Tuesday, 3 June 2008



Both photographers downplay particular camera features or distinctive printing options, instead concentrate on manipulation and classification of subject for rather than by the camera. In other words, what characterises their work is less a matter of how than what, strictly, of the informal over the formal. In this they conform to a wider trend (see also Posts 12 and 27). For Crewdson, elaborate theatrical tableaux steadily expand to engage realism and cinematic anecdote, while for Schorr the quality sought from her young male subjects grows more elusive or fleeting, and most recently is pursued in drawing.

Both photographers stress fiction or artifice. But while Crewdson often uses theatrical lighting and framing from a conveniently empty foreground to reveal fixed poses and stereotypical figures, Schorr confines fiction to a few military props for some of her young men, to role-reversed poses from pin-ups or traditional poses, to modest still lives as a metaphor for place or belonging.

Thirdly, both photographers deal in a marked estrangement or alienation from the presentational norms upon which they draw. For Crewdson, the broader more elaborate views of Middle American life are deliberately hollow projections from some grander vantage point that finally register something like fear or contempt through ostentatious displays of logistics or pyrotechnics. For Schorr, young men are documented as wrestlers, soldiers – even Nazis – and pin-ups, yet the theme remains male youth in roles that require no female counterpart, that if not overtly hostile, then fail as a measure of the feminine, for the feminine. But the threat is not in the roles assigned, nor their indifference to them, but at a much more basic level, where Schorr cannot identify.

Crewdson’s work first gained attention in the early 90s, with intimate tableau of birds and insects, significantly, of collective behaviour in ‘nature’; both viewed at some remove. However, in subsequent works, such as the Twilight series (1998) the artist shifts attention to episodes in the American heartland, often literally dark and disturbing, as much for the intense artifice as errant behaviour. Here the connection is often made to David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (1986) with its opening and closing scenes of high artifice, bracketing a tale of terror and crime. Crewdson’s earlier works are seen as announcing similar revelations, but his clever play on nature and naturalism through models, does more than frame scenes of disruption and dysfunction. They render them disturbingly restrained and distant, as if no more than models in some higher scheme.

Indeed as the scenes become more expansive, there are works dedicated to the production values, to the extent of manipulation and artifice engaged; that are literally more revealing of the work’s tenor and priorities. And as whole neighbourhoods appear to fall under such schemes, they too are seen as just a more elaborate model or staging, not quite real, or perhaps worth greater effort. Either way, the uneasiness with the extent of artifice leaves the fiction of too much. It becomes forced projection of squalor or desolation, from a distance that ultimately lacks engagement or conviction. They are visions of something hardly known, largely denied. This is quite different from Lynch’s Expressionism or the paintings of Edward Hopper, another frequent comparison that misses the stylistic differences available and necessary to still photography.

Schorr’s work arrives a little later in the 90s, and while there are early works concerned with aspects of student life, her themes are usually young American wrestlers and a family of German youths at leisure. With each, Schorr isolates a peer group, deals less in interaction than individuality illuminated by role and circumstance. But while the wrestlers are factual and the soldiers fictional, neither quite confines young men to such roles nor convinces that such roles are only for young men. And where other work substitutes young men for women, as pin-ups and artist’s models, noted above, the interest in young men clearly points to an absence of options, a frustration with roles. The agenda appears to have only one gender and it is a hostile one.

As in Crewdson’s work, this grants the work a curious distance, and while Schorr is happy to also place men against a backdrop of nature, even camouflaged by it, their nature is no more forthright for it, her photography no closer to identification. Interestingly, her recent work uses drawing to bring figures together, to transcend the iconography of roles, to avoid the isolation of her photography. But both artists bring new expressive dimensions to familiar iconography, even though the expressions may be troubling or unwelcome.

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