Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sarah Schorr

I wrote this piece about some photos that NYC photographer Sarah Schorr showed me. The photographs will be exhibited in early 2007 at Yancey Richardson Gallery in Manhattan, with a book to follow.

Some of the photos are available for viewing at

And more information on Sarah is available at

Seeing Sarah Schorr's photographs for the first time, I got hooked on a white platform with a four-inch heel. It was clearly a performer's shoe, practical and ludicrous in equal degrees. It had an ankle-strap riveted with small metal eyelets, making the shoe both fetching and hard to lose even in acrobatic performance. Rivets continued down the upper side of the shoe, a unifying visual element.The strap showed signs of wear only at the third eyelet, suggesting heavy use by a single owner. It had been smudged by fingertips tacky with make-up. Painted and repainted, two shades of white were visible on the heel at the scuff-marks. Tiny dark blue flecks were stuck to one side. They were difficult to discern, nearly square--probably confetti.
Schorr rendered the shoe without apparent comment, via a flatbed scanner which doubled as camera for nearly half the photographs laid out for me. It was as though the shoe were far underwater, illuminated by a diver's beam, a single bright source pausing only briefly. It gave the center a dull but strong shine. Gradually it was absorbed into an inky black background--receding, falling--like an artifact from some great nautical disaster, once sensational, now almost forgotten.

Often the objects in this series were delivered to Schorr by their owners in clear plastic bags. Appearing against a neutral background, they seem at first evidential, but however ribald and often lowbrow burlesque's historical roots, nothing in the photographs suggests the performers or the artist view it as a criminal activity. However well-worn, rumpled, damaged or slightly corroded, the performers bagged them before handing them over, an indication of their personal importance. Glance, pore over, scrutinize freely, was the implication. But carefully. In not removing them from their bags before shooting, Schorr complied. When possible, she also photographed them with or in their cases as well. In fact the work is filled with containers and their accoutrements: bags, cases, rooms, costumes, fasteners, snaps. The photos are an additional wrapper.
Shot much closer, these false eyelashes, feather boas and make-up cases would be only surface and texture. By contrast Schorr's human subjects are rarely captured head-to-toe. These performers are shown in preparation, during costume changes, or after a show, often in various states of undress, displaying the ease of those who have long since unlearned modesty through performance. Devoid of erotic intent, the work escapes the soft-core trap into which many surveys of the burlesque revival fall.
In her work there is always an awareness of edges and margins. Many scenes, but no establishing shots: settings are only implied. Everywhere is indoors. Her framing can fairly well sever heads, appendages and lower bodies. Even when starkly exposed the subjects are not to be known intimately. Their backs are turned or their eyes in shadow. There are no head shots and no strict portraiture. As viewers, we never feel completely acquainted with anyone.
In the absence of a clear character study, it would be easy to read this body of work as instead thematizing performance. The subject matter is certainly theatrical. But the only time a subject is depicted in performance, she is veiled by a screen and lit from behind: a shadow, apparently in motion at that. These are not the lyrical suspensions of disbelief brought to us by Hollywood or even Broadway--rather a view from backstage, full of reminders that we are seeing the builders and relics of a hasty construction: abandoned drinks, open costume clasps, a paper towel blotted with make-up. Schorr draws ever closer in patient pursuit of her subjects. As viewers, we are sometimes acutely aware of her presence behind the lens. Other times it is diffuse--blush powder remnants on the inside of a makeup bag.
Burlesque performers are generally stars of stage not screen. Cinematic artifice serves to magnify actions--breathing, whispering, narrowing the eyes--bringing them terribly close to the viewer. But in the movie theater the actors are, despite all evidence of the eyes and ears, themselves rarely present, except perhaps at the film's opening or as part of a promotion. The theatrical presence, burlesque included, has no such disconnect. Rarely are Schorr's human subjects entirely in or out of costume. Actor and character are present in equal measure. Burlesque performance is often not an expression of self or a portrayal of character so much as the development of a persona, one which the performers may inhabit offstage as well. These ineffable burlesque personae are the true subject of every photo, threaded together by props and costumes, lit in performance as if from within.


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