PRINT November 1998


Her subject would appear to be masculinity. Many of the photographs show adolescents at their moment of ripening, the moment at which teenage boys begin to be called men: in military uniform, waiting at base camp, during downtime; at leisure, sunbathing in a field or by a pool; in repose, acclimating to the objects around them, which, like the uniforms and name tags the boys may wear, the often spare venues and bare landscapes they occupy, loan them their only identity or assurance as to what they might be; staring into space or the camera’s lens; even bent over or spread-eagle, a fantasy (someone else’s, theirs, hers). Collier Schorr’s subject would appear to have something to do with masculinity, and it does, except that it involves many other things at the same time: in some of the photos the boys are girls, the uniforms purchased, the location scouted, the premise faked. While having all the appearances of portraiture, her project is really self-portraiture manqué, almost always using stand-ins, stunt doubles from a coming-of-age movie as yet unfinished, in whose stills the self is absent, or at least never seen, but everywhere possible.

Schorr began her pursuit of such becoming boys with a series called “Horst im Garten” (Horst in the garden), 1995–96, a suite of compact photos that record Horst’s negotiations of his situation in the subtlest, pained gradations of smoky blacks, grays, and whites, with an occasional larger pic transfused by solar dazzle: he pauses in a tree, its only fruit, or stands shirtless and alone on a hillside, as if to wait out whatever is not being, cannot be, decided by his body, by someone or himself about his body, which may be, like a photograph, only a consequence of light and shadow. Certain titles of individual photos announced literary inspirations (James Purdy, Denton Welch) or a passionate attention to fashion (jeans, skin, makeup). The pause of boy in nature, the bodily indecision (who am I? what am I?), verdant lighting, an ominous if perhaps unverifiable question of German atmosphere, the instability of the image as portrait or memory remain the foundation from which all her work will build.

Much of the pleasure of Schorr’s enterprise accrues from her reflection on the most penetrating American investigations of masculinity which preceded it: Norman Rockwell’s haunting of school yards and main streets to discover what allows boys and men to become typical; Andy Warhol’s reconfiguration of the male nude as “landscape,” a surface—void, silent, and inscrutable (qualities not unconnected to those by which control and power are forged); Larry Clark’s pursuit of wayward boys to figure out and claim an adolescence denied him a pursuit in which he complicates (or confuses) the erotics of a desire to be with a desire to have; and Bruce Weber’s questing to project—or advertise—his beefy idée fixe with such thoroughness that he refashions masculine display, the ways in which men look at each other (and themselves), the manner in which they relate to and care for their bodies. Schorr employs and deploys stereotype, unyielding surface, desire, and display not to realize some new meaning, but to allow whatever masculinity is to be seen.

Reexamining the conundrums of Cindy Sherman’s work (a staging of the masquerade called the self, feminine but in the end anonymous, with Sherman, or some bit of her, always present and representable, actual, her own body propping up various veils and disguises), Schorr probes something as complex but somehow more perverse—perverse, perhaps, because at first glance, well, so seemingly straight or straightforward, so distant from the darkness and gore of the self’s haunted house. In Schorr’s work there is only the masquerade of another’s body, the surface of another’s skin, the stripped-down uncanny of everyday appearance. It would be easier to think that this is not what the self is—an other—and that, strangely, this difference is not what makes anyone like anyone else. The work succeeds and disconcerts because it is what it would appear to be—an obsessive study of masculinity—and by being that is something else entirely, which is the problem of photography, since what “really is” actually means is a question it keeps circulating.

As a teenager in the late ’70s looking for examples of how to be a smart, with-it girl on the go, Schorr discovered that the most exciting, stylized, shimmering girls were faggots. She immersed herself in faggot culture. To a teen back then, most dykes probably seemed dowdy (it would have been difficult to access the staunch lesbian chic of Romaine Brooks’s circle in the pages of glossies), few would have seemed to resonate savvy, chic, intellectual flair, and sexual power: those who did, Susan Sontag and Fran Lebowitz, did so because theirs was a faggot aesthetic—it was faggot savvy, faggot chic, and faggot smarts they purveyed—and not for nothing were their most famous essays, ’’Notes on Camp“ and ”Notes on Trick," dedicated, respectively, to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. The conceptual strangeness of Schorr’s work—its inheritance from Lebowitz’s faggotry?—lies in the fact that it posits masculinity as a kind of lesbianism, and not the inverse, meaning only that desire and bodies retain a mystery that no one has theorized away, their dynamics still being gauged.

The erotics of perceptual misprision rather than identity or sexuality or gender impels Schorr’s project. She suggests that although such matters may be only a consequence of perception and representation, in other words, illusory, they are often felt to the bone’s marrow. A photograph uses everything the real offers, but will verify nothing. Soldier (Winchester .270, Model 70 w/Weaver K-3 Tilden Mount), 1998, which could be someone’s keepsake of a stalwart young soldier off to boot camp, his hair buzzed, leaving home, is also enlisted as the fist shot of a military-inspired porn spread she completed for Honcho. The graceful, curving lines of a boy, poolside, align easily with the staples of blue narratives but actually are taken from one of Schorr’s most purely documentary projects. Some of her young soldiers serve their country; others serve only Schorr’s desire to realize her fantasies about the complex relations between boy and girl, German and Jew, participant and observer—and perhaps to ponder what facts any photograph can submit. Such slippages, such contextual elusions, elisions, haunt the word “like,” which may be what Schorr investigates most insistently: What is actually meant or seen when something is said to look “like” something else? One looks like the other—the girl like the boy, the first photograph like the second, the porn shot like the keepsake or the fine art nude, the real like the faked. It is not only a question of why one looks like the other but how one comes to be like the other. Compare Soldier and Two Shirts, 1998. Perhaps it is only the light that twins them, lending them any semblance of the masculine, if that is what they resemble; light not biology; light or specific items, the shirts, all kinds of uniforms, put on, taken off; light or aspects, a frozen gesture, a dumb expression.

Schorr’s photographs allow an endless amount of staring—at men, or, more precisely, at what appears to be, what becomes, male; at the landscapes, details, rooms, scars, clothing, religious beliefs, actions, poses, activities, international occupations, games, maneuvers, and rituals that situate the disruption or illusion of masculinity, which would appear to be her subject but to which she is subject. Through a steadfast attention to whatever masculinity is, to wherever it appears, it is as if Schorr allowed masculinity to punctuate sight, seeing, and like any punctuation be applied to a variety of other syntactical arrangements with the result that everything partaking of such arrangement would then retard, “like” a sentence in which equal weight is given to the words and the punctuation and the space in between them: the boy bends over comma allowing the pink and green striped blanket to sweeten the position comma the offering comma to illuminate its innocence comma as his severe haircut attempts to convince anyone otherwise period the question is comma can you see him and just what is it you see if you do question mark.

Photography’s way of representing represses and retards her various bodies—the girl body, the boy body, the faggot body, the dyke body, the dream body, the militant body, the smart body—but it is, of course, the only thing that allows them to be seen at all.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.