In a recent interview the photographer Collier Schorr nonchalantly proclaimed: “If I was born for anything, it was to do a Calvin Klein ad.” The statement reads as an insouciant bon mot, but it also points, in a convincing gesture, to an interesting trait of her work. Schorr, whose pictures have appeared both in art and in editorial contexts, might be best known for her recurrent portraits of the adolescent Jens F — her erstwhile neighbor in a village in Germany’s Black Forest, whom she photographed in poses adapted from American painter Andrew Wyeth’s model Helga. Or for her depictions of high school wrestlers, shot starkly in crepuscular gymnasiums. Her most recent exhibition in New York, “8 Women,” included an image of the performer Boychild, whom she photographed in an academic pose straight out of the 19th century. The photograph’s title, Where are you Going?, as well as the surprisingly curvy depiction of her usually overtly androgynous model, replied directly to the depiction of Tahitian women in Gauguin’s 1897 canvas Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
None of these, at least at first, would seem to fall within the territory staked out by the label Calvin Klein, which, in its 80s and 90s heyday, had cornered a slightly upscale stratum of the mass market with an ingenious combination of heavy branding and middle-of-the-road outfits — a sort of Donna Karan for the many.
Calvin Klein offered a certain clean style, typified by cotton T-shirts in a spectrum running from white to gray to black, while also sexing up its products to varying degrees through its campaigns. There were the comparatively coy shots of Kate Moss by Mario Sorrenti for the perfume Obsession. More notoriously, there was a 15-year-old Brooke Shields, purring in a 1981 commercial, “You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” And, of course, there were Mark Wahlberg’s exposed abs, exposed pecs, and nearly exposed package. If there was anything queer about the brand’s imagery — queer being a term that one could situate closer to Schorr’s emancipatory artistic politics, although one wouldn’t want to reduce her work to it — it was not the unisex proposition of its scent CK One, nor the carefully cast set of diverse protagonists that appeared in ads for the fragrance. It was, rather, the way in which the straight male body (most prominently Wahlberg’s, but also the Olympic pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus, he of the plain white briefs on a Times Square billboard in 1982) could be included in an overall — and equalizing — project of sexing up, in a manner that no longer allowed for fixed roles of object and subject of desire amongst genders and sexual orientations.
Let’s look at a spread of fashion shots, titled Workshop, which Schorr produced for the autumn and winter 2013 issue of the magazine Fantastic Man. At the risk of apparent redundancy, consider one picture of the model Garrett Neff: he’s stripped down to a pair of white briefs, Calvins, and, in a casual gesture, he holds another pack of them in his left hand. Under the transparent plastic cover we see the pack’s inner cardboard wrapping that displays, along with the brand name and the product description (“2 hip briefs, classic fit, cotton stretch”), the characteristic CK headless torso. Apart from this cropping, the model on the product wrapping and the one in Schorr’s photo adopt a nearly identical pose. While the brand-model’s abs, pecs and thighs give off an oily sheen, and the actual model in Schorr’s studio appears more matte, the similarity between them can’t be denied. No wonder, since Neff is, as the magazine’s caption informs us, the very model who appears on Calvin Klein’s packaging.
An inkling of photo-conceptualism suddenly emanates from the pages of Fantastic Man. And yet Schorr does not imitate the Calvin Klein aesthetic in her restated shot. As with many others in the Fantastic Man spread, she injects a quintessential dryness into the image of Neff, an integral distance that affords us more clarity than does the aesthetic/erotic to-and-fro of CK exhibitionism. Note the difference between the chiaroscuro of the Calvin Klein box, highlighting a theatrically chiseled chest, and the sober, fat lighting Schorr uses. It’s as if Schorr wants to eliminate all the latent drama, the operatic rhetoric of the sex/object game. Instead, we get what many would consider a “perfect” body, but at a slight remove. (In her image, Neff is even leaning slightly backwards.)
Which is not to say that Schorr — or the magazine’s visual department — has excised sex from the image. Far from it. Neff’s very visible penis line is, in its unenhanced realism, a commitment to it. (This is how a dick actually looks in white cotton briefs.) And check out his erotic lip play. His finesse matches the fragile and nearly ethereal face and mouth work delivered by fellow model Nicola Wincenc in other images of Schorr’s spread. But in the context of Schorr’s sober images, the whole eroticized Calvin Klein brand — which, in its initial conception, also claimed a stripping down to “basics” — now seems a little silly. What’s more, the shots of Neff demonstrate that while Schorr is a master of producing extraordinarily good-looking versions of unstably or intermediately gendered figures (see her shots of the long-haired Wincenc, for instance), she doesn’t even need the recourse to androgyny to upend the rubrics of sex. She’s done it with Neff, whose body is no doubt a classically “masculine” one. The vectors of desire, as arranged in the CK regime, are at first sight slightly, then significantly rerouted.
In the same interview in which Schorr lays claim to the CK heritage, she also describes her earliest artworks, acts of appropriation in which she literally photocopied magazine ads (such as ones for Guess and, unsurprisingly, Calvin Klein). Is this not a hint for how we should conceptualize her very specific use of the camera in this case? Here, style itself becomes the medium for appropriation (Schorr reaching into the CK cosmos) and for modification (Schorr recasting CK’s imagery). Style sniffs out, creeps into, and ultimately, for one or two images, shifts the ethos of a fashion empire that, not too long ago, harnessed consumption and desire more strongly than almost any other fashion brand. Crucially, Schorr’s point of attack lies in the brand’s claim of a return to stylistic basics — a game at which she beats them easily. Subdued by Schorr’s lens, what CK presented as reduced suddenly seems opulent. What we see per its absence in Schorr’s shots of Neff is also this: the opulence of normalcy.