making work is quite different, and this doesn’t preclude work done for hire from having real quality. That breakdown began a long time ago, and now the distinction is a really false one. Most artists don’t do just one thing, and a good many of them don’t do anything at all, they just hire somebody else to do it — so how it gets done really doesn’t matter.
SABINE HELLER — Tell me about going to Los Angeles in the early ’90s to shoot Hustlers — or do you prefer to call the series Hollywood?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — There was never really a title attached to it, because the first exhibition was at MoMA and they were worried about being sued for calling people prostitutes.
SABINE HELLER — What was your process in creating it?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — It was pretty simple. I would go to LA, rent a cheap motel room, and set up an image in it, using my camera, a tripod, and lights. An assistant would model for the image. I’d leave the camera and
my assistant and drive my rental car over to Santa Monica Boulevard. There was a stretch of about seven blocks where most of the hustlers worked. I would pull over and say, “Listen, I want to pay you to take your picture. That’s really all I want. No sex involved. I’ll pay you the same amount as if we had sex.” And even though most of them didn’t believe me, almost all of them said yes. I would take them back to the set up and put them in the same position I had put my assistant in, of which I had a Polaroid. Then I took their photograph. Sometimes the resulting photograph was exactly the same as the one I did with my assistant, but a lot of times it changed in the process.
SABINE HELLER — How did you get the National Endowment for the Arts to fund the work, given the conservative backlash of the era?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Well, for starters, I didn’t tell them what I was doing. They gave me the money based on an application and portfolio that didn’t include anything potentially incendiary. But yes, it was during the time when many people — Jesse Helms, especially — were angry about NEA money being used for the exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. So they asked the people who received grants that year to sign a document stating that the work would not be contrary to commonly held moral values, or whatever. I signed it and I got the money — and it was quite a lot of money for the time — some of which I used to pay the prostitutes. When the work was completed, I included in its titles their names, where they were from, their ages, and how much they were paid.
SABINE HELLER — What incredible irony — it’s as if the viewer also entered into a direct sexual transaction with the subject.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — What’s interesting is that these people are commodities, commodities in the city that turns everyone into a commodity — Hollywood. Part of the reason I chose male prostitutes is because males tend to take on roles. I can’t say I have extensive knowledge of female prostitutes, but they only seem to have the sexy bitch thing going on — that’s their role — whereas the males have the sailor, the lumberjack, the leather guy, and all that stuff.
SABINE HELLER — Your cinematic style is perfect for the series, given its particular focus on artifice.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Part of what people call cinematic style concerns the point of view of the camera. In my case, the camera almost never takes the point of view of a person observing the scene from his or her position. It’s never like I’m standing there with a camera to my eye.
SABINE HELLER — Given the impact of AIDS at the time, did you feel pressure for Hustlers to carry a social agenda?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I believe social agendas are the bitter pill that you sugar coat with your imagery. I don’t like stridently moralistic or campaigning photography at all. I find it boring and redundant, in the sense that the message is always the same: people are inhumane to each other in some way or another. There are winners and there are losers, and there are a lot of permutations within all that, but it’s pretty much always the same. So I wasn’t interested in that. My brother died of AIDS the year before I started the project. It was right in the middle of it, in fact, so obviously it had something to do also with the fact that I chose male prostitutes. But a lot of people have either questioned or criticized me because I never paid any attention to what these peoples’ lives were really like. I made the images of them. They fit into my program. I didn’t investigate their lives at all. There was no sex involved. I never went to their houses, apartments, or hotel rooms. I rarely photographed even two of them together. I stayed away from drag queens because it seemed a little too gay a lifestyle. There was a need for the museum to disguise the fact that they were hustlers because of the liability issue. I didn’t want it to be obvious either. I’ve always felt that no one can really know anything about a person’s life just by looking at them — even if they are trying to advertise themselves as being fuck-able.
SABINE HELLER — You moved onto street pictures after this. Why the shift from a highly regulated environment to the street, which is by definition uncontrollable?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — For that reason alone. I got tired of controlling every aspect of it. It seemed to me that there were all sorts of possibilities presented by chance — by luck, even — that I was ignoring. So I started to develop a way of working on the street that was actually quite controlled. I didn’t give myself a lot of freedom. I was limited to what I could use, because I had lights in all of the images and I had to work within the area that was illuminated. I never knew what was coming from one moment to the next. In the end, I really liked standing on a street.
SABINE HELLER — Do you have an interest in the everyday and everyman?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Everyday life is a bore, but most people find some way to get through it. I’m interested in that. One of the last projects I did before I was a grad student was called The Miracles of Everyday Life — it was just images of very commonplace things, like gas stoves or showers, that a lot of people take for granted. But for a caveman they’d have been pretty miraculous. As far as your everyday person on the street goes, part of the subtext in the work is that you really don’t know who these people are. Part of surviving for this class of people — the ones who have a job with more traditional responsibilities and duties — is to live out some sort of fantasy: that they’re going to get rich one day, or that some young girl or young man isn’t going to be disgusted by them. It’s no secret that people are full of all kinds of imaginative alternatives to what we call everyday life.
SABINE HELLER — What’s your attraction to people who occupy the fringes of society — the hustlers, the drifters, the anonymous urban dwellers?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — There are two parts to it. I’m interested in depicting events that don’t require special access. I also admire people who are capable of living — or who are forced into living — on the edge of things, in a constant state of financial, physical, and mental peril. I think it’s a position that is not often chosen. I find it fascinating, being that it’s the opposite of what most people seek out.
SABINE HELLER — I love Lucky Thirteen — particularly the way you show the raw athleticism and artistry of the pole dancers. Did you choose particular women who evinced such a sense of power, or was it your treatment of a random woman that gave this sense?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Well, there was nothing random about it. They were all required to invert themselves, and that’s not something most dancers can do on the pole. I spent night after night in strip clubs finding the right dancer. I always went with a woman who got the dancers’ information. Most of the money women make at a strip club comes from lap dancing — only small change is thrown up on the stage when you’re a pole dancer. And there’s a fine line between solicitation and trying to convince someone to let you give him a lap dance. They really can’t give a man their telephone number or any other kind of information about themselves, otherwise they could be arrested for solicitation. I would see a lot of women before I’d approach one to try to set something up. As you can imagine, half the time they never answered me, or they gave me a false telephone number, or they took my number and never called me. So choosing them wasn’t so easy. Sometimes it was a default position — the woman I photographed was the one I could find.
SABINE HELLER — Did you pay the women?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Yes, they were paid. They were photographed in a club but almost never in the club they worked in, because it had to be closed during the shoot. They weren’t actually working. You know, when I first began the idea of paying someone, which started with the hustlers, was kind of unusual, and people criticized me, as if there was something unethical about it. I can tell you that half the graduate students I have right now are paying their subjects. Everybody pays. The only person who doesn’t get paid to be in a photograph is Cindy Sherman — and, actually, she does get paid, and very well.
SABINE HELLER — You’re adept at creating a sense of intimacy — one marked by its distinct lack of sentimentality — notably with people who are strangers.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I’m not sure if there’s any real intimacy. I mean, if you were a fly on the wall, you’d see that I’m basically telling people where to stand, what to do. I’ll tell them very quickly, “Turn your body that way. Turn your eyes back to me and leave your head in that position.” And that’s it.
SABINE HELLER — Well, despite the impersonal-ness of your method, one way or another we are drawn into your subjects’ existences.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Part of it comes from the editing process. You take thousands of pictures on the street and when you get them back one sticks out. Why? Is it a matter of being sensitive to a particular instance and responding to it? Sometimes it’s just luck. I think that if you’re directing people, you have in mind some sort of characterization you’re trying to get at — you begin asking them to do things that match your sense of what the character is meant to be doing in a particular environment. The best-case scenario is that they pick up on it and start acting in their own way — you just have set up an opportunity. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve found that when I can see the mechanisms at work within a photograph, I don’t like it. I mean, some people think that’s the hand of the artist, and it should be as obvious as possible, but I don’t.
SABINE HELLER — For Heads, the work you made in Times Square, you set up lights and photographed people as they walked through. Why did you choose to shoot at lunch hour, with its crowds, when the resulting images had such limited urban imprint? Meaning that they actually look as if it was dark out, when it actually wasn’t at all.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Because that’s when the maximum number of people is on the streets, and people ignore you in a crowd. When there are three people walking by, they actually try to get out of your way. They see you’re doing something and they go to the margins of your image — or they stare right at you. I always edit out the direct gazes at the camera from the images.
SABINE HELLER — How about the elderly gentleman who tried to sue you?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — The Hasidic Jew. He saw the catalogue four years later. Somebody showed it to him. It’s acknowledged that there’s no expectation of privacy in Times Square, in such a public place. There are cameras everywhere, not just mine. It was a difficult issue for me to be sued for that, because no, I wouldn’t like to be photographed like that myself, but yes, it was legal — or at least the courts decided it was.
SABINE HELLER — But, those photos were so beautiful.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Yeah, I’m not sure if that could ever be done again. Nor am I sure that you could work on the street as I did. The Department of Homeland Security would immediately be on your case.
SABINE HELLER — I’m assuming that you didn’t need permits for your Times Square project.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I did need permits, partly because I was working under scaffolding at construction sites. They were rebuilding Times Square. I had to have an insurance certificate because somebody from the construction company might come out.
SABINE HELLER — Do you think there’s anything interesting going on in street photography today?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I’m not sure I’m at all aware of what’s going on. It’s hard because street photography seems stuck in that decisive moment where, by luck or skill, you have to capture something that transpires instantaneously. It’s a kind of alignment of the spheres which transforms reality, and that’s extremely difficult to capture. I don’t like the idea that I’m hunting for something. I’m certainly not hunting for something outside the realm of my possibilities. I’m trying to create a limited set of possibilities that closes off all the extraneous stuff I can’t control.
SABINE HELLER — Tell me a little bit about your photo series/book, A Storybook Life. Is it the story of your life?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I wouldn’t say it’s my life. I’m much more the protagonist in A Thousand than in A Storybook Life. A Storybook Life has a lot of my friends and both of my brothers in it, but I wasn’t necessarily trying to reflect a conscious narrative that related to my own experience. But it’s hard to say that there isn’t some connection. I mean, the first image is of my father, alive, and the last image is of my father, dead. I used them as bookends and filled in the rest, in a way that was instinctual. The tile of A Storybook Life has double meaning. It’s a storybook in that it’s made-up to some degree, and “storybook” has the connotation of it being somewhat of a fairy tale, that there’s something fantastical about it.
SABINE HELLER — Is there a conscious psycho-analytic component to your work?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I always thought that “conscious” and “psychoanalytic” were contradictory terms.
SABINE HELLER — I was thinking more along the lines of Gregory Crewdson.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Well, Gregory’s father was a psychiatrist. My father was an architect. I don’t think in Freudian terms. I don’t think that memory occurs in a linear way, or that dreams happen in a logical narrative order. Almost everyone would agree with that, and you see very few manifestations of it other than in Tim Burton movies. In A Storybook Life the chronology isn’t direct. People get younger as the book progresses. That’s important because it was done as a book — it was meant to be seen from the first page to the last page, not picked up in the same way as a picture book or photography book, which can be accessed at any point. That’s why it was possible for me to be very comfortable putting in images I wasn’t sure were the strongest I could have used, but that served the book. They weren’t in service of some exposition of my skill as a photographer. That was the nature of the book, but when it became an exhibition it changed a lot because it’s harder to make people look at things like that, because they see them all in a row.
SABINE HELLER — You must have spent years collecting the images for A Thousand.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — At some point I think I had 4,000 Polaroid images. I thought it would be easy to pick 1,000 of those, which of course it wasn’t. My making Polaroids, as an end in itself, and not as a consequence of making another image, started way back. I always kept them. At some point I realized that the Polaroids I used in preparation for other photos were either being destroyed or stolen or something. But I meant to keep a lot of them, and I put them together in various sequences.
SABINE HELLER — Why do you think Dennis Freedman hired you to shoot fashion for W, when clothes were of such limited importance in your previous work?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I actually had shot some fashion, but not in that way. The Village Voice had a short-lived fashion magazine — I think it lasted six issues. They used Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, and Lynn Davis. When I came back from living in Italy, people would tell me all the time that I was being copied. I’m not really sure who or what they were talking about because I didn’t look at fashion magazines. But Dennis said, “Listen, they’re copying you — why don’t you just do it.” At the time I wondered if being in fashion was going to take me into a realm that would underminemy credibility, but those thoughts only lasted a nanosecond. It seemed like a good opportunity to amp up my production, and to deal with situations that technically — and even conceptually — I hadn’t had to deal with before. At the very least, I thought I would learn something.
SABINE HELLER — Your pictures were still about fashion telling a story, with less focus on the clothes, per se.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I think that the importance of what the people wore varied from story to story. And some items of clothing were completely inappropriate simply because they have to get the credit in. I’ve suffered that, but I’ve also benefited by the fact that I’ve had double-page spreads in W, from my very first story to my last. So, effectively, I could have six pages without a single credit, because it was a landscape, or a cityscape, or there was nobody in it.
SABINE HELLER — That wouldn’t happen today, at least not in that sort of publication.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — No. At the very end of it, it started to change quite a lot. My last story was in 2008, and it was the biggest story I did, like 40 pages. There were pictures of camels. It was inching closer and closer to the demise of Dennis Freedman’s tenure, when everything collapsed. Magazines lost all their ad revenue — that’s basically what killed it.
SABINE HELLER — Would you say that you love your job?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — No, I find it really difficult. I don’t enjoy it. I consider it exactly what it sounds like: work. It’s not necessarily fun. I mean, yes, it’s satisfying when it works, when it comes out, and you’re happy with the results. I’ll often do a project and then not do anything for a very long time. I’ll start a project, kind of attack it, get it over with, and then it can be years before I start another one.
SABINE HELLER — And in the interims you teach at Yale.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Yes, but I don’t really love to teach. As a matter of fact, for the last few years I’ve only taught half a semester a year.
SABINE HELLER — Are there photographers you’ve taught who you would like to mention?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — There are a lot of people who have gone through the photo department at Yale. Some are sort of successful, some aren’t. Let’s take the famous girls, the Yale girls, who went there about ten years ago: Katy Grannan, Mallory Marder, Dana Hoey, and Justine Kurland. Most of them are still functioning. I would say that only Mallory Marder came in fully formed. The others came in completely different. And, for better or for worse, all of them are doing exactly the same thing they did when they were grad students 10 or 12 years ago. They’ve gotten better at it, they’ve expanded it a bit, but basically they were formed during those two years, and they still do the same thing. The only one who isn’t like that is Mallory.
SABINE HELLER — Did you teach Taryn Simon?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — No, I didn’t, actually. But we’re friends. A lot of people think that she used to work for me, but it was actually her boyfriend at the time, Alexei Hay, who did. But we’ve been friends almost since the time I cursed her out for copying me.
SABINE HELLER — That’s benevolent of you.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Well, this was quite a while ago. I don’t think she has just one style.
SABINE HELLER — She’s very talented.
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Yes, she is. She’s hardworking, ambitious, and young. And it helps that she’s good-looking.
SABINE HELLER — It’s becoming easier and easier to become a photographer, but what do you think it takes to be the real deal?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — I think the degree to which you’re willing to torture yourself for no return. Photography is not a particularly lucrative sector of the art world. I think in your question you imply that now a lot of people study photography with the intention of being an artist. That’s relatively new, and the tools that they use to produce work have changed radically. The idea that you don’t have to do shit in order to succeed has sort of become part of it.
SABINE HELLER — Whose work do you think is commendable?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Most of the people that I like, I like for a certain part of their work. The people that I don’t like are the monoliths, the ones who do more or less the same thing over and over again — like Rineke Dijkstra, for example. I tend to appreciate parts of people’s oeuvres more than their names. I mean, obviously, there are the consistent names — all of them historical, at this point — the William Egglestons, the Diane Arbuses. There are the desert island photo books — and I bet most of them would be by dead photographers.
SABINE HELLER — What experience do you hope the viewer gets from one of your pictures?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Well, a kind of confusion that feels exciting and comfortable at the same time — a confusion that you don’t want to overcome.
SABINE HELLER — You once sent me a hilariously confusing email that referenced Lady Gaga. What was that all about?
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA — Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just lived a little too long to see drag queens actually become females.
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