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Collier Schorr on gender and identity

The photographer and artist talks about how her work sets out to disrupt and provoke.

Collier wears shirt by COS.

‘When I started out, art directors would tell my agent, ‘We love Collier’s work but we’re afraid she will make all women look like lesbians’, then after a couple of years everyone was putting blazers on women and telling them to be boyish’, says Collier Schorr (she/her) a few days after her shoot for COS’ Love for All campaign as part of the Pride 2022 celebrations.

Born in Queens in 1963 and raised in Long Island and New Jersey, she moved to Manhattan in 1981 during New York’s explosive downtown cultural renaissance. ‘It was an amazing time to be in the city amongst all that East Village energy’, says Schorr. ‘You would see drag queens and performance artists and bands and it was often hard to tell what was what.’

‘I couldn’t wait to get to New York and dress and to advertise this lesbian identity of mine. It was also a form of rebellion.’

As a teenager in the suburbs, she had become fixated by fashion photography and its representation of gender, collecting and collating cutouts from magazines and organizing them into themes like ‘Girls I Like’, ‘Clothes I Like’ and ‘Places I Want to Go’. ‘I was fascinated by what I thought was gay culture being displayed in fashion advertising’, says Schorr. ‘If the women weren’t gay then they were a bridge to feeling gay desire. I really felt like they were put there to call forth all of us into a tribe.’

For her first exhibition at the 303 Gallery, where she worked, she pasted photocopies of fashion advertisements between pieces of plexiglass. Photography only became part of her art in her twenties when she moved to Southern Germany.

Straddling the line between documentary and fiction, she has continued to explore gender and identity, navigating the subjective nature of representation both in her artworks and shoots for leading fashion titles.

A recurring theme throughout her career is the portrayal of androgyny, whether through her series of photographs of wrestlers at her old high school or those of her German nephews dressed as American soldiers. ‘Since high school all I had seen was the objectification of women’, she explains. 

Although confrontational in terms of the social and cultural establishment, her photographs are always as intimate and tender as they are intense and emotional, showing both the physicality and vulnerability of her subjects.

From her home in Williamsburg, Collier talks about sexuality, how she arrived where she is today and some of the key themes that run throughout her work.

Jens, Joa, Kate, Jens F, 2000 – 2005, Photograph by Collier Schorr
Beauty (K.T.), Wrestlers, 2002, Photograph by Collier Schorr

ON FINDING HER TRIBE
‘At high school I always felt like a ‘Tribe of One’ and I was just waiting until I could go to the city. The kids at school who were the coolest were the ones who did audio video and stuff like that. They were the nerds, the geekiest kids but they were the ones who hung out at CBGB in the ‘70s and wore the T-shirts. And I always remembered that. These were essentially the ones who were at Warhol’s Factory – those geeky kids who came to the city and found something. And I really associated with that when I arrived in New York in 1981. My tribe was very much located in the East Village arts scene.’

ON THE DOWNTOWN SCENE
‘When I moved to New York in 1981 it was a poverty-blighted place, infected with crime and drugs, but I never really realized that at the time when I was living amongst it. It was totally empowering as well as dangerous. I started going to the Pyramid Club in East Village in 1982 and seeing drag shows and all of that. Then places like Club 57 and Save the Robots. So that whole scene down in the East Village became so inspiring – there were so many tribes colliding. Someone like Ann Magnuson at Club 75 embodied that – she was a performance artist, club owner, singer in bands and actress in all these films.’

ON FASHION AS HER FIRST IMPULSE
‘In the late 1970s when I was 16, I used to study Interview magazine and then would take the bus downtown to go shopping. I used to look at where I thought I was going to end up, buying clothes that would announce to people in my school that I was actually an interesting person. They were also a costume and I never thought I was as big as the idea of the clothes. So, when I would buy a tuxedo shirt, I didn’t think I was a star. I thought if I could put those clothes on, I could be a star.’

‘I lived in a time when most young gay people suffered. But I didn’t; I wanted to be part of this group of sexy, cool and interesting people.’

ON HER SEXUAL IDENTITY
‘I couldn’t wait to get to New York and dress and to advertise this lesbian identity of mine. It was also a form of rebellion – it was provocative even if it was only in my own mind to start with. Historically, gay people have said it is not a choice to be the way they are but the truth is I did choose it. I lived in a time when most people who were gay at a young age would have suffered over it. But I didn’t; I wanted to be part of this group of sexy, cool and interesting people.’

ON MASCULINITY AND GENDER STUDY
‘I arranged to shoot the wrestling team at my old school. I walked in and I was blown away because I didn’t know that much about men and hadn’t been in male spaces like this before. And all of a sudden, I was in this small room with these half-naked men pounding each other. It felt gay but also made me feel straight somehow. These were the boys I didn’t go out with at school and everything connected in that room where I could find forms that were strong but super vulnerable. I just totally fetishized these men. A lot of gay people love wrestling because it’s this incredibly homosocial universe with these couples who hurt each other but also look after each other.

In the work ‘Jens F’, I asked one of my male subjects to pose as this woman from the Andrew Wyeth paintings of Helga. In making him pose like her in these so-called female positions I would reveal more shades of masculinity. That was the most clear gender study and it created some relief about what masculinity could look like.’

ON FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY
‘Fashion was a place where I could do what I liked doing but with the production budget that Jeff Wall would have. If you look at a Jeff Wall photograph it’s always artificially set up, it’s cast, it’s lit and it’s costumed. Everything in the picture is a choice and there is a team of people who put that together. And that’s always been what fashion has been to me. I see fashion photography as a kind of journalism where I can use the pages of a magazine to talk about things that are going on in the world, or historical things, or I can try to introduce more intimacy.’

ON PRIDE AND WORKING WITH COS
‘I think it’s amazing that Pride is now like a season in fashion. When I was younger, I would feel vulnerable and separate, and it would be like ‘you people go in that corner with your people and do your thing that you have to do’. And now I feel it’s respected and has become a powerful tool. And you get to work on projects like this one for COS. I loved shooting everyone, it was like ‘wow all these great and different people with different pronouns and different ways of wearing clothes’, and that’s what I’ve always loved about fashion and photography.’

Self Portrait #1, American, 2008, Photograph by Collier Schorr

QUICK FIRE Q&A

Last item of clothing you bought? 
‘Can I choose the last item of clothing that was bought for me, which was a hockey jersey from the Canadian Olympic team?’

The last exhibition that inspired you?
‘The Adam Pendleton show Who Is Queen? at MoMA.’

Best New York memory?
‘A school trip to the Picasso show at MoMA and I see Richard Gere looking at paintings. I go up to him and say “you’re Richard Gere" and he says "no I’m not" and I say “yes you are”. Then I see him later and say “you know that you are!"’

Any new female photographers we should we look out for?
‘Sharna Osborne from New Zealand who now lives in London. She’s a really great artist and we talk a lot.’

Your most treasured possession?
‘I have so many. I guess it would be a Richard Prince collage that he made for me when I was crying over a girl.’

Words by Andy Thomas
Photography by Collier Schorr
Styling by Esther Matilla


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