PRINT February 2007


COLLIER SCHORR’S PHOTOGRAPHY rests on the surface of the lens, where subject and object engage in a play of perspective. One culture, for example, might be seen through the eyes of another, as when Schorr photographs German youths wearing the apparel of American (or Israeli, or Swedish) armed forces—an embedding of cultural signs that inevitably triggers a consolidation of commonalities, distinctions, and connections among social and political histories. Alternatively, one gender might be viewed through the filter of another, as when Schorr took up Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga pictures” as the model for a series of portraits of a German teenager, Jens F.—the resulting book of photographs and collages, published last year, evidences a subtle but ever-increasing play of performance and projection (and power) as Schorr’s male subject assumes his sexualized role within this intimate, artistic transposition of gender conventions.

With respect to all these projects it might be said that Schorr’s viewer is consistently directed elsewhere—to another time, another place, another subjectivity. Her work is less about what you see than about what you imagine you see, or what you associate with the picture placed before you. Her photographs force, in other words, an acute awareness of context. Certainly that’s the case in the image that opens “There I was . . . ,” a special portfolio executed by the artist for Artforum: The empty field filling the page seems a country idyll, the no-place subject of an elementary genre picture; and yet when one learns that this unprepossessing image was taken in Bavaria, home to Flossenbürg and Dachau, something so benign as chimney smoke in the distance becomes a figure of history, and the picture’s meaning even risks overdetermination. (These readings cohabit the image, never canceling one another out, such that the historical past can seem utterly present at the same time as the photograph signifies nothing beyond its immediate subject.) This aspect—whereby Schorr’s images conjure associations while asking to be taken as things, people, places, or times in and of themselves—also lends a certain irony to the project’s title. For although these photographs speak clearly to today’s geopolitical conflicts and, in particular, to America’s disastrous military engagement in Iraq, most are, in fact, culled from the artist’s archive of pictures made since the early 1990s of German teens in store-bought camouflage gear and of conscripted youths during military training; there is even a photo of actor Peter Sarsgaard in Imperial Valley, California, during the filming of Jarhead (2005).

Inspired by the scrapbook style of Time-Life books on mid-century conflicts, as well as by David Douglas Duncan’s classic 1970 photo essay on Vietnam, War Without Heroes, Schorr is currently composing an artist’s book using the “war reportage” genre as an organizing principle for looking back at her oeuvre. (These pages represent her first efforts in this regard.) As the artist explains, “I could never bring myself to decide what constitutes a ‘good’ photograph in war. But I began to consider what it would mean for an artist like me—who has dealt so long with militarized imagery, its sexualization or romanticism—to make an antiwar body of work.” She became acutely aware that images she made in the early ’90s had changed in meaning, or were accruing new ones, as the world’s political and social fabric was rewoven by military conflicts. (Personal experience also informed her thinking: The young men she was photographing near her part-time home outside Stuttgart stopped wearing American fatigues—or “playing the role of the victor,” she says—as local US Army bases closed and a popular consciousness of World War II waned in the face of more recent regional traumas and their aftereffects, for example, the mass immigration of Croats fleeing the Balkans.)

“There I was . . . ,” in other words, largely grapples with the fantasy of war, its seductions, the narratives constructed around it. (The title’s phrasing is, after all, libidinal, not traumatic—as would be, say, “I was there.”) The project is steeped in war’s imagining and imaging—the latter term being particularly fraught for American audiences, whose government and mass media have for years severely restricted the dissemination of images from the war in Iraq, thereby distancing the conflict in the public conscience. And yet it is this very intimation of “elsewhere” that renders Schorr’s project analytical or, more accurately, philosophical. As each period of her work bleeds into or rests alongside others and is subject to history—“My practice is totally determined by policy-making entities,” she says—so different conflicts, and our vision and understanding of them, are here juxtaposed, made to interrelate, cradled by each other in collage. The interrelationship is made plain by Schorr’s use of floating captions and headlines pertaining to conflicts ranging from World War II to last summer’s battle between Israel and the Hamas paramilitary in Lebanon: The past still exists in the present; every wartime image, every story, represents only a small portion of this still unfolding, always partially hidden history. And it is in this regard that Schorr’s fantasy might also be considered wishful thinking, or a kind of proleptic, melancholic perspective. The title of her next artist’s book, in which these pages will ultimately appear: Memories of the Administration.

Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.