"Personal, commercial, editorial – it’s all the same to me," says Collier Schorr, whose work explores identity politics and photography's fetishistic gaze
Spanning a 30-year career, Schorr’s work explores identity politics and photography’s fetishistic gaze. Best-known for her early portraits of adolescent boys, and her fashion and editorial work for magazines, her 2014 show, 8 Women, highlighted a shift in focus.
What draws me to photographing adolescent youth? The sense of things being unresolved. I succeeded in nothing as a child. I waited for high school to be over so I could go to New York. I knew things wouldn’t come easy. But I knew they could come if I worked for them.
I fell in love with a German woman. Then with her family and her town [Schwäbisch Gmünd, where she returned every summer for 18 years]. And in a small town in Germany there wasn’t much to do, so I started taking pictures. Before then I was making sculptures.
Admiration is a bit of a childhood crush. I’ve been disappointed at times meeting people I admired. So I’ll say I admire young people who assist [me], because they put in so much energy.
Richard Prince and Peter Halley were important influences. I worked for both of them. With Peter, I learned about having a studio practice. With Richard, about seeing pictures as things.
My biggest challenge has been my own fear of running a photoshoot. The pressure to perform in front of other people. What I learned was that I liked it.
My big break? There have been so many. And to be honest, my art and fashion careers have been slow and steady. It’s not like I woke up somewhere else ever. Big things were publishing my book, Jens F, with Steidl Mack, curating a project at the Deutsche Guggenheim [Freeway Balconies], and shooting an Yves Saint Laurent campaign.
Personal, commercial, editorial – it’s all the same to me. Because I never know when I will see something that resonates as an image I’d want to play with [for] an exhibition. But often that happens later, when I’m editing or remembering a moment.
It all changed when I was finishing Jens F. The book explored traditional female poses in painting. I cast a boy as Andrew Wyeth’s [female] muse, Helga. At the tail end of that project, six-and-a-half years in, I met a photographer named Kate Cunningham who looked just like Helga, and I realised that I missed the female figure, and I had to get over my issues with representation.
My continued fascination with fashion photography is the level of permission. As I got older, it became harder to approach strangers and ask them to pose for pictures. I had anxiety about what people thought I wanted.
In fashion, everyone in the room is getting something. The model is directly invested in the photograph. And I like the structure. It’s very similar to the way Jeff Wall works: having a casting agent, a make-up artist and a set designer to create a world he can then photograph. It’s really not that much different. I’m not hired to be anyone. Other than myself, with my view. So the world built is generally one I’m interested in shooting.
I once said I didn’t think a new picture will be made by a man in my lifetime. Does this still ring true. Maybe not. A lot has changed in the last two years. Certainly way more women are working in fashion photography. Maybe it will force younger men to reinvent positions. And thus some new thing will surface.
Everyone has spoken about #MeToo. And everyone is worried about it. Models as a group have way more power now. And I feel more comfortable working in the industry now that everyone is aware. But I haven’t heard one genuine apology. We live in a culture where very few people are advised to apologise.
The best advice I’ve been given? Don’t worry about what other people think.
The picture I hold most precious is a collage by Richard Prince. It was made for me when a girl broke my heart.