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HomeUncategorizedStaging the Documentary: Collier Schorr Blends Fiction and Reportage to Reenact History

Staging the Documentary: Collier Schorr Blends Fiction and Reportage to Reenact History

Collier Schorr’s work, quoting Walt Whitman, one of the greatest poets of our time, contains multitudes: it eludes all definitions, moving through time and space like drops that touch the ground and expand, releasing the infinite particles that make them up. Her images can never be ascribed to a single category of representation, but are the sum of reflections on identity, gender, history, nationality, and war. The hybridization between different narratives is what distinguishes the American artist’s photography. Schorr exploits the distance between things to stage possible shades of reality.

Best known for her portraits of teenagers that bring together fiction and photographic realism, and for fashion shoots for magazines such as Vogue, i-D and Dazed, Schorr now presents a new book titled August, published by MACK, which collects Polaroids taken in the 1990s in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a small town in the heart of the German countryside. The encounter with Germany is a defining moment in the evolution of Schorr’s work, already the subject of two other books that make up the Forests and Fields (Wald und Wiesen) series, of which August is the third chapter.

In the course of her repeated visits, carried on for some 20 years, Schorr has created a composite portrait of Schwäbisch Gmünd, which, thanks to her sensitivity as an artist, becomes a place inhabited by historical apparitions where documentary is intertwined with the staging of imaginary scenes. Using Polaroids as a revealing behind-the-scenes element in the images that make up the first two Forests and Fields books — Neighbors/Nachbarn from 2006 and Blumen from 2010 — Schorr exposes the devices of her photographic practice, always, however, with the sensitivity of one who treats photography as a poetic element with which to investigate the gaps in collective feeling. In August’s case, the pitfalls of Germany’s Nazi history are addressed through the reenactment of the past in a kind of performative double act: the polaroids, transient images that by their nature are not meant to persist beyond the immediate moment, tell the story of a staging, making public those moments of intimacy through which Schorr establishes contact with her subjects.

© Collier Schorr, ‘Andreas. Study for a Nazi making snow angels.’, from August (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

The individual background of the artist — an American Jew — meets the perceived community of Schwäbisch Gmünd, which becomes symbolic of Germany as a whole and the censorious way of living with the atrocities of its past. Collier Schorr’s work, always inherently political, confronts the iconography of power by dressing itself in a deceptive light. A boy poses before the camera wearing a military hat and feather boa; a woman’s body is shown undressed with her arms hiding her breasts. Schorr positions her subjects on a domestic stage of costumes and uniforms, love of fetishism, and curiosity to understand human beings in their contradictions. Her intent is not to document history, but the way it acts in the present by subtly eroding each individual’s idea of cultural identity, beyond the binary classifications that contribute to defining our idea of the world we live in.

Although August seems to completely refer to the past, confronting this work involves asking what gaps we are leaving today, and what symbols we are forgetting to look at with the necessary attention.

We caught up with Collier Schorr on Zoom to talk about this latest project of hers.

© Collier Schorr, ‘Mattias, Herbert, and Andreas. Study for Vietnam-era soldiers occupying a useless island.’, from August (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

I would like to start from the very beginning. What drew you to go to Germany for the first time, and why did you go back for so many years?

In 1989, I went to visit a friend in Stuttgart. We traveled to a smaller town where she knew people, and there I fell in love with one of them. Afterwards, I would visit her and her family every summer. I think by simultaneously meeting her and being in the German landscape, especially in the countryside, I felt like I could uncover parts of my work in this landscape because it didn't belong to me, culturally. Also, as a Jewish person, I had so many preconceived notions about Germany, about the people and their connection to me historically. Additionally, at that time it was also a really important moment in German photography. This is how it started.

Where did the idea for August come from? How long have you been working on it?

I worked with a designer ten years ago; we made a maquette and then put it away. It was something that I wasn’t ready to put into the world for whatever reason. I wanted to make a book about my pictures in Germany, just in the nineties, but it felt so in progress. And so I said to my publisher, maybe we should do a series of books looking at the body of work through different lenses: the first lens would’ve been portraiture, the second still life, and the third was supposed to be documentary and war photography, but I just couldn’t move through that material. It was somehow too heavy. It was during the Iraq War, and I wasn’t in the state of mind to do it. I looked at the Polaroids that I had been making throughout my time in Germany, and I saw them as a genre in themselves, that of foresight, like an idea that you’re making a picture. Polaroids give you the information that something is a good or a bad idea, so I decided to organize them as a type of mirror of the first two books, but to essentially show the making of work. Polaroid captures more than you are looking for sometimes, and it becomes a proof of everything that’s happening around the subject. Furthermore, you can’t edit it. You can crop it, but then it’s no longer a Polaroid because it loses its borders. What we all know in photography is that if you put a picture in a drawer for ten years and take it out in twenty years, it looks very different. In this way the idea was really to look at that older work to see how it aged or not, and to see what clues were in the Polaroids that revealed the costumes, locations, and fiction of the work. My work has always had this kind of strange push and pull between documentary, set-up photography, and self reflection. I think the Polaroids do a good job of revealing all of those ways in which the picture is a picture of an idea.

© Collier Schorr, ‘Mattias. Study for The Night Porter (1974)’, from August (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

In the book we see a lot of portraits intertwined with landscapes and domestic spaces. Who are the people that you portray? What kind of relationship did you develop with them?

Everyone in the book I photographed for years or at least a few years. In one case, I photographed someone from nine until twenty years old. Some people were relatives of the family that I stayed with and most of the people had some type of commitment. It was almost like a summer appointment where they knew I would come to town and call them up and. I might have a costume for them, or I might ask them to wear the same thing that they wore the year before. I really had this sense of wanting to, in a way, stop time, or show the way time moves by showing someone in the same clothes growing and getting older. It’s true that there was a sense of performativity in almost all of the people. I think this is particularly due to the fact that they were in costumes and military uniforms that were either USA uniforms belonging to them that they collected as kids and played army in or costumes that were rented from a theater company in Berlin. There was always a sense that they would be perceived as an actor, even if they were acting out in very close proximity to their reality. For example, one image shows a kid in his backyard wearing his own shorts but who was holding a saber, and suddenly that sword makes him not real and not really himself. But otherwise his location is home. That’s the general idea of the book that everyone is home and alive in the world in whatever year it is, but they are transmitting some information from the past, culturally. It was very important for them as Germans and for me as an American Jew, to be able to make something together about a history that neither of us experienced – and in many cases, neither of our parents – but that we were inextricably bound together in a very black and white way.

The images re-stage those war-related symbols of Germany’s national history that somehow the country tries hard to often cover up. How was it for the people participating in the project, emotionally speaking, to wear them? How did you explain to them the importance of what you were doing together?

Well, I think it’s very hard to explain conceptual art to teenagers. I would have had to give them a big art history lesson, and we didn’t have the time. I think that it was merely an intimate connection and a gentle talking about the past. For the most part, I would say that the guys were interested, because it was about them and their history, and I was somebody from the outside, who’s saying that it’s okay to talk about and touch this history. I think for each kid putting on the uniforms they had their own experience. Some kids really didn’t really have a connection to it, some kids had fear or shame around it that they expressed, and some kids felt like they were being allowed to be curious. The thing for me was that Germans had this view of, “Never again. We did something wrong. We’ve been punished, and one of the things we’re going to do is just not talk about it, and just avoid nationalism.” This for me t was an uneasy relationship historically compared to the Jewish-American perspective, which is “Never forget, and always remember, talk about it, and feel it.” I felt that if I could make these pictures, I could loosen the sort of stranglehold between the two cultures, so that my Jewishness wouldn’t be defined by the Holocaust. It was like “I’m in a toxic relationship with a culture. And it’s not that I’m saying they’re victimizing me, it’s just saying that I can’t heal when I’m in this relationship.” And I think it can be the same. I can’t really speak for them, but I imagine that that experience made them feel what it must have been like and made them feel connected, but also made them feel the passage of time.

© Collier Schorr, ‘Herbert. Study for Wehrmacht ghost on the street.’, from August (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK

How do the uniforms exemplify your interest in creating fictional narratives that delve into historical, political, and cultural implications of a phenomenon?

I think there’s no military uniform more recognizable than a Nazi uniform, and that was the success of Hitler’s regime. His rule was making a costume to put people in, that would both inspire, unify, and impress them. It was the number one thing that I could use to make a picture that would shift time and confuse things. The pictures are not essentially heroic, and they’re not guilty. They’re kind of straightforward, because they’re a portrait of the person, and they’re a portrait of a ghost superimposed. There’s one boy that is in costume for Hitler’s personal guard, and he’s also in his own military uniform. At the time, he was doing his military service, and he is the same boy in both uniforms, but in one of the uniforms he’s not really a soldier, except that he is in the army. In the other picture, he’s a mirage; it’s as though he knows he’s not real and that he’s in a fiction. I think that I’ve always looked to clothing to tell a little bit more of a story, and what I think is really apparent in August, is that historically men have had uniforms which look like costumes, and women haven’t for the most part. Women just don’t have the same history of being identified by what they wear. I was very thoughtful about the way in which women in August were portrayed. It’s not so much about their nudity, it’s about their lack of costume or façade.

At the end of the book, there is a sentence where you say that nudes in the book occupy a precarious place. You write they are “Uncomfortable yet necessary in parsing the way in which my own gender has been described throughout photographic history.” How does this relate to your practice?

I was educated in the 80s in art school, in New York, and through post-feminist studies we looked at concepts about appropriation in photography, the male gaze, and women fashion photographers and their work. It took me a long time to even approach photographing women, because I felt that they had been so unrealistically portrayed in photography and film, and to add another picture I felt that it would create pressure for women to try and take power by way of beauty, and it was just not part of my life. As a queer woman, I felt that I was making all of my work and talking about all of my issues through men’s bodies. I had a kind of sadomasochistic relationship with it. I loved boys, but I also felt like I would punish them by making them subject to photography. It was really important to look through the camera at a body that was similar to my own and try to make photographs that both expressed my sense of love and attraction to women and respect for women in identification with a female body. I also asked myself “How do I avoid the problems of representation?” And in the end, you can’t. Representation is a problem that cannot be solved, because everyone is unique, but we are put in categories. And so, when we show a picture of a person, they become representative of many people. The only thing that helps in that is seriality: by working with someone over and over again, so they become very specific.

© Collier Schorr, ‘Joachim. Study for sleeping prey. Shot from a hunter’s perch. The only nude I made in Germany. Barely looked..’, from August (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

By mentioning categories of people, I can’t help but think about August Sander, who you also mention in the book. How did you relate with his legacy in Germany?

There’s one particular picture among the Polaroids where I am looking to make a copy of an August Sander picture. That was a day in which I was trying to recreate a portrait of Hitler’s guard that Sander had made. Up until that point I was inspired by the idea that someone made a body of work over time about a place: August Sander made a body of work overtime about Germany, and I was making a body of work overtime about a town. To me, my work was about Germans, regardless of location. I didn’t move around. I just kept on making work in this one place, Schwäbisch Gmünd. But Germany is Germany in every town. They might have more liberal and more conservative states, but it’s not like America, where there’s a huge difference. I thought about the ways in which generations of photographers in Germany had looked at August Sander’s work and pulled things out to work on in terms of genres, landscapes, architecture, and portraits, and I felt that no one who did that ever looked at the Nazis, the insane, or the homosexuals. There was this sense of “Let’s go into August Sander’s work and see it as a photographic primer, but not get too sticky in terms of politics.” So I just thought, “Well, since I’m here in Germany, I might as well go for the hardest things in the work.” And so I didn’t see myself in the aesthetic of Sander, but instead saw that I was speaking to that tradition in a way that only an American could do. I wasn’t ashamed of my Nazi history, because I don’t have any, so I was very free to look at that.

Where does the title of the book come from?

The reason the book is called August is because almost all the pictures are taken in August; that’s when I would make all the work. It’s very much the light of August in Germany; it’s the long, long days where you could take a picture at 9: 00 at night. I was also thinking about an Ingmar Bergman film — I can’t remember the title — but it’s about a priest in a small town. I remember reading that he shot the movie in November, because he wanted the hardest light to live in, so that we would really express the character and the difficulty of his life. I always think it’s so interesting in my work in that it’s really dark work as it’s made of problematic, guilty, uncomfortable, disturbing projections, and yet they’re all made in the summer. They’re all graced with this beautiful light, which I think can read as the same kind of propaganda as a Nazi concentration camp that has gardens and people playing violins for visiting dignitaries, which tells you everything’s fine, except behind that performance is the gas chamber.

© Collier Schorr, ‘Andreas. Andreas resting after posing in 9 p.m. August light with flash on camera.’, from August (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

While in August the Nazi history is at the center of the book, but the project also aims to raise awareness of current events. How?

When I was putting together the book, I had a certain anxiety that the work really had no lessons for today’s culture, and then Russia invaded Ukraine. I thought the irony of one culture with fascist history invading another culture with also complicated history, and saying they were doing it to get rid of Nazis in 2022 made me think that it’s not that the book is relevant now, it’s that it made me understand why I made the pictures: it’s a history that keeps on resurfacing. The ripple effect of that war still carries on. You see it both in Ukraine and you see it in Israel with the Palestinians with this idea of people being displaced by war and that the endings of war create new territories, boundaries, and resentments. We still live with the repercussions of World War II and to look at this book, it says “See how things haven’t changed? Just the uniforms have,” or see what we live with because of what we’ve historically done.

At this point in your long career, what are your thoughts about the role of photography? What can its potential be, what are its limitations?

At the moment I am choreographing and dancing in a ballet that I’ve been working on for the last three years, so in some ways I’m less attached to the goals of photography. I find myself driven to direct with my hands and the ways in which I move my body in relation to another person’s body. I think that in some ways photography is something to be escaped from. It’s a practice in which you look through a machine at somebody else and you either project onto them or lose yourself in them. Like a pack of cigarettes, the camera should come with a warning: “Use love, but never too much, in photography.”



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