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Collier Schorr in Conversation with Stevie Dance

The following dialogue between photographer Collier Schorr and myself occurred via email thread at the end of January, just this new year. Collier in Tulum and I in a polar vortex.

We have crossed paths a handful of times – having met collaborating on set for POP and also since then, passing one another on the streets of our city. Whilst bumping into people who enlighten your trail of thought is not as regular an occurrence as one might hope, it is with relief when it ensues, and as such, it is always great to see Collier.

We are talking here in light of the fact that she is unveiling her 10th solo show with the 303 Gallery this coming month, entitled 8 Women which presents a curation of images spanning from the mid nineties to present.

We cut the fat and explore, amongst many things, the preoccupation of the photographer’s gaze, the notion of the subject’s desire to be observed and the motivations that bring the two together.

POP Can you tell me whom do YOU like to be looked at by?

CS I find photography the most sublime version of being looked at, because you are stared at, but no one can see you. There was an article some years ago about why so many great photographers are/were Jewish… something about the notion of being outside and peering in. I'm probably too young to completely understand that persona, but I’ve felt myself to always be a looker, without that look being returned. I later realised I just didn't know I was being looked at. I think it had a lot to do with my high school years, having crushes on cool girls who didn't even know there was such a thing. In a way, fashion is a perfect recreation of that.

POP So these women, those who like to be looked at by you, what do they have in common? What do you think they gain from being looked at, aside from the assumed gaze?

CS It’s such a big subject. I just read a Janet Malcolm piece on David Salle. When asked to describe what is feminine he said he worried he would list every idea he had. So maybe there are many responses to being looked at. Women who model have probably more than a few needs or desires that come into play. Everyday they risk the possibility that the photographer won’t really want to look at them. They are heavily rewarded when the photographer falls momentarily in love with them, even if they know this love is self-involved and the picture is the real object of affection. I know when the «blow-up» fantasy is possible and appropriate and when one can really get into the whole penetration by camera. Other times, it’s about shaping something, a mood, and it feels very collaborative and almost like being in a lab. Both are good. The former, on a weekly basis would become less valuable. Most of the time I just find myself seeing in a more peripheral way, trying to forget there are twenty people watching.

CS I notice you stand very close to people when you talk to them. I wonder if that is related to not being heard or to being seen?

CS Just kidding :-)

POP Really, damn… I liked that one

CS No it was real. But I thought you might not want that much play. You can riff off it and throw it back.

POP I like to get right up close because I prefer intimacy to observation. When I am interacting with someone I like, energetically I like to be familiar from the get go.

POP I would love to know more about the voyeurism that developed in you growing up… What was your school like? How did you come to understand who you were? What you wanted and what turned you on?

CS Interesting. I think I can only get that close with a camera. In person, I'm the one backing up. Maybe being somewhat invisible in high school has something to do with it. I went to a pretty conservative school in northern New Jersey. I wore Ralph Lauren from the boys’ department and thought of those four years as something that had to be waited out.

POP Steven Klein told me that when he was young he discovered two things in his father’s basement: a gun and some very scientific looking, verging on anatomical, porn. Both of which have clearly informed his work. Klein said he thought looking where he wasn’t meant to and finding these things encouraged a curiosity in him that has never gone away. What do you think encourages your curiosity, and is your sexuality a large part of this?

CS I thought you were going to ask me what I think of Steven Klein… It's funny, my dad was a mild gun collector. But he kept them hung up in my brother’s room, which was like a storage closet for a mid-life crisis expressed in antique collectables. Posters of corvettes, two racks of rifles and a pair of old slot machines. I never wanted that room. I didn’t even know how my brother could sleep in there, but apparently these things don’t keep boys awake at night. My dad was an automotive journalist and photographer and at some point he wrote articles for a soft-core porn mag for a little extra cash. I think it was called Stag, the magazine that David Salle did paste up for. So in his office cabinets, besides car stuff and trophies, were stacks of these mags. We always thought of them as both porn mags and work mags.

POP That all sounds incredibly ‘masculine’ …

CS My childhood was filled with the troupes of masculinity, but they mainly centered on work and creativity. A fast car was a toy in other families, but in my mind a Camaro was a subject as much as an object. My curiosity was definitely pricked by everything my father was involved with but I was more attracted to his aluminum cases of Nikons than anything else.

POP Did you feel involved in your father’s working world?

CS The car business accommodated women in very limited ways: namely, women wore tight t-shirts and cut­off shorts. I couldn’t place myself there, nor could my mother I must note. But I think what I took away from observing it was that whatever ‘world’ you choose, you must do as many jobs in that world as possible. The model writes the story, takes the pictures, edits the magazine, writes advertising copy etc. So that’s what I did. I don't think it’s a view that has been mass-produced, it’s rare. But in terms of sexuality I don't think it informed me in any specifically unique way.

POP Do you think your female subjects behave or present themselves to your gaze in the same way they would to a male behind the lens? Does the sex of the photographer dictate the dialogue of performance between subject and gaze? How do you find women are in front of you?

POP (Ps. can you send me a copy of your Art Forum piece CAR BABES GO FURTHER? 1992. I think I need this for a number of reasons. 1. Being our dialogue. 2. Being I want to GO FURTHER)

CS There are times when I think women act differently around me, but it’s essentially such a generalisation. If my work is about anything it’s about intimacy, and intimacy is specific. It’s about looking at each woman as unique, the exchange as personal. I used to have more anxiety about the process whereas now I am able to simultaneously disappear into the experience but also steer the shoot in ways that seem right for my subject. Shooting a 15 year old girl is completely different from shooting a 26 year old woman, but the audience consume the pictures in the same way. There isn’t a caption that says ‘You are about to look at a provocative picture of a kid’ vs a caption that says ‘This woman is into taking off her clothes, enjoy’. But I’m acutely aware of the difference on set. Actually talking with Brooke Shields about her experiences in front of the camera gave me a good sense of what it might feel like. With women, it’s so much about how they are and my expectations. I usually feel like they have a surprising time. I think in my work I pause a lot, almost like I need to visit the subject, get closer than the lens will focus.

POP And what about boys, how do you find them?

CS Boys always seem more innocent and vulnerable. I felt it when I did the wrestling pictures. It was so intense, being in the middle of this almost hedonistic battleground that could appear sexual even though it wasn’t. I think being a woman who sort-of looks like a boy, creating a space for them to act so physically without having to prove themselves or protect themselves allowed me to get incredibly close to them. I don’t think a man could have made those pictures.

When I shot Freja for the first time I remember we spoke about how she felt the standard portrayal of her was far from who she actually was. It made me wonder if when I shoot I don’t always shoot as me. When I started photographing girls I was too concerned with the final image.

POP And now?

CS Some projects now are more centred on creating a small sense of a performance, an invented persona crafted with the model’s awareness. And sometimes I just want it to look as if I was inside her idea of herself as a picture; that we both know the pictures as we were making them. I have a problem when women are photographed like empty vessels. It literally hurts my eyes; it’s my worst fear. I know I sound so serious. Like, do I ever lighten up? No, I don t think so, but it’s way lighter than The Frankfurt School. I also grew up during a time in fashion photography (early 80s) that was a little looser. The women looked more alive. If they were really made up and larger than life (Helmut Newton or Chris Van Waggenheim) it was at least a stereotype that still allowed for a fleshy and transgressive thrust.

POP Have you ever been involved in a collaboration where the subject and the moment outweighed your affection for the image? Which outcome is of larger value to you?

CS That’s like one of those ‘your house is burning and you can only grab one thing!’ When I worked with Arizona Muse for Self Service, I felt like every shot was important. I remember Suzanne Koller remarking on the amount of selects. I think sometimes a photographer needs or wants to show their bond by cumulative effect. With advertising, there is a sense of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment and then with editorial there is the chance to show a relationship or moment from many different angles. I’m not sure one Arizona picture could show what it felt like to shoot her. But maybe 20 couldn’t either. Maybe it’s always illusive because it’s always a play of what your desire could look like, not the look of your actual touch. I know for sure in earlier art shows I would include pictures because I bonded so much with the kid I was shooting. And I knew no one really got it.

POP Who is in your new curation at 303 Gallery?

CS Well, it doesn’t necessarily reflect my ‘Arizona’ moment. Odd, right? The painter Keltie Ferris, the performance artist Boychild, the models Rie Rasmussen, Freja Beha Erichsen, Dorothea Barth Jorgenson, Andreea Diaconu, some young girls from Germany and a self-portrait from the mid 90s. Some old, forgotten images and some new.

POP What made you choose those images?

CS Who is in it is really dependent on the pictures and not the people, and it’s limited to the size of the space. I came of age during the heyday of appropriation, so I understood pictures as the cultural property of the masses. We all owned the pictures and therefore their value lay only in how much we invested in or claimed them. 8 Women in a sense is a collection of disparate portraits, like a folder of tear sheets, like pictures I used to collect when I was a kid, but conversely, it’s also very pointed, very directed, controlled and edited to express both my particular gaze and a spectrum of what I consider powerful but not limited by a hard surface of beauty.

POP What is it about Freja?

CS I once interviewed Freja and asked her what pictures she tore out and pasted on her bedroom wall and she answered none. I think Freja was herself the picture. I thought, this is the biggest difference between us: she is her own picture and I am projecting som eternal high school crush onto every model I ever meet.

CS I once interviewed Freja and asked her what pictures she tore out and pasted on her bedroom wall and she answered none. I think Freja was herself the picture. I thought, this is the biggest difference between us: she is her own picture and I am projecting som eternal high school crush onto every model I ever meet.


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