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Collier Schorr

Interview by
Hans Ulrich Obrist
From Issue 33 — FW18/19

Self-described as a product of the ’80s—deconstruction and French post-feminism, the seductive operation of advertising—Collier Schorr is one of today’s biggest photographers, and one of the very few who can credibly walk the line between fashion and art.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST  To start, I would like to ask you how you came to art and photography—or vice versa, how art and photography came to you. Was there kind of an epiphany, or…?

COLLIER SCHORR  Yeah, actually there was a huge epiphany. It’s interesting because right now there is an exhibition dedicated to David Wojnarowicz up at the Whitney [on view through 30 September 2018, editor’s note]. It shows a piece (Untitled (One day this kid…) (1990/91)) that I first saw in 1990, in a group show curated by Bill Olander at the New Museum. I remember looking at that picture—it was a picture of a boy—and thinking that there were no pictures like that for women. That my identity was not represented, or even misrepresented. And so I started making work really just because I thought that content was missing. I was working at 303 Gallery as an assistant director and wanted to become a writer. But I started making work because I sensed that there was a purpose and an audience. The only purpose of making artwork, for me, was as a form of propaganda. I didn’t study art, I didn’t have an aspiration to have an art career, I didn’t think about selling. The only reason to do it was that: to address a dearth of my own storyline.

HUO  In an older interview we did three years ago for i-D Magazine, you said, “I don’t think a new picture will be made by a man in my lifetime. It’s not that man don’t make good pictures, but they’ve been making pictures for so long that I think that we might have seen all the pictures they might make until the world changes.” So who are your heroines, the artists that inspired you the most back then?

CS  I’m purely a product of the ‘80s—deconstruction and French post-feminism, the nefarious and seductive operation of advertising. I would definitely mention Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Louise Lawler as inspirations, and I was drawn to Susan Sontag’s writing. At the same time, when you’re a young artist, sometimes you aspire to something or you idealize something, but you also kind of want to rebel against what you see as the literati elitism. It felt that the rules that these figures were operating within were not working for me. And so I was very much like, “Fuck authority, even feminist authority, because I want another kind of feminism.” And I can’t say that I was successful in achieving that—I just remember feeling that, and that that feeling was a trigger.

HUO   When we first met, it was through a campaign for couture house Brioni—which of course was not the first or last time you worked with the fashion world. Actually, you started very early to explore and blur boundaries between art and fashion, working across these two systems in such a new way, building bridges. Now there is such an incredible, increasing exchange happening with fashion and the art world, and so I was wondering how that began for you.

CS  I was heavily influenced by fashion pictures, and how clothing could create alternative identities. I always knew that fashion pictures were presenting almost unattainable characters, but I didn’t care, because it was good enough for me just to see it. At the beginning, I was taking pictures in Germany, documenting these kids that I knew, dressing up in army outfits. At one point, the British magazine i-D sent boxes of clothes to Germany and I started dressing the same kids I was shooting, just in another kind of costume. So it really was sort of seamless. I remember thinking it had something to do with Jeff Wall’s practice of staged photography: he would take someone that was real, organizing them in this “sub-reality” and kind of producing an alternative version.
I started to imagine that I could steer people’s imaginative desire in similar ways that I was drawn into magazine pictures. Showing a picture on a billboard, or a picture on a bus, could operate as a larger-scale gallery. I only started to make art in the first place to say something, and by saying it through fashion, I would reach a bigger audience.
Then lately, I’ve been thinking more about fashion photography as sort of journalism, and how a fashion story can be an essay. Maybe it’s going back to the things I liked to write about. The most recent example is a story I did for Italian Vogue. I was given a topic, “Jeans and leather,” and I was asked to pick a decade, and I picked the 90’s. And then I kind of regretted that and thought, “Oh, I should have done the ‘80s, because that’s my favorite decade for clothing.” And then I realized what I really wanted to do was to talk about the shift in gay men’s dressing from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s—how the codes changed, the outfits changed, and bodies changed, how clothing was used to advertise sexual preference and evolved into a form of protest. That’s an essay I could have written, an interview I could have done with the writer/activist Greg Bordowitz , who I went to school with. But somehow it seems more relevant to infiltrate the fashion magazine that originally created this fantasy and start a conversation through images.

HUO  During our last studio visit, we talked a lot about the self-portraits you took with artist Jordan Wolfson for Fantastic Man magazine. Today I would like to focus on this new series of pictures, which depict Eliza Douglas. She is a brilliant painter, as well as Anne Imhof’s muse and partner. She has also been working a lot in the fashion world, modeling for Balenciaga, and is now launching her music career. How did that encounter come about?

CS  I had known Eliza for years, but just very casually through my girlfriend Holli Smith, who’s a hairstylist and had worked with her at Balenciaga. First we did a shoot for Re-Edition Magazine. It was a unique experience for me, and the first stage of working together and making friends. Then Anne wrote me and invited me to take pictures of Faust, her work at the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. I found it interesting to make pictures in someone else’s arena. Also, I was fascinated by this element of spectacle in the performance, that people were coming in with their phones and Instagramming it, and so many pictures were circulating. It felt Anne’s interest was in not controlling the circulation of images of the performance. So I went there and took a lot of pictures for two days. It was an incredible and very physical act, essentially shadowing all the performers. I took pictures before, during and after the performance. So far, I have just shown the one picture of Eliza, and I’m not totally sure if and how will you see all this other work. It was sort of amazing to be in that space and find Anne next to me, whispering what was about to happen across the room.

HUO  Eliza’s portrait was part of your most recent solo show at Stuart Shave/Modern Art in London last summer. In the show, there were lots of images within images within images. Can you talk to me a little bit about this, and about this new body of work?

CS  I found a book of softcore pornography in Germany, in a flea market. It was like a playbook of every kind of conventional ’60s and ’70s straight male gaze nude picture. There were studio pictures and nature pictures; there were African women, Chinese women and Scandinavian women; women that looked like girlfriends and women that looked like party girls. At one point while working in my studio, I opened the book and put it on top of a picture that I had taken of two girls. I just kind of looked at it, photographed it, and kind of forgot about it. It was somewhat similar to appropriation, but a lot less about copying the picture, and a lot more about interacting with the found picture—or pictures interacting with one another, creating this sort of hierarchy where one image attempts to question or harass the other. I guess I wanted to implicate this idea of the distance between the photographer and the subject, this idea of someone in front of the camera and someone behind the camera. Also, the original picture underneath all the layering is a picture of two girls who were girlfriends, in Germany, who I photographed in their bedroom when they were 16 or 17. That’s probably the only time I’ve ever taken pictures of young girls, and I would’t have been comfortable doing that, except I knew them really well. So the picture sits in a box since maybe 1996, and comes out in 2015, and its almost a relic. It’s almost as old as the book. And then the book opens and goes on top, and it creates this kind of a conflict, or a mirror of my own conflict: “Can I look? Should I look? Am I allowed to look?”

"I’m purely a product of the ‘80s—deconstruction and French post-feminism, the nefarious and seductive operation of advertising."

HUO  The title of the London show was “In Front of the Camera.” It reminded me of the project we did together at the LUMA Foundation in Arles, which was a collaborative dialogue between you and fellow photographer Anne Collier, consisting of several nudes of women holding cameras—sort of re-imagining what looking, and looking back, means. That happens a lot in these new pictures.

CS  That project was at once an incredibly selfish and generous gesture to make. I felt that certain things that Ann was interested in were things that were happening in my work, and vice versa. Both of us tackled photography from this conceptual angle, which had to do with appropriation and representation. There was a happiness staying at a distance from the work, while at the same time, it had a lot to do with sexuality and desire and romance. So my feeling was, if we put our works next to each other, they’ll start to create another kind of conversation. And I was really struck by all these beautiful women holding cameras, and how that contrasted with the male domination fantasy that we all kind of grew up with, that made it almost impossible for a woman to aspire to be a fashion photographer.

HUO  In this new work, the collage presence is very strong. Of course, the 20th century was very much the century of the collage, while the 21st century, the digital age, calls for a different form of collage. In a recent interview, you said, “I wouldn’t take credit for making a picture that people haven’t seen, but I would take that credit for making a collage that people haven’t seen.” Why is that?

CS  Well, because a lot of collages are unique. I mean that’s kind of the interesting thing—putting things on top of one another to create something that’s original out of something that’s mechanically reproducible. When I first started doing collage, it was completely by accident. I was simply trying to keep track of the pictures I had taken by placing them into a book of pictures that I was re-staging by Andrew Wyeth. When it came time to publish Jens F. (that seven-year project), I realized that I might have some copyright issues, so I began covering this “found” book with whatever I could find in my box of test prints and extra contact sheets. So that’s sort of how the collage came about. And the second time, I was trying to figure out how to remake work that I had done with high school wrestlers. People really misunderstood what the work was about. I was obsessed with the light and nuances of Caravaggio paintings and the intersection between art and Christianity. As a Jewish kid, the crucifix was a startling and mesmerizing picture of the male body, and maybe the first nude I ever saw.  The wrestlers touched on those ideas: Catholicism and God and self-flagellating monks, and choreography and dance. But people didn’t really see that. I started to cut those pictures up, and almost cut the wrestling uniforms entirely out of the pictures, so it was just heads and arms and heads and legs and movement, without a kind of recognizable connection to the masculinity of the gym.
So both times I first experimented with collage, it was as a solution to a problem. But then I started getting excited about the way in which it freed me from the photograph, or the flat object. I really liked this secondary text-ness of it all. I was reading Rosalind Krauss’ L’Amour Fou: Photography in the Service of Surrealism, and I guess in the show that I did now, all that stuff is sort of coming together. It’s my way of maintaining that the photography is made inside of an art studio, and there can be photomontage and collage and deviling and rephotography. There can be all those different goals for the work. And in the digital age, in the age of a thousand cut pictures, it’s a privilege that I can be connected to Man Ray or John Heartfield. But then ultimately, more than anything, I think it’s a love affair with photography.

Collier Schorr (American, b. 1963) is an artist who lives and works in New York.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is Artistic Director at Serpentine Galleries, London.
Images courtesy of the artist and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London.

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