Philip-Lorca diCorcia predetermined each setting, posing his assistant to prepare the lighting and set up before returning with a man to make the final photograph. Hotel rooms, parking lots, curbs, cafes, backyards and bus stops all offer potential backdrops for the pictures. Chris, 28 years old, Los Angeles, California, $30 (1990-92), shows a man seated on an elevated motel walkway, the metal guardrails receding into space, his arms reaching up to clutch the highest rail. He might be lost in thought, yet the picture also conveys a sense of entrapment. Tim, 27 years old, Orange County, California, $30 (1990-92) depicts a shirtless man bathed in warm light, gingerly approaching an open door as if he couldn’t quite tell whether it offered an escape or an alluring dead-end. The subjects convey a range of emotions or attitudes, from dignified beauty to desperation, lending poignancy to the elegiac mood of the series.
Conceived amid the AIDS crisis and during the ‘culture wars’ of the early 1990s, an era fuelled by the censorious rhetoric of figures such as Jesse Helms, the photographs come out of a particularly tense historical moment. In 1989, diCorcia received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and this money allowed him to embark on the Hustlers project, not to mention pay the prostitutes in the photographs. "None of these guys were free", writes diCorcia in a new steidldangin book to mark the twentieth anniversary of the first exhibition of Hustlers, at MoMA, in 1993. "They charged for their services, for a faked sense of what passes for intimacy in the realm they left behind. They barely found a place to sleep or get high afterwards, but they accomplished the most sublime trade, their artistry: Nothing for Nothing. That's what was so perfect for me. It summed it all up."