in Features | 04 MAR 07
Featured in
Issue 105

Distant Relations

Collier Schorr’s photographs and collages question what we look at – and why

in Features | 04 MAR 07

Collier Schorr’s immersion in the photographic – not just as an artist but also, during the 1990s, as an art writer and occasional curator – could perhaps be construed as being about a desire to make difference visible, possible and appealing. No stranger to the art of photographing people not like her, Schorr seems unabashedly fixated on the idea of what might constitute a compelling image, and doesn’t shy from implicating herself in the process. Her images tempt us to share what we might surmise to be her emotions, opinions, motives, reservations, internal debates and sensibilities. And given those preliminaries and fruitful doubts, I imagine pictures come to her as a relief.

Although often visually seductive – with their strong reds and a million greens, summer light and lots of dewy flesh; or, when black and white, their sliding scale of velvet greys – her photographs’ demand for complicity, empathy and intimacy with their predominantly human subjects can be unnerving. Take, for instance, the framed portrait of a very young, fresh-faced soldier in a Nazi uniform in the video Nachbar (Neighbour, 2006). This work shows the portrait, which was rescued from a neighbour’s bin by an elderly friend of Schorr’s, in a succession of animated snapshots; the perspective alters constantly, and a hotspot or glare from a light source, or a flash dancing around the image, is ever-present. While Schorr’s art often invokes photographic genres (such as portraiture, landscape and photojournalism) it is usually in order to unravel, recode or throw open the implicit interrelations between the subject, photographer and viewer and the cultural and political context of these genres. When one of the many pairs of youthful eyes in her work stares out at you, it is as if they are questioning you, in the disarmingly honest way traditionally reserved for the innocent, about how you think, what you see and why.

Just over a decade ago, Schorr lived out a fantasy that, while common, is no less enticing for its ubiquity: she met a stranger on a train who changed her life. Sitting near her on a slow journey through Southern Germany was the then 15-year-old ‘Jens F.’, an average teenage boy from this region of factories, forests, farmyards, crucifixes and (now largely defunct) US military bases – relics of the postwar occupation. He had what could be described as an agreeably pretty face and reddish-blond hair. Other than negotiated space, separating them was a generation gap and numerous cultural differences, which would feed into their artist-model relationship in the years to come, although neither yet knew how. Exploring this ‘stranger on a train’ fantasy further might perhaps give us an insight or two into the interpersonal in Schorr’s work, and hopefully suggest a reading that does justice to the complexities of her relationship to the photographic image and the subtlety of her own politics of representation.

Within the confines of the train carriage, with its unspoken protocol of polite reserve, to your fellow passengers you are nothing more than a surface, a posture, a shape, an outline, a mood, perhaps a bouquet of smells. You certainly ought not to be more: break the taboo and things can go horribly wrong, as the plot of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950) highlights only too well. But if you play by the unwritten rules and look, not stare, as you are gently rocked and propelled forward to the same destination, you, and they, are free to fantasize at will. To notice, for example, their lips and the changing gap between them, their sweat, a fold in their coat, an unkind hair somewhere. You might even wish to be them, or conjure up impossible adventures with them. And they might be doing the same.

The striking or curious stranger – and they abound in Schorr’s work: the teenage girl with her breasts bound flat in The Purloined Dick (1995), for instance – is more engaging or beautiful, in an impossibly pure or untouchable sense, because they are detached from you. Your relationship to them is sexualized without necessarily being about sex. When you invent a subjectivity for a stranger, you aren’t trapped by the obligations of the real, and you are exercising the possibility that your own reality is malleable too, that it has not been, or cannot be, adequately described. Looking at, or taking photographs of, people you don’t know is a similar experience. (Perhaps, conversely, one of the reasons most people usually find photographs of themselves so dreadful is that it’s hard to look at oneself in that expansive way.) Hire or entice a stranger to be photographed in your studio and the power dynamic becomes even more loaded – something the viewer cannot fail to notice in the finished works.

In a bookstore in New York, sometime after meeting Jens F., Schorr happened across a catalogue of work by American realist painter Andrew Wyeth. His ‘Helga’ series (1971-85) consists of portraits made in secret of the married artist’s German divorcée neighbour. In them, model Helga Testorf mostly looks relaxed, daydreaming, amiably vacant, composed. But there is also something a little naff about Wyeth’s studied naturalism and the poses he selects for Helga, such as the arms-behind-her-back nude, On Her Knees (1975). Looking at Wyeth’s images, Schorr found herself thinking: what if Jens F. posed like this? Fortuitously, he agreed. The culmination of their lengthy collaboration includes the art book Jens F. (SteidlMACK, 2005, an edition of 1,000) one of a planned series of five publications relating to Germany and the work presented originally at Roth gallery in 2005, and later at Schorr’s solo show last year at Modern Art, London. In the latter, framed collages and a vitrine containing images and clippings included Sheepskin (2006), in which cut-out shards of drawings of Helga overlay a photographed Jens sitting upright on his bed. The Jens F. project turned out to be a sophisticated, liberating move in the visual language of Schorr’s work. It wasn’t about reproducing the sweet hormonal essence and easygoing self-confidence of the pubescent Jens (although that too is palpable in the images) but rather, as Schorr puts it, ‘mimicking Andrew Wyeth’s desire. Jens was playing Helga. I connected the most with Andrew Wyeth, his mindset, his descriptive powers, the desire to own another form, to mould it. The romance was with the absent painter. The desire to meet or topple him allowed the relationship with Jens to grow.’1

The Jens F. book started out as a scrapbook or visual diary, not intended for publication. But although it freely embraces the fragmentary, the cut-out, the stuck together, the scribbled on, the overlaid, the annotated and the mulled over, it does so with such skill that the results seem wholly resolved. Jens F. circumnavigates art photography’s love-hate relationship with editing, touch-ups and perfect printing by making those techniques beside the point. The collage format allows the viewer to collaborate in the process of creation, meaning each ‘reading’ of the book will be different. Take, for instance, the section titled ‘Overflow’. Here, a succession of pages read like a search for the right tone. They depict Jens F. in multiple exposures, different lights, his soft arms above his head: fragments of an uncanny Helga look-a-like. Life drawings and images of another model – the regal, enigmatic Kate – further obscure interpretation. On one page a scribbled note says: ‘the female figure is so illicit – forbidden – a trap. […] We define ourselves by how completely we can picture someone else.’

In an essay accompanying an exhibition of her own art collection, ‘The Sound of One Hand’ (1998), Schorr wrote: ‘I seem only to have collected pictures of attractive people. Does that make me vain or base? I have almost exclusively pictures of men, mostly by men. Does that make me a bad feminist? I think my 1980s education made the representation of the female so mired in the problematic that I have avoided her ever since.’ Jens F. offered a sophisticated solution to this quandary. The works’ playful cross-gender and generational role-playing, the superimposition of different lives, times and relationships on another continent and in the context of another culture, also allows for feminist and queer perspectives without closing down meanings, getting leaden, tongue-tied or necessarily feeling suffocated. For example, rather than pointing a self-righteous woman’s finger at Wyeth, Schorr told me she was reflecting on her own generation’s discomfort with the ‘grown women naked in a landscape’ genre of the late 1970s. In the short afterword in the Jens F. book, Schorr also writes of how photographing a boy allowed the possibility of making a portrait of a woman: ‘While I had initially imagined a ritual in which this stranger on a train would metamorphose into Helga, and through this transformation I would photograph a woman without ever having to show her, now I find that having found her, she is no longer trapped inside the female pose.’

Thumbing and flicking backwards through Schorr’s work to date, this idea perhaps sheds a different light on her various series of virile young men, such as her ‘Wrestlers’ and ‘Soldiers’. Speaking of them Schorr once remarked: ‘You know, people say, “How come you don’t take pictures of girls?” And I say, “Well I do, I just use boys to do them.”’2 As tantalizing as chocolates with their wrappers half-opened, the wrestlers are often caught male bonding, testing their strength, sportively acting-out aggression. As Barbara Kruger taunted in her famous 1981 collage: ‘You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.’ Sometimes sweat and blood lubricate their entangled bodies. They smile crooked smiles or grimace; they abandon themselves like duelling animals.

The critical reception of Schorr’s work to date has dwelt extensively on her perceived ‘gender deconstruction’; how her work unsettles normative presumptions about the identity (so much can be crushed by labelling) and sexuality (ambivalence and contradiction is better than any available label for sexual orientation) of everyone involved (the viewer included). This was mainly because a woman was seen to be staring at boys, not in a lustful or disparaging way, but in a way that allowed for some amorphous fascination, slippery transference and real ambiguity. Or as Schorr noted: ‘I wanted to examine bodies as forms outside of popular cultural motifs, almost nude, constantly moving in both structured and unconscious ways.’3

Schorr’s military-related projects have similar qualities. Many of the images contrast the death business past and present (symbolized by the uniforms) with the models’ intensity, vulnerability and budding desire for life not yet lived. For her series ‘Neue Soldaten’ (New Soldiers, 1998) she enlisted German teenagers to pose wearing uniforms, aping an assortment of Swedish, Israeli, Vietnam-era US, and Third Reich troops. The related project ‘Forests and Fields’ and the black and white photo-book Forests and Fields Volume One: Neighbours/Nachbaren (2006) constitute the Jewish artist’s image-based essay on Germany as a place whose horrendous past has left disturbing traces everywhere – including in the imaginary of the present generation. While this project may have started as a firsthand examination of the scene of the crime, Schorr expanded the conceptual framework to consider the picturing of national identity through the genres of portraiture and landscape in a more general way: using Germany as a kind of case study. It would be easy to imagine a similar group of photographs shot in Kansas, for example. In the book, young people (boys, girls and teenagers) and images of tranquil rural life – apple trees, horses, fields with wild flowers – are interspersed with more fake soldiers playing dress up. There are allusions to war, but it is placed at a distance. It impinges in a phantasmagorical way that makes the softness of youth look even more poignant: take, for instance, Opium (2005), a rear view of a maiden in a white cotton top with waist-length blonde hair crouched in long grass.

To give an idea of the complexity of Schorr’s approach to history, one needs only to look into one of her new vitrine works in her current exhibition at the Badischer Kunstverein. Surrounded by a ring of poster-sized prints and smaller framed prints from her Forest and Fields project (including also portraits of her youngest and oldest relatives Lukas Maria Meyer and Uncle Michael, both 2005) these display cases are loosely based on the subjects of ‘The Vietnam War’, ‘German heavy metal culture’ and ‘War, sport and terrorism’. Combining documents and photographs from different origins, Schorr seems to aim not at documentary truth but at mediation through images and an associative lateral retelling. The ‘Vietnam War’ display, for example, includes: pictures of the Macintosh family – German/American kids and their ex-US army Dad – a book jacket on opium production as an anti-USA industry, and ‘a picture of Germans dressed as American Vietnam-era soldiers lying dead (by chance in the shape of a swastika)’.4 In recent years Schorr has also been collecting newspaper clippings, examples of photojournalism and war reporting. These will be the subject of a new ongoing project called ‘Memories of the Administration’. Schorr recently told me how one report alerted her to the possibility that perhaps some of her wrestlers – the ones she had photographed at the United States Military Academy at West Point – could conceivably be casualties of the war in Iraq. Thousands of headshots of smiling faces flicker past.

Dominic Eichler is a writer, musician and artist living in Berlin.

1 Collier Schorr in an email to the author, 11 January 2007.
2 Collier Schorr in an interview with Craig Garrett, Flash Art no. 237, Jan/Feb 2004.
3 Press release for an exhibition at Modern Art, London, February 2004.
4 Collier Schorr in an email to the author, 18 January 2006.