New York

Collier Schorr

Like Dan Graham, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, and Candida Höfer, all of whom have trafficked, at one time or another, in deadpan images of suburban culture and daily life, Collier Schorr photographs seemingly banal locales, characters, and events. Though cloaked in ordinariness, these images place as much, if not more, emphasis on framing as on what’s inside the frame. Like much conceptual photography, Schorr’s work is based on a strategy of defamiliarization predicated on instrumentalizing means of “seeing differently” which, here, is tantamount to “seeing difference.”

In her recent installation of just over twenty largish C-prints, entitled Suden von keinem Norden (South of no north, 1995–96), questions of difference are dispatched to a metaphoric land located somewhere amid a cluster of small German towns—Gmund, Durlandgen, and Aelen—outside Stuttgart, notable models of middle-class respectability. The houses are meticulously kept; the youthful inhabitants all white and well-scrubbed. The link between what is seen and what it means hinges, in part, on Schorr’s Jewishness. Among the houses she photographs, all of which are yellow but not alike, is a former US Army barrack. Hanging from its roof is a length of coiled wire that resembles a hangman’s noose, in a dim echo of “the final solution.” There are a number of indications that Schorr is viewing contemporary Germany through the prism of its past: an Aryan-looking youth in camouflage fatigues; another teenage boy, wearing a yarmulke, caught furtively looking over his shoulder. Yet there’s reason to believe that this path through German and Jewish tensions leads to the exploration of another kind of difference; too many of the characters and actions don’t fit that paradigm.

It’s readily apparent that the site Schorr brings into focus is inhabited by a group of teens who have the place to themselves. In this never-never land, Schorr seems as captivated by the kids themselves as by what they might represent. In images of plein-air revelry that recall Impressionist tableaux, she depicts her young subjects in idle pursuits: outings in the country, luncheons in the grass, lounging and reading in the afternoon sun. We are made privy to a radiantly simple world, one carefully constructed to shut out intruding elements that might undermine innocent pleasures. Although the teens are often photographed in what could be interpreted as marginalized places—a darkened movie theater, the fields in back of houses, empty streets—it is the adults who are truly marginalized. There’s only one fly in the ointment—and that’s Schorr herself. Although she never appears in front of the lens, her presence as one of the gang is implied by the intimacy and self-consciousness of the camera’s relation with its subject. Artificially staged rather than spontaneously captured, the benign-looking photographs dodge documentary purpose and throw intentionality into doubt by raising the question, What is a woman of thirty-something doing at the center of a fantasy teen-world of her own making?

The answer is readily provided by the photographic point of view that pushes past documentation into the mesmerizing reaches of voyeurism, past identification with its subjects into desire for them. Does it make a difference that Schorr is not only Jewish but gay? The camera’s answer is Yes. It eroticizes the teens, particularly the young women, the implication being that the corruption of innocence hangs in the balance. They seem to conspire to seduce the camera, if not Schorr herself. Karin, who appears in several images, binds her breasts, stuffs her jockey-style underwear with a bulging sock, and plays butch for the camera. She’s as much Schorr’s alter ego as is Silke, the young woman who sells candy to the kids at the movies and who also happens to look like Schorr. The androgynous appearance of Karin, Silke, several other teen subjects, and Schorr herself represents an ideal—in particular a lesbian one—in which androgyny equals resistance to conventional femininity which equals freedom. This look also constructs a visual pleasure that is simultaneously voyeuristic and narcissistic.

For Schorr, the camera is a means of covert scopic engagement. It enables her to stage harmless events and at the same time to stand in the shadows and take pleasure in looking through the peephole of the camera’s shuttered lens. Never-never land gives way to a terrain requiring great navigational skill and an understanding of the subtle codes and gestures that signal and articulate difference. Schorr deploys the camera to capture how we straddle fences and construct multiple identities—teen/adult, straight/lesbian, German/Jew, American/European, in/out. What animates these photographs is that in looping together the Garden and the Fall, they neither search for resolution nor seek redemption.

Jan Avgikos

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