Personal Best

From a distance it's safe to think of Collier Schorr's athletes and soldiers as abstracted icons of masculinity. Up close, however, their bodies are marked by as many ambiguities as Schorr's work itself. By catching these young men in unscripted moments -- not their victories but their moments of rest, their practices, and sometimes their defeats -- Schorr emphasizes the performative nature of their enterprise. Her feminist critique exhibits a different nuance than, say, Cindy Sherman's film stills did two decades ago, but it revels in the same ambiguity, indicting viewers in its desirous gaze at the same time it lines up a series of gender stereotypes to dismantle. That her source material is not an oppressed group but the potent heirs of privilege only testifies to her virtuosity as an artist. That each image radiates a personal, at times tender, respect for its subject only testifies to her skill as a photographer.

January signals the opening of two solo exhibitions for Schorr, one at New York's 303 Gallery, the other at Modern Art in London. Her most recent suite of photographs marks a return to the subject of American high school wrestling after a detour to Germany, where Schorr spends most of her summers. Her photos of German boys playing soldier (and of real soldiers looking like boys playing soldier) were her attempt to come to terms with German history, as a Jew and an American, via a quality she found largely absent from German photography. As always Schorr manages an interrogation of her own place in society by focusing intently, if not obsessively, on subject matter alien to her own experience -- in this case, an all-male wrestling team in New Jersey and its visual parallels to medieval depictions of martyrdom.

Craig Garrett: Earlier you asked me whether I thought your photos looked "too gay." Having always focused on the feminist angle of your work -- and, specifically, how decoding masculine poses might be relevant for a lesbian -- I confess I'd never really perceived them that way. Your images are extremely popular with gay men, though -- not just collectors but critics and curators as well. And you seem conflicted about this side of their popularity. I don't remember your exact wording, but you said that a lot of male critics had taken your work to speak for their own desire. Most of them surely appreciate its ambiguity, knowing full well that your are not a gay man yourself. But what do you think this phenomenon says about what kinds of dialogues are (and are not) encouraged in the art world today?

Collier Schorr: Objectification has usually been a male mainstay. Homosociality is, without a doubt, present in any project that involves itself in a male dominated arena, such as sports or the military. However, it may be that some gay male critics have become too comfortable in the idea that male sexuality, or men being caught in the gaze, is the property of male homosexuality. That type of "ownership" allows that women don't look at men and that when men appear a certain way it is a performance for other men. It's just another way that women's desire is undermined. This does give me pause, not in image making as much in the editing process afterwards. The struggle is how to represent men in a more fully defined way -- i.e., tenderness, vulnerability, physicality -- without falling into the trap of an assumed gay male gaze. In a way you have to search for varieties of ugliness, to almost de-aesthetify the image, to try and divest it of iconic perfections, all the while making pictures where the camera seems to fall in love.

CG: What do you think these boys thought about being looked at in this way?

CS: You know, when you're being photographed and you're busy doing something, you don't think about what you look like. And you don't think about what the person with the camera is thinking. You're just doing what you're doing. And that's why it's a great place for me to photograph. I'm sort of inside someone's very physical, very violent, very vulnerable world, and they don't really notice I'm there. And there's very little distraction. There's no other people coming in, there's no traffic, there's no noise. There's only that world. So in many ways it's very much like a monastery.

CG: A lot of artists choose to depict what they know. But it seems you've spent your career looking into things that are foreign to you, very outside of your own experience.

CS: I think part of that is photography. Photography really gives you the option to travel. I'm less interested in taking pictures of myself and where I'm from and more interested in taking pictures of the places I knew existed but never went in. It is very similar to being in Germany and taking pictures of Nazis and seeing depictions of Christ and figuring out a way to represent not his physicality but the fanaticism that he grew in others, this abandon, this idea of someone giving himself over. In southern Germany, where I go each summer, it's really Catholic. There's a lot of farmland, and everywhere you drive are crucifixes with little sculptures of Jesus on them. You can't not see Jesus there. The form became familiar to me in a different way because I was outside of a church and outside of art history. It's such a strange thing to see outside because it seems so naked. And it seems so much closer to what it must have really looked like.

CG: How long ago did you begin photographing wrestlers?

CS: I guess I started maybe four years ago. And then I took a year break. I think I needed to take the break to then go back and have it be something other than wrestling.

CG: Both of my older brothers were wrestlers in high school, and one thing that always fascinated me was the way they had to control their weight so that they could wrestle in lower weight divisions. At 15 years old they were more obsessive about food than any of the girls I knew. There was a sense that they were trying to control their bodies in every way.

CS: Yes, it's very intense, and especially on the level where your team is the number one team in the country, which is the case at the school where I photograph. I saw their last match and then went back a week later to photograph a small practice, and they had all grown. Within a week they grew what they should have grown in a whole year. In a sense it is total self-torture. Withholding, fasting, suffering -- all those things associated with saints, priests, monks and sometimes knights. Certainly my work is Romantic, but I think it's Romantic in a restrained, Romanesque way. In the work there's very little ornamentation. It's not really baroque. It's more middle ages. I was interested in Cistercian monasteries and the way they deal with the figure in art, and I wanted to make these pictures as spare as possible. That's why they're lit in a way to black out the background.

CG: You used a flash mounted on the camera?

CS: Yeah. Technically this gym a really difficult place to take pictures because it's so dark and there's so many bodies in the room. It really feels like a coliseum filled with gladiators. You're in physical danger when you're moving around them because they're not really watching you. They're in this zone where they don't even know you're there. So in order to shoot in there you have to be quick and move around. It's not about setting up or anything like that. It's simply about learning to balance the space so that your body is in one place and their body is in another place, and you have the right amount of distance to take a picture.

CG: Do you think they would have reacted differently if you were a man taking these pictures?

CS: Completely. I think that they had a freedom to be sexy. They had a freedom to be open. And i think that if i was a man it would be different because I don't think they would be as comfortable being vulnerable and also exhibiting themselves.

CG: How do you think your own sexuality shaped that?

CS: I guess the only way I can answer is that they aren't pictures taken by a gay man. I'm not interested in taking the pictures of winning, necessarily. I'm interested in taking the pictures of struggling towards something. So I don't share the same goal as the men in the photos. I'm looking to capture something they don't know I'm looking for -- even though they're acting it out, even though I think they're aware of the similarities between their lifestyle in that room and a history of violence, of sweating and fighting for something.

CG: What I find fascinating about both the wrestler project and the soldier project is that you've managed to say so much about the constructedness of gender while focusing on a very hetero-normative adolescent experience. These photos speak to the performative nature of masculinity -- and, by extension, femininity -- without relying on subversively-gendered subjects such as, say, transsexuals. What makes your work powerful is that its subjects are so, for lack of a better word, "normal," and their flawed specificity, which inevitably deviates from the "normal" of Marlboro ads and men's wear catalogs, therefore makes them much more subversive models to demonstrate the rehearsals of masculinity.

CS: 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." I think that for me these guys are just a kind of a raw physical material to use, and the brilliant thing about the project was that I didn't have to direct anything. It is an ongoing documentary project from which, in the editing process, I may pull out separate and self-contained series. The heightened sense of physicality experienced by the men I photograph transforms them. Viewers either see that or they don't. I am merely taking frames out of their performances, and the performance is as much masculinity or war as it is dance or spiritual ritual. They actually transform themselves. I think the biggest challenge is not whether or not it offends someone's Christian sensibility but whether or not people can remove their initial reaction to it, that they can take away the idea that they're about adolescence or sexuality, because really they're only about sexuality inasmuch as a crucifixion is sexual. And it is of course. But it's not first and foremost sexual.

CG: So how do you avoid producing kitsch celebrations of masculinity?

CS: They aren't kitsch because I care too much about the men in them to make these photos so one-dimensional. You know, I don't know another way to make stuff except to get so emotionally involved. Not to the point of wanting to intrude on someone's privacy or world, but to a feeling of affection. I'm so attached to the figures. I don't know how they're going to feel about the pictures, but...

CG: Do you think any of them are going to come and see the show?

CS: Hopefully! They'll all be there in their little ties and blazers and khaki pants. Probably. I'll ask when I go to the next practice.

by Craig Garrett

[originally published in Flash Art no. 237 (Jan/Feb 2004)]

copyright 2004

at left:
Collier Schorr, Inside Trip, 2003.
Collage of c-prints on photo paper.

Collier Schorr, Steffen, Barbarostrasse, 2001.
Bllack and white photograph.

< more articles