The Brooklyn photographer on objectifying men and empowering women
Collier Schorr’s work has a startling, emotionally charged resonance. For 25 years she has been shooting haunting images of youth – figures at once androgynous, languid and sharp, from teen boys dressed in soldier’s uniforms in the German countryside to high-school wrestlers – and creating layered collage works that take her own raw photographs and slice them into ingenious compositions. Schorr is one of the few artists to have fluidly crossed from the gallery to the billboard, having shot campaigns for Bottega Veneta, Comme des Garçons and Tod’s as well as editorial spreads for Dazed. As 8 Women, the Brooklyn-based photographer’s latest exhibition, demonstrates, fashion has become the backdrop for her very personal exploration of desire, identity and meaning.
Dazed Digital: Much of your 90s work focused on adolescent youth and androgynous male figures. What drew you to them?
Collier Schorr: Probably the fact that they were almost girl-like on some level. But I also remember them as clean slates. It was like the body was a tablecloth for the face. So much of the bare flesh in all my work – even the wrestling work – is to erase as many of the signifiers as possible, so the pictures become timeless, not in a romantic sense but in a ghostly sense. The pressure not to represent women in the 80s was so strong where I was coming from. I felt like there was a real problem with how women had been packaged and sold back to women. I didn’t have a sense of how to solve that problem so I completely avoided dealing with women as a subject in my work. So any anxiety, desire or aggression I felt I directed towards boys, who seemed oblivious and quite safe under the scrutiny.
DD: The ownership of sexual images is positioned as male. Straight men looking at naked women or gay men looking at naked men – it’s very frustrating. Female desire is totally sidelined.
Collier Schorr: Gay men, historically lacking power, sort of cordoned off the entire male race as a subject. I suppose I learned to objectify men from other men in literature and art, but it was troubling to feel my view was being attributed to a male one because my female authorship was being erased by the way in which my images were being consumed. I always feel that the connection between myself and the boy or man when I’m shooting is very clear: he is aware that I’m a woman and he’s clearly posing for a woman. It’s a very different kind of picture. I don’t think men can take the kinds of pictures I take of men because men pose differently for women.
DD: You’ve said that two of your influences growing up were Helmut Newton and Bruce Weber, who make very different representations of sexuality, desire and gender.
Collier Schorr: I find those artists inspirational in their connection to looking. Robert Mapplethorpe is probably closer to my reality and the way of working in an intimate studio, but he was such a figure in the fantasy of his own work and I am much more absent, like Newton and Weber. Part of me is really interested in love and romance and the other part is really interested in scrutiny and sacrifice. I don’t think I can love from such a distance as Bruce Weber and I can’t distance myself from intimacy in the way Helmut Newton does, but I love them both.
“It’s very hard for me to make a picture of a woman that I don’t find sexy. And it’s always an interesting challenge because it’s not personal”
DD: Your fashion editorial images focus more on girls. What interests you about making work for that space?
Collier Schorr: I consumed a lot of fashion imagery when I was a kid because I was in search of women to fall in love with. I saw them mainly in fashion magazines. For me, a W magazine foldout of Leslie Winer photographed by Newton for Valentino was perhaps the clearest articulation of what I wanted. Or a DKNY ad of a woman that had really long hair but she was wearing a suit. It was a democracy that didn’t really exist in 1981 in New Jersey. Or a CK ad by Herb Ritts. These pictures were my first sense of being in love and finding an object to identify with and wanting to find that person in real life. But of course I didn’t, so I made art about them instead. Whatever it is I’m doing in fashion is, in a sense, always going in those directions, chasing that first high. It’s very hard for me to make a picture of a woman that I don’t find sexy. And it’s always an interesting challenge because it’s not intimate and personal.
DD: What was your first interaction with fashion imagery?
Collier Schorr: My very first work, which most people don’t know, was literally appropriating Calvin Klein and Guess ads. I put Xeroxed tear sheets in between sheets of Plexiglas, overlaid with bits of text written on acetate. It was in 1987, I think. It was the height of appropriation and I was really young and I was only making art because I wanted a platform to speak. I had no presumptions about a career. I was working for Peter Halley, Richard Prince and 303 Gallery around that time, so I saw the art world from a very interior position. And revolt seemed best carried out in an artwork. When I started I was more of a writer, but because of appropriation one didn’t have to be necessarily talented. Which I wasn’t.
DD: Is it a lot harder to have that sense of something different today?
Collier Schorr: I think that it’s much more difficult – in the way it felt almost impossible to make a real picture in 1987. I know down the block Nan Goldin was making The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, but in the East Village at the time the idea of taking a photograph seemed retrograde. There was much more potency in appropriating an image than intersecting with it. Perhaps it had to do with our distance from fashion and advertising. Now everyone is a lot more familiar with pictures. Before, pictures could be remote and redefinable.
DD: It must feel strange to be a part of a world you were enamoured with when you were younger.
Collier Schorr: Yeah. Because my whole room was tear sheets. I don’t come from a background of a family that looked at fashion magazines. I was limited to The New York Times Magazine or maybe Vogue, maybe Interview in my last year of high school. I would tear out what I liked and cover my bedroom with it, so I was essentially re-editing each issue, cutting it down to the photographs that created my desire landscape. Now it’s more like I want to leave a secret message in a magazine so when certain people look at, maybe kids, they have something to tear out. A bit of a narcissistic idea...
DD: But also a utopian or artistic one?
Collier Schorr: At the very least I can occasionally make a more human picture or a less alien picture or a more affectionate or gentle picture. A picture where the woman doesn’t look dead, bored or completely covered. If I think about how I started making art simply to say something about desire, it’s much more affecting to do it in a more mainstream location. I see power in taking back the ability to represent femininity as a multi-layered identity.
DD: How is your interaction with female models different from male ones?
Collier Schorr: It’s such a different experience. I see the pictures with me as an opportunity for their desire and their expression of their physicality to kind of open and unfold without risk. The first important shoot I did with was with Freja Beha Erichsen. She told me she was either in a suit or a dress and that no one had really shot her as her before. I don’t think I ever felt so close to someone I was photographing because I was so comfortable in the position of desire, of being let in. Then I shot Rie Rasmussen and it was much more intense. She is physically stronger than me, very demanding, very aware of articulating herself as an image. I had a complete sense of what it might be like to actually be a model and be told how to pose. Outtakes of Rie are in 8 Women – probably because I still look at them and think about how dominated I was.
DD: Why did you decide to make women the focus of the upcoming show?
Collier Schorr: I realised in the last few years that the fashion set was the most consensual place to photograph men and women. I just started looking at all these pictures – the expressions, the attitudes that reminded me of key moments in the history of my work. In a way this show is recreating a room I had when I was a kid with all those pictures. They’re tear sheets.
From February 27, 8 Women, 303 Gallery, New York City, 303gallery.com