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Michael Wang '03

Harvard Photography Journal: In your piece at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, you restaged Andrew Wyeth’s Helga series, substituting a handsome German teenager for Wyeth’s famous model. Under one image you wrote, “[I] am more interested in approximating her sense of the pose, rather than an exact copy.” What is your interest in the pose and, specifically, the photographic pose?

Collier Schorr: The project kind of started out as an experiment, to use Helga as a template to make a series of portraits of a man and explore his body. The idea was to sort of trace over Helga and then remove her, and then be left with this portrait of a guy that’s also a portrait of a certain kind of woman.

I think that there’s two battles going on: my trying to walk the footsteps of Wyeth, in terms of my ideas versus his ideas and also in terms of photography versus painting; and then the model Jens trying to fulfill my needs as the photographer and mimic the pictures that he looked at. So when I’m doing certain pictures I’ll consider, say, the costumes: I want it to be exactly the same or I want the color to be exactly the same or I want a tree to be the same. I’m more interested in the lighting on his face and how that lighting gets reflected in the rest of the picture. I’m not at all unhappy with shadows that are the result of photography because I think that those shadows were there in Wyeth’s situation, he just painted over them. It’s very much about the photographic process, but also about the use of photography to embrace sketching, and the need for photography to shed the constraints of the medium. It’s not always about the perfect print, the perfect large print.

Jens said that some poses are uncomfortable for him and some are not, and the ones that are uncomfortable, he says, are female poses, and he said they are uncomfortable because they send signals to men, and, since he’s a guy, and he’s straight, he doesn’t want to send those kind of signals. In other poses he feels like, yeah, this is a great pose, this is a guy’s pose, this is a regular, non-gendered pose. One of the interesting things was, you can capture the exact position of someone, but to capture the sort of emotional content on the face is really difficult, to turn a photograph of a boy into a painting of a woman is hard because we’re not really sure how much of Helga’s expression is Helga’s expression. Wyeth used different women’s faces over her face sometimes to protect his reputation with his wife. I believe it’s possible that he paints certain types of expressions, because those are the ones he wants. For me it was a real quest to get back to that sense of abandon on Jens’ face, so in the picture, Jens’ hand is in the opposite direction, where it’s kind of flipped, and I have no qualms with flipping the actual negative to print it the way that it is in the book. That’s what I mean about the rules being my rules. As I go along it’s what feels appropriate for each picture, to give each picture the most integrity within this collaboration.

HPJ: How do you select your models?

CS: There’s two things: there’s types and then there are groups. I usually pick from a pool of guys in Germany who are friends or relatives of my nephew, my girlfriend’s nephew. So I shoot him, I’ve shot his cousin, I’ve shot his other cousin, I’ve shot his best friend, I’ve shot guys that he skateboards with. I don’t shoot every guy that he hangs out with, I shoot particular guys that he hangs out with. They usually share a couple of bodies, one is that they’re not immediately good looking, with the exception of one, and that’s not really his friend. I find them very pretty, but they’re not perfect guys. One guy’s really skinny or another guy has some sort of disorder so he never grows. The guy from the Helga project is a bit heavy. So they’re not ideal men or boys. But I feel really empathetic towards them, I feel like they’re empathetic creatures, and I feel like they’ve become beautiful through the fact that someone has appreciated them, even with their imperfections. They all have the ability to perform. I’ve been working with Herbert, my nephew, since he was probably nine, and now he’s twenty. So he’s been photographed as long as he’s had consciousness about his body and what he looks like when he’s being photographed. He’s very used to it. He’s also the talent scout and gathers people and thinks who I’ll like and who would be good to work with. He’s sort of a good liaison. Also, photographing German boys in suburbia, they’re pretty far away from thinking of themselves as people to be photographed. They’re just kind of regular guys. Some are more show-offy than others. It’s all sort of new and fun and exciting to be photographed. Because we’re in a small town and because we’re with their friend, it’s just a very easy process. In America I like a much more kind of rough, white, a little bit of acne, blond hair, kind of brutal guys from high school. The German boys are almost the female counterpoint to that. It’s a much gentler kind of masculinity.

HPJ: Your work has often been discussed in terms of androgyny. In this series, what is the relation between androgyny and the construction of masculinity?

CS: In these pictures, it doesn’t really have anything to do with androgyny. This is the first project for me, in a while, that is about masculinity but there’s no ambiguity there. The only ambiguity is about nationality and about time period. Doing Forests and Fields at the same time as the Helga project, it was so easy not to think about gender, because in the Helga project it’s both about gender and about nationality and about artist’s position regarding the model, and with Forests and Fields it was really about my relationship with Germany, the German landscape, the German citizen, the German soldier, and my ideas about Gemany’s relationship to Germany and it’s history. I picked three time periods to talk about this relationship, World War II, current German experience, current German reality, and Vietnam. All the boys are German; they’re all shot in Germany, and all of the uniforms are real. Two of the boys in uniforms are actually in the army currently. It was much more about approaching historical taboos and also discussing things like German patriotism, nationalism, and what it is to serve in the army today in Germany. And how little it has contact with the past.

HPJ: The fact that you have the one photograph of the blond girl opening the braid [Lina Opening Braid, Bettringen 2001] really serves to reinforce the masculine subjectivity of the rest of the models.

CS: Yeah, I think she makes them straight. She also makes them male. I put her in really as this device to assert their masculinity. If there’s anything hidden, it’s time, but there’s no gender flip-flopping. It wasn’t an interest in this. Hers is an intense portrayal, or performance, of the feminine presence. You only need one of her.

HPJ: What is the significance of this restaging of history? What are the connections, if any, between the performative aspect of your work and the spectacle of the Third Reich?

CS: I’ve worked in Germany for the last eight years, visiting there for the last twelve years. Nazi Germany became this sort of white elephant in the room. I’m the only Jew in the town that I go to. It’s sort of always there – It’s always there for everybody. In a sense I feel like I’ve been working around it for a long time. For me it was a cathartic experience to kind of unpack the Vermach soldier, literally, emotionally, and figuratively. Getting these boxes of uniforms from a costume company and opening them for the first time, it was incredibly spooky and painful. At the same time I realized how quickly one gets over the shock of it until the third or fourth day shooting with them you’re just throwing them into the car and “who’s got the boots?” and “do you have the Nazi pants?” and it never becomes casual, but you become used to it. There are a lot of emotional goals for the project that I was never sure would be realized, but one of them was to, at least in my mind, find a way of separating being Jewish from the Holocaust, to take away its power over me as a Jew so that I wouldn’t become more Jewish because of the Holocaust, or a certain kind of Jewish because of the Holocaust. At the same time I’m dealing with family and friends in a situation where there’s this great unconscious thing. There are no flags in Germany. To go to Germany as an American, you’re so used to patriotism, you’re so used to flag waving, and you go to this country which is sort of not allowed to. I guess I sort of wanted to lift open that Pandora’s box, in a sense, and to put them back into the landscape to see what it would feel like, to see what they would feel like, and to sort of try to play out something that was less show business, less gigantic mourning session, less Steven Spielberg, where it’s not about good and evil, it’s just about the commonplace moment and the fact that so many of these kids had parents and grandparents who were walking around in these uniforms and all of them, because of their age, had grandfathers who were like sixteen, fifteen, there are a few uncles that were older, and the kids would talk about one family member who got killed in Russia on the front and another family member who was an officer at Dachau. They’ve got this double-edged sword, they’ve got this sword of hero-victims in their family, they’ve got this sword of villain-victims in their family, they’ve got photographs that disappear, and stories that never get told. I just sort of wanted to take a picture of what that might look like, and to create a vision of a German soldier that wasn’t all powerful.

HPJ: At the same time, it’s actually these kids who are involved in the performance.

CS: Yeah, and for them it was very much, it was cathartic for them as well. Depending on their sophistication and their experience with me, one of the kids who had done it the longest was just really interested to see what he looked like in this costume, and to see these pieces of history, they just never get to see the stuff, they only see it in movies. One of the things that led up to this work was shooting them in American surplus stuff, and it always amazed me that these German kids would dress as American soldiers when they wore surplus, when they played army. No one wants to play the Germans. They wanted to be Americans. It was interesting to watch them getting into these costumes and either being scared or being turned on and being afraid of being turned on and excited and all this happening outdoors where it’s illegal to do it, so there were some tense moments. For me it’s actually really important to include the Vietnam costumes. It seemed natural in a sense because the architecture around there seemed like it was built in that Vietnam era. I sort of thought about the idea of Americans occupying Germany at that time after the war when other Americans were in Vietnam fighting, and the sort of shared experience of coming home from a war and not being a hero. It’s a kind of 'let’s bury that history as fast as we can.'

It’s a device in the same way that the girl is a device. I’m never interested in saying one thing at a time, there’s always got to be a secondary path in and out of the work. As well there’s the boy in the show who wears no clothes and so you’re not sure, in a sense the terrain looks more, it looks German, but it could almost look like it could be Asian for a second, and he looks like he could be from a concentration camp, you’re not really sure, but he seems to be the same kid that’s in the Vietnam clothes. He, in a sense, is the body. And, in that body, has to fit into all these uniforms, and these kids try these uniforms on the way that kids try politics on.

HPJ: How do you reconcile the body corporeal with the body as icon?

CS: I think that none of the people I shoot with the exception of the blond girl, say, are totally iconic figures, but I think the photographic style pushes them to it, the way I shoot, using the 4 by 5, certain angles, certain landscapes, it’s sort of all about making this most majestic moment, building this majestic set, around a sort of ordinary person, who kind of transcends that experience. In that sense it’s sort of a flip-side of someone like Bruce Weber who takes the most iconic figure and puts him in the most mundane place.

HPJ: You’ve sort of addressed this already, but the depiction of the Aryan male body has a long and complicated history. What is your personal relation to these bodies as sites of identification, idealization, and/or aversion?

CS: In the beginning, my interest in shooting blondes, especially the wrestlers, was coming up against something that, whether it’s true or myth, was an enemy. This very physical, very blond, very non-Jewish male figure that would have never been interested in me in high school, I would never have hung out with these guys. But also, in my mind, it’s kind of a working class, someone with, say, a steel worker for a father, the kids in high school who smoked and were a little rough. It was based on, if you go back in history, German myth. It became the thing that wanted to kill me, or to fight me, or to harm me. And so it was exciting to get up close to it with a camera in between us and to sort of court it. It felt psychologically much more dangerous than it was physically. The wrestlers were actually great guys. They might appear to look mean and scuffed-up, but they’re pretty gentle guys. More and more it became, for me, a kind of fetish object, the blond guy. I have a theory that blond guys are closer to women than dark-haired guys. They kind of sit a little bit between women and brunette guys. There are certain things in my photographic vocabulary that I can say because of my position of being Jewish, of being a woman, of being gay, that you’re the one who can speak about things that other people are afraid to speak of because they’re afraid they’ll be misunderstood.

[. . .] The mythology of Hitler’s Reich and Leni Riefenstahl’s films, in a sense, everyone wants that; they want it with their own face on it. Utopia is attractive to everybody, and utopia really only can succeed when its filled with all people of the same kind because then there’s no difference, there’s no crisis of identification. I will say that I’ve tried on one of these uniforms and it was a really interesting experience and it wasn’t so much one thing or the other. What was interesting about it was how mundane it actually was and how well the jacket fit me. I felt that I wish I could just keep this jacket and have it tailored and have something copied from it because it was such a nice design. The show was about trying on the costumes, but not being at that place.

I think someone wrote an essay about me and talked about the relationship between my work and Fassbinder and this idea of the troupe. And I think that it’s really important to consider that. When you see these figures coming up again and again in bodies of work, they do become sort of like actors. There’s an intentionality to it, it’s not like I’m trying to fool somebody, if you saw him once as a wrestler and now you see him as a soldier, I like the idea of it. Because of that repetition you understand that it’s this exploration going on, it’s not documentation simply. I mean, it is and it isn’t. When I shoot a German guy who’s in his uniform, hanging out in his backyard after coming home from camp, that’s documentation in a sense. When I shoot him in another uniform, in his same backyard, holding his own beebee gun, that’s documentation too, but he’s also playing a role. But at the same time, most of those boys are photographed in places they grew up in, wearing things they wear, doing things they do. They’re not taken very far from where they started off.

HPJ: What are your points of photographic reference? You seem to appropriate a range of styles, from pictorialism to documentary practice.

CS: In the Helga series there’s definitely a lot of appropriation going on. With the other stuff I don’t try to bring many references to it. It’s funny because I saw a lot of things after I made the show. Someone recommended a book, and that book had a lot of pictures of paintings of German paintings, stuff which I never looked at because I assumed that all the German photographers had already looked at it and copied it and there’s no sense in me looking at it and wanting to make that same picture. I was really influenced by the documentary photography during the Depression, like Jack Conner, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott, Bob Brennans, going into people's homes and taking pictures of them. I definitely grew up on Bruce Weber, and in some sense as much as I’ve learned from Bruce Weber, it’s stuff that I sort of have to forget. You know, Bruce Weber is actually too easy to appropriate. That kind of superficial beauty becomes a boundary for people, they don’t really go into it.

HPJ: It’s interesting that you’re basing your work on an American tradition of heroic photography. The FSA photographers, Bruce Weber…

CS: Yeah, I think there is a sense of trying to make heroes, the everyday hero, trying to make people heroic. I think photography, just the way it captures someone so particularly, it suggests that they’re important in some way, they’re in the picture. I think 4 by 5 has really changed the appearance of the work. It’s made it bigger and brighter, more saturated, it’s a bigger space that I view through, so I’m seeing more. The longer I work, the less I think about influences. Also, because I shoot in Germany. One of the reasons I started shooting in Germany and never shot pictures here was because I just felt like here I would run into someone else’s work, and in Germany I don’t run into anybody’s work. I might run into a Thomas Struth building or a Gursky soccer field, but I certainly don’t see it in the same way and my objective is not to show it in the same way. So I’m totally free when I’m there. I don’t have anyone to talk to about art and I don’t really see any art magazines, so the experience has so little to do with here and now and photography, and so much to do with chasing daydreams and chasing boys and chasing good weather, getting into the car and just going; and not thinking so much about art-making, but thinking about fantasies.

HPJ: How do you negotiate the spaces of history and the spaces of fantasy in your photographs?

CS: One of the things with the Forests and Fields show that was interesting was there are certain fields I shoot in and forests around where some of these kids live, and three of those kids family members have buried, grandfathers have buried, or grandmothers have buried World War II stuff up there. One kid told a story of going in a field once, at a friend’s house, and finding a helmet. There’s tons of stuff underneath those fields and forest beds. I’m constantly wanting to get a metal detectors and look for Nazi gold or at least buttons and stuff. So for me, the landscape feels so loaded. It also feels so potentially American. In a way, Wyeth painted Maine and Pennsylvania to look sort of German, and painted Helga because she was German. I see American this – this in Germany, but everything in Germany is sort of rougher, more expansive, and less cut-down. The reason that, for me, Germany is so fertile, is because everywhere I look I see a flashback. You can’t pass a train station, you can’t look at a passing train without thinking of human transports. Smoke stacks freak me out there. Blondness startles me. Old German writing and faded photographs, there’s just so much there. I’m constantly aware of the fact that I’m trying to move around German history. I’m trying to combat it in a sense. I’ve made pictures of German boys in American uniforms wearing yarmulkes, and tried to force the idea of this Israeli occupation of Germany. It’s constantly trying to fight the oppression of memory and to fight being the only one who talks about certain things, or wants to come to some sort of end resolution. Those kind of ideas float around these kids' heads, but no one’s insisting that they resolve anything.



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