Collier Schorr: It’s a series called Forest and Fields, or Wälder und Wiesen . The first volume, Neighbors, is portraiture. Blumen, the second book, is still life. Next is Memories of the Administration, which is reportage. The fourth, which is still very much in formation, is about teenage love. Then there’s something I want to do with workers and factories, and that would include pictures of the women’s prison in town. There are also pictures of that prison in both Neighbors and Blumen, but those images haven’t yet existed in a book strictly about architecture or structures. And a volume about sports, called Olympia’s. Initially, it was a big stack of about one hundred fifty Xeroxes: blow-ups of contact sheet frames, 4 x 5s, scraps of pictures, Polaroids, and things like that, all put together with a clamp, which I presented to my publisher, Michael Mack, as a body of work: “Forest and Fields.”
A name like Wälder und Wiesen carries with it a host of socio-visual associations for Germans, especially in relation to niche heimatfilme. They were popular there in the 1950s, but it’s tricky to date them strictly by their visual features, because they seem more like generic fairy tales, shot in some ambiguous land comprised of all the German-speaking nations. The motifs of mountain, field, and forest are separated from government, time, and politics, as though the war had never happened. The genre becomes a theater of retro-escapism, drawing on the same fantasy of a mythological past that Hitler had attempted to sell the nation. They are just a continuum of the mountain films of the 1930s that starred Leni Riefenstahl.
To me, a field suggests modernity and exposure, cultivation and expansion, and the subsequent transformation into the battlefield. It’s a place of isolation, an absence of cover.
The woods, on the other hand, were where people hid. Anselm Kiefer has said that “our stories all start in the forest,” maybe because he saw the national instinct born in the brutality of the ancient Germanic tribes that lived in the woods and hid within them to defend themselves against the invading Romans. The forest told of that transitional history, the end point of which would find the Germans hunting other people in those same woods. At least according to my narratives.
GB: In both cases, then, we’re dealing with excavations: literally, in terms of location, and symbolically, in terms of myth, both of which are related to the rediscovery of history.
CS: My working experience in Germany has been based in the attempt to see memory, or to invent it for those that are uninterested in it. Whatever I see there inevitably becomes a representation of what used to be: I can’t see a one-legged man of a certain age in Germany without thinking of the war. The German cliché is “Don’t talk about the war,” but for an American Jew, the war informs the definition of your Judaism.
GB: For Germans, it was “Don’t talk about the war,” but for Jews, it was “Never forget.”
CS: So I went to the place that wants to forget, wondering why there’s such an insatiable need to recreate and describe that war. Films are constantly made about it, and I think Germans see Americans as the infatuated bearers of that torch.
I’ll give you an example. For my earliest photographs, I rented costumes from a theater company in Berlin: some basic infantry uniforms and a special SS outfit based on an August Sander picture. But when I called to place an order a few summers later, they told me that they were out of uniforms. Two films were in production and they took every scrap. That’s when I stopped ordering the costumes. I was only interested in showing that these soldiers had existed in my town, not that they were the only ghosts around.
GB: Let’s unpack that a bit. You mention Forest and Fields, and the heimat motif, and Arcadian mythology. You invoke the hunter not as someone in search of the stag, but in search of Jews and others outside the accepted order. Fields likewise are not described as the basis for agriculture, or towns, and thus societal construction, but as battlefields, and the scene of society’s crisis. Inevitably, then, the framing structure of this analysis is power, history, and myth, and where those are intertwined ideologically and socially.
CS: Yes. It’s a fantasy of Germany read through conquest, through the polar opposites of pursuer and pursued. And that was informed by the fact that I was already an adult by the time I made my first trip to Europe, in the mid-1980s. I was working for Peter Halley at the time, and he sent me because he thought it was ridiculous that I hadn’t already been there. When I arrived in Paris, I had a real shocking sense of my American-ness. I had been programmed to think, “I’m going to France, where they hate Americans.”
I then took the train to attend a dinner at the Cologne art fair, which, as it happened, was held on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. I was surrounded by the German art world, and I could feel the presence of Günter Förg, and Anselm Kiefer, and Georg Baselitz. I could feel all of this machismo, success, and money, and power. I remember thinking for the first time, “I’m in the place where all that shit went down,” and being somewhat disappointed that no one threw a rock through one of the windows.
By traveling from France to Germany, I felt like I was going from a place of repression to a place of strange relief. Some place familiar. For better or worse, it was a place that I had a relationship to. There were so many fantasies to indulge in, because my idea of art’s subject matter was intertwining with history.
Looking back now, I think of the Cynthia Ozick essay, “Why I Won’t Go to Germany.” She described the Jews as a natural resource that the Germans had squandered, and how she refused to be re-imported there for the purpose of producing culture. Speaking for myself, though, I remember being excited by the proximity to something that had historically happened to me…not. Because that’s the whole thing: to me…not. The war and the Holocaust didn’t happen to me. It didn’t happen to anyone in my family. It happened to people with whom I shared some cultural practices. I was intrigued by Ozick’s stand, but found it limiting.
GB: When you say you were excited, do you also mean to imply that you were in some way repulsed, or inspired on the grounds of being repulsed?
CS: It was the very beginning of a sense of entitlement.
GB: What does that mean?
CS: My first trip to the southern German town of Schwäbisch Gmünd felt very different from my earlier trip to Cologne. I felt a certain elevated permission to be there, partially because of my arrogance about being Jewish and American. I felt like I was a survivor and a winner, though of course I was neither. I was actually just a tourist, but I had a very dramatic sense of myself in the landscape, and I was certainly carrying some romantic residue of films like The Night Porter, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Death and the Maiden. I began to think about the ways that we’re bound to those we oppress or those who oppress us. The films I like—films like The Damned—tend to focus on the psychosexual charges of domination and accusation.
But there was an additional factor influencing me as well. Schwäbisch Gmünd at the time was home to two large U.S. military installations, and a population of American soldiers and families. That military presence was a strange concoction of fantasy and reality for me, because it was no longer a military on German soil that was threatening me, but a military that was meant to represent me. So I felt as though it was my town.
One last difference about Schwäbisch Gmünd was that I had only been thinking about painting during my trip to Cologne.
GB: You were painting at that point?
CS: No, but it was this huge painting culture-moment, and I was working for a painter, and when I thought about German art, I thought primarily about monumental paintings like those by Anselm Kiefer. By the time I got to Schwäbisch Gmünd in 1989 or 1990, though, I began seeing the landscape as two-dimensional and smooth. I had seen exhibitions by Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky at 303 Gallery in New York, and they changed my idea of Germany. Their deadpan, large-format photos had all the proportions of spectacle. It was another extreme apart from Kiefer, one locked on an emotional pause.
GB: Did you consider yourself an active photographer by then?
CS: No, I didn’t start shooting until 1992. I began photographing because I wanted to articulate the relationship of a specific kind of person to the landscape. The person I had in mind was not a representative of the larger community, but someone with the ability to construct an identity outside of its normative standards. I think the lack of individuality within the history of Germany probably featured in the works of Ruff and Gursky, but as an American viewer at that time, coming from New York and an artistic context established by the likes of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, I felt that the oppression of majority rule was something for me to address.
I also went back to August Sander’s project, because I saw it as an attempt to describe the status quo: he photographed the ruling class alongside the disenfranchised, the baker, the political prisoner, the mental patient, the Ausländer, the Gypsy, and the Nazi. Which isn’t so much to say that it was a perfect representation of humanity, but I admired its scope and Sander’s desire to create a map of cultural traditions through portraiture. The thing I felt was underplayed in his investigation, though, was the disorder caused by juxtaposing the middle and working classes, for instance, or a soldier with a gypsy. I wanted to show what was out of place. Not as a retribution, but as an addition. Maybe what I was missing in that work was biography, or even autobiography…maybe there was a sense for me that I wanted to make something that was of an actual person, rather than a type of person.
GB: You mention that you were in a small town, and you weren’t seeing an identification of that in the work of the contemporary German photographers. You assert again that what you were seeking there was an excavation of mythology, that you were seeking some way to expose or at least to confront or question these mythologies specifically embedded in the social encoding of people that we see exemplified by Sander’s work, and reaching its inversion, mute as you might have found that inversion to be, in Ruff’s work. I can understand how as an outsider, not only to Germany but perhaps also to any number of established social codes of identification, you might have been ideally positioned to voice that critique. When you start mentioning genre types like autobiography, though, or even biography at all, it seems to me to form a contradiction. Ruff, for instance, created and positioned his work in direct confrontation with these paradigms of mythology. So it seems to me, then, that as an outlier, you are indeed perfectly positioned for a similarly forceful critique—but you then want to position that according to the classical terms of biographical narrative?
CS: Ultimately the work wants to encompass pleasure, conquest, revenge, seduction, admiration, and the yearning for acceptance. It first wants to be critical and removed and conceptual, emotionally detached, going through a field with a scythe and cutting whatever’s in my path and taking it away. But it also wants to fall in love, adopt, assimilate, and ingratiate. There’s a point in the work when that reversal happened, probably around the eighth year into the project. I had become a resident and I no longer perceived myself as an outsider. I wasn’t quite native, but I had assimilated. This was now my bakery, my brand of coffee, and my parking space.
The clearest examples are the first army pictures, which I took of a German kid named Herbert. He was twelve; his friends collected army uniforms and played war. They would only wear American uniforms because (at least until recently) when you were American, you were the hero. The boys didn’t want to play the Germans because they didn’t want any part in their own history.
I started photographing them as replacements for the American soldiers that had left two years earlier, and went on photographing Herbert in various uniforms for ten years. The final pictures were made of Herbert in his own German paratrooper uniform, after he’d been conscripted. If he hadn’t dressed up in uniforms as a kid, I might not have considered soldiers as a subject. For that matter, I can’t be sure that my subsequent work didn’t encourage him to go into the military rather than choosing civilian service. So the pictures started with Herbert playing an American soldier while I played war photographer, and ended when he became an actual soldier and I became a documentary photographer by default. I think the work encompasses those parallel desires and anxieties implicit to play-acting.
It took me several years to become intrigued by the real Germany. When I first got there, I was trying to create the surreal: something staged, something manufactured. A layered work, so that a commentary would be unavoidable. The very first pictures were of a boy, in a field, by a tree, wearing makeup. It was a real setting, but he wasn’t a real character.
GB: What were you trying to accomplish with that image?
CS: I think I wanted to dominate a subject and a landscape. I was trying to make something that at first glance looked very controlled and repetitive—the same figure over and over in one place, striking very rudimentary poses. It was so long ago. I didn’t even know how to use the camera I had borrowed, so I could only shoot the roll of film that had been pre-loaded. The project actually happened over two summers. I was thinking about Cindy Sherman’s performances, the Düsseldorf school’s landscapes, and some faint idea of what early-twentieth-century German “naturist” photography looked like. I think I was using makeup as a stand-in for nudity.
I was trying to shock the landscape and shake its order, to make a rift in the seamless, perfected view I had seen in Gursky’s fantastic pictures. It was also my first attempt to attack time, by clashing the modernity of clothes and makeup against the roughly cultivated German landscape and arcane poses. I began looking at German photography in a new way after I had lived in that country, and I was trying to understand how I could continue the post-Sander investigation. The German boy in makeup was surely out to question what I saw as a fascist and anonymous veneer in some of Gursky’s and Ruff’s work.
GB: Did their work not strike you at all as attempting the most direct form of auto-critique precisely by adopting without inflection the deracinated visual cues of their own historical inheritance as postwar German citizens? Those airless spaces and monumentalized non-identities don’t seem that far off to me from your own critique, sublimating as they do the horrific inheritance of fascism as the anxiety and anonymity of subjective experience under the conditions of present-day globalization.
CS: I’m simply describing how it felt for me as a twenty-six-year-old to pick up a camera in another country for the first time. I was used to work that was either politically explicit, like Barbara Kruger and Hans Haake, or very personal, like Nan Goldin and Mark Morrisroe. I had worked at Light Gallery in 1985, so I had an awareness of the New Color work of Stephen Shore and his contemporaries, but that was still uptown, banished to the photo-world. The German photographers had brought something new to the table. It was such austere work, and though its message might have implied a stand of resistance, it was made in reaction to an experience I was unfamiliar with. So even if I could have perceived its critique, my encounter of it still entailed standing in front of something bigger than me, something distant and at times detached. So, when I went to Germany myself, I was determined to find a way of working personally in a place that never focuses on the individual and does not easily support ideas of difference.
GB: Is that, then, the root of your Surrealism, that you’re looking for this abject representation as a way to resituate the subjective within a society that would otherwise enforce such codes without room for exception?
CS: I think of Gursky’s photography as depicting a Germany that doesn’t want to show the disturbance. Its agenda suppresses the caption. That’s why collage is so useful as critique, because it contains its own visual caption, or a textual fracture that throws the image out of whack. For me, the landscape and the boy’s makeup are therefore at odds, similar to the way that the stone and the tree function in Beuys’s 7000 Oaks project: as two types of oppositional icons.
They also imply a re-visitation and inversion of a moment in German history when nature was used as an icon of supremacy. The Third Reich had fanatical ties to nature as the emblem of health. So they started environmental protection of the oak trees and made a lot of photos of Aryans engaged in sports in the nude. If you really wanted to break it down, you could say that the wrong boy (imperfect and made up) sits on the right tree. Which is a fitting metaphor for the “wrong” German (me) making pictures of the right tree.
GB: Because German history has demonstrated the most extreme administrations of uniformity, particularly in regards to identity. I’m avoiding the term “portraiture” to refer to what you’re doing, precisely because that term itself refers to a stock code, complete with recognizable conventions, portrayed as genre.
CS: And that project wasn’t intended as a group of portraits. It was a depiction of my anxiety, and a way for me to stake out a physical territory: going to a piece of land and saying that this is now my land, and I’m populating it with my ideas. I see it as a continuum, working off of a tradition and being invested in what came before. Those pictures wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been intrigued by what Gursky and Ruff had done.
GB: The Forest and Fields project was originally envisioned as a single bound volume.
CS: Right. The order was designed to juxtapose figures, landscapes, black and white, and color. Pictures that looked documentary in nature and those that were obviously set up. So that there would be a soldier from World War II on one page, then a supermarket from today on the next. Turn another page and you’d find a landscape of no discernable date at all, and so on. It was half myth, half real. You would never know what was going to happen when you turned the page; you wouldn’t know where you were. And that was a good thing. The problem was that the work wasn’t finished: there were many pictures I wanted to make and working only during the summer meant that I had to wait a year in between shoots. I couldn’t decide what kind of book I wanted it to be, because I had so many different interests in photography, whether still life, snapshot, documentary, or what have you. There was a frustration that to do the book like a catalog would mean doing so at the expense of understanding my relationship to all those other kinds of books.
So I told Michael Mack that the project wasn’t finished, and that I would rather treat it as an archive of material to be separated out into volumes, loosely based upon these preconceived structures of genre. I wanted it to convey the sense that it derived from a multitude of authors, rather than being the archive of a single artist. It would allow me to play with the history of bookmaking, and with the language of what had come before. My “war book” would then take all of the army pictures that I’d made, all the army places I’d gone, all the army feelings I’d had, and filter them through the language of reportage books that I’d been collecting. I’d then have the satisfaction of making a pretend reportage book, because I’m a pretend reportage photographer.
GB: This seems entirely contradictory. You lionize these sources of conventional form, but we’ve already established that the foundational impulse of your work lies in your refusal to have your subjectivity defined by received images. Let’s take, for example, your affinity for genre, which we can think of as the prioritization of category at the expense of individuality: you’re seriously saying that you’re making a reportage book because you fantasize the life of a reporter?
CS: Yes! No, I mean no! It all starts—it all starts—from not being whom I want to be. I have an idea of myself as having missed the boat.
CS: Yes. It all starts from wanting to be something else. Or better yet, wanting to occupy many identities, as a way of seeing one thing or place from different perspectives. Everything I do is a love/hate relationship, born of the desire to upset or turn over or argue or unpack, and to experience at the same time. Being a Jew in Germany alone does not satisfy me. I want to be a German as well, so that I can feel history from the other side. I was just reading about these four frames of film that were smuggled out of Auschwitz, made by a Jewish prisoner working in the gas chambers. The majority of photographs from the camps were made either by captors or rescuers. Villains or conventional heroes retain pictorial authority. Realms of authorship and subjectivity intrigue me as positions to occupy. To make a picture out of a multitude of impulses is most thrilling. Even if I have to invent a desire in order to make a picture.
If someone were to ask me whether I’d like to go to Iraq to take pictures, I would say no. But when I look at the photographs that have been taken there… Ideally, someone would say, “We’re going to set up a war so that you can go take pictures of it.” The phone call that I want the most is from Steven Spielberg, calling to say, “We’re making a World War II movie in Germany. Bring your camera and do whatever you want. You can walk through my fake landscape of war and make your pictures.”
GB: To what end?
CS: So that I would have them.
GB: That’s not the bottom of it. Why? You have this anxiety of exclusion from the myths…
GB: And that leads you where? To face those myths, or—
CS: Both! And I think that’s the problem most people have. Most people either like Kippenberger or they like Kiefer. German artists aren’t encouraged to like one if they like the other, but I do! I like them both. I like them all. They allow me to experience all these levels and generations of anxiety in Germany and see how it takes form. The translation of that anxiety looks one way in Polke, and another way in Baselitz, or Kai Althoff, or Charline von Heyl, and so on. I siphon off their experience. I don’t really know what it’s like to be German, but I feel like I do.
My work doesn’t operate within one strategy; it exists to find out how many different ways it can please me.
GB: And that’s what led you to diversify its structure, growing outward from the original stack of bound Xeroxes into a series of printed installments.
CS: Yes. And yet the idea—or perhaps desire—is that such a single book might exist one day. It will exist after all these books. But by then it will have had ample time to continue commenting on its past and opening up the idea of what an acceptable way of making pictures might be.
GB: Subconsciously, you still desire for the unified whole—the self restored as total and right.
CS: I think the desire you speak of is dual, both for a sense of focus and a sense of definition. We might think of a unified work (which itself suggests a pun on re-unification) as containing the before, during, and after stages of a given experience. As a monograph, any one of my books might suggest a chronology, but the larger project is about shifting time periods and playing with that unifying authority of the photograph that you mention. The juxtapositions caricature the documentary conceit of telling the story of place over time. This is very different than using the sum of the same material to talk about how we relate to bodies in reportage photographs, or how still life functions as metaphor. In the end, I expect the monographs will be more personal, and include pictures that point to a life lived in the town, rather than simply the town as a stage for my ideas.
GB: How else are you insinuating that sense of fracture within the individual volumes?
CS: When I was working on Memories of the Administration, we took a couple of approaches. Michael Mack made several dummy books for me—cut to the same size as the book we had planned, but filled with blank pages—so that I could fill them with material. And I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t know which page to start on.
I was then asked to participate in a show at Kunst-Werke, in Berlin, about war images in popular culture. I had all these Xeroxes of reportage books that I loved from when I first gathered them together for what was to be the single Forest and Fields book. In fact I loved them more for the captioning than the pictures: “Storming The Bridge,” or “Winners and Losers,” or “Booby Trap.” I love the fact that they’re printed in really small runs, made to commemorate certain battalions or conflicts. I started cutting out the captions and putting each one right on top of its picture, and then wrote out some additional notes of what had happened to me that day, or what I thought of that book, or that picture, or that person in it. I just jotted the notes by hand right on top of the collage. I made a whole group of those, about fifteen or so, and decided that I would construct Memories of the Administration that way.
That’s trying—in a very literal, scissors-and-tape way—to fold my work back into one of those books, and into that history. Which is trying to be there. Because part of my work is certainly about being a critic of photography, a critic of culture, and of history, the interloper; but part of it is also using photography as a way of time-traveling and experiencing. It’s a perfect form of promiscuity, because I can’t imagine what it must look like for someone like me to unpack two cars and have a Nazi paratrooper and three guys wearing odds and ends from Vietnam pile out of it. We’ll go walking through the German forest to a lake, and there are bathers right in front of me, like a Gursky picture come to life. There are times like that when I can see my picture come to life right next to the Gursky picture, and sometimes, if you do it in front of an old person, they think they’re having a hallucination. They think they’re seeing themselves from another time. If you get the right person (like my neighbor, who’s dead now), who saw Herbert in the soldier uniform, you get that kind of reaction. Herbert told me that “Your neighbor must have seen himself as a Hitler Youth”: that’s Herbert’s projection, which of course is yet another layer in the picture. So it’s not just my impression of the history, it’s not just me making Herbert play something, it’s also me giving Herbert the chance to bring up the repression himself by having people look at him, so that anyone who’s old is both seeing him and not wanting to see him. He becomes the enabler for that psychic and cognitive dissonance, the visualization of the ghost. I’ve conjured it, but he then casts himself in the role—not, in fact, as a Nazi, but as a specter, or as historical guilt made flesh—for somebody else.
As the project now stands, in separate volumes, it isn’t selling the fantasy, but rather showing the seams. It shows the now against the then, the fake against the real. The final catalog can’t happen until the other books have.
GB: So for now there are seven volumes?
CS: Maybe six—it’s still being created. The purpose is to constantly rewrite and edit, to make sections or play with the structure. It’s not really so much to do with the art; it’s to do with the excitement about the book, about making different kinds of books and not having to choose what the “cover”—whether symbolic or actual—of this whole project has to be. It’s about being able to play with the material in a way that you can’t in a catalogue raisonné. Because in the end, the same picture means something different depending on what follows it.
GB: The incremental aspect, then, is key.
CS: Not just for the books but for the maker—it’s a reinvention of the maker’s identity. Herbert’s mother once rescued a color-tinted portrait of an infantryman from 1939. Her neighbor threw it in the garbage and Gertrude pulled it out and hung it in a hallway in the cellar. She must have felt bad that her neighbor was moving and couldn’t drag this picture along. She liked it because it was an antique, and so it sits there, above an extra Simmons freezer. Now, this German irony isn’t lost on me. It bears mentioning that I work out of this family's home and that I read Germany through their experience. The family history is important to my project, because most of them were not in Germany during World War Two. As ethnic Germans from the Transylvanian region of Romania, they “escaped” the German fate. In fact, they fled the Russians. This makes them a German family who actually likes to talk about the war. Their house, which is essentially my studio, is filled with German and Romanian artifacts. So perhaps rescuing that portrait was an expression of a misdirected heimweh [homesickness] and results directly in unheimlich [the uncanny].
GB: The diversity of the volumes, then, when thought of in opposition to the singular omnibus edition or linear history, is once again phrased in the form of critique, and dialectic: that a first installment might be A, while the second installment, B, distinguishes itself by quite specifically becoming Not A. C, then, is simultaneously itself, as well as Neither A nor B, and so on.
So we have volumes on portraiture, still life, reportage, sports, teen love—which for the sake of discussion we might think of as either lyrical narrative or romance—and architecture, so far. You’re creating a structure—seven books, in sequential order—and you have them roughly planned out, you’re dealing with German history, and you’re specifically dealing with genres that serve in a classical sense as a means of social organization or regimes of administration. All of this within a collectible set of limited editions.
CS: Give me an example of a publication that isn’t consumable! Show me something that you put on your lap and thumb through that defies its status as an object. Everything is collectible. I grew up with collecting: my father and grandfather were both collectors. I also worked for Richard Prince, fitting Mylar covers on all his rare first editions! I lived in his studio for a time, with parts of his book collection. And I remember him getting some Paul Auster volumes and telling me, “Well, I know this is going to be collectible because it’s printed by Sun and Moon Press, and it’s a trilogy, and I have a good feeling that it’ll be something special.” Part of me wants to make sure that the thing is collectible enough that it gets collected. Not so that it’s worth money, but so that it gets seen and wanted and owned.
GB: Why is that important?
CS: To exist!
GB: But this is disturbing to me. I don’t get it. So much about what you do seems to me to be based upon a refutation of the need for validation by others, validation that historically and societally has also been tantamount to categorization, subjugation, and ultimately, to annihilation.
CS: Isn’t it Oscar Wilde who said that every man kills the thing he loves? And, particularly, [think of] Jeanne Moreau singing it in Querelle! That’s how my thinking goes; it’s always via something. It’s Querelle, Fassbinder, Brad Davis, costume, West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein… It’s picking from all those things. I got co-opted somewhere along the way: I went to Germany with the best intentions to rip its facade down. But it was ultimately a very accommodating place. And a place that tries so hard to erase its traces is a compelling place for a photographer.
I see the whole town of Schwäbisch Gmünd now from an incredibly self-centered, narcissistic vantage, which is that it exists for me to photograph. I even have the fantasy that when I leave, it simply stops existing. I think my experience in Schwäbisch Gmünd is one thing, while my editing of that work is another. But I can’t be there and only be a thinker. Maybe at the beginning I was thinking more, but as time progressed…I don’t know. I don’t know how to help you rescue me from the pitfalls.
Take, for instance, the reportage book: I obviously have serious reservations about aestheticizing and dramatizing war. I mentioned Spielberg before, though I’m also aware of the implications of what it might mean that someone could even possibly have such a thing in mind as a “favorite war movie.” What makes that aesthetic experience satisfying—was it because it was violent or sexy? Was it beautifully shot? Was it because the drama becomes less real over time? I think of one of my own favorite war movies, Ivan’s Childhood, by Tarkovsky: a blond Russian boy wanders through the forest during wartime. It’s a desire to be around those pictures. I can’t tell you why I’m so attracted to army pictures, especially when I have so many reservations about why they need to exist, despite being aware that these photos are so distanced from their reality that they become beautiful, even in their grotesqueness.
GB: My point, though, is that such conflation is precisely the function of myth. Take just this one example: there is no greater synthesis of beauty and death into ideology than the soldier myth.
CS: But you seem to think that an artist has to stand on one side or another, and my issue—maybe my escape to Germany from America—was a flight from the burden of having anyone watch me do what I do and tell me that “you can’t do this and that.” You can’t be critical and fall in love at the same time. Because that’s my entire way of working, especially in Germany: to have it all, to be able to do two things simultaneously.
The criticality might be in the editing. If I dress a boy either as a Nazi or in makeup, I’m punishing him—by making him something he either wants to be or doesn’t. I’m also making the guy with makeup be a girl, be me on some level. And with the Nazi, I’m making him do my bidding as a Jew, making him dress up as the thing he’s afraid to look at or as. I’m putting him out in the open where he could be arrested, knowing full well that the German authorities aren’t going to arrest a Jew for doing it.
GB: That’s completely sadomasochistic.
GB: It’s desire born of neurosis, manifest neurotically as the exercise of power, whether given, taken, or withheld.
CS: Yes! And doing a series of books, you have to understand, is a land-grab. Why make one book if I can do seven?
Much more importantly, this is a project that unfurls over time. I would not have made the flower pictures in Blumen if I hadn’t attended two Christian funerals where I saw gravesites covered in ornate flower constructions. It’s accrued experiences that create the shifts in the work, and then subsequently create the need to re-order, re-state, and re-position the work.
GB: And that goes back to the root of my question about critique, because your desire to have everything both ways also cuts both ways. Let’s face it: you’re not making zines here. You’re making seven volumes with Steidl Verlag, one of the finest bookmakers in the world. You’re publishing well-crafted photographs within exquisite volumes—
CS: Except for Blumen, the second volume.
GB: No, even if the content is portrayed as fragile or contingent, as in Blumen, my point is that the production values—the formal process of book production and object creation—remain exquisite.
CS: Each book plays with the basic tenet of that genre. So a book of flowers naturally has to be exquisite: I’m talking about the way the pictures are photographed with a good camera, about the printing quality, and so on. The reportage book, on the other hand, is made of scraps, of things that are transient and disposable. So that when, at first glance, you see a picture in Neighbors, the first volume, it’s ostensibly a portrait book: a luscious collection of black and white portraits made with a large-format camera. But what happens when you see that same picture as a Xerox in the third volume, Memories of the Administration,? That same picture is no longer important in terms of its beauty or lusciousness. It’s now only a message.
GB: Doesn’t that discount the true nature of both the specialized culture of bookmaking and the wider globalized culture industry in general? The first has a longstanding familiarity with—even a specialized taste for—the anti-aesthetic as an institutionalized style (think of Bye, Bye Photography, Dear; I Want To Take Picture; or just about anything by Wolfgang Tillmans), and the second predicates its entire business model on being able to co-opt all such twists as fashion, and thus is merely a diversified income stream. My point remains that you may be starting from a position that challenges the set order, but that you’re ending up incarnating that subjectivity in a deluxe collectible edition, issued by a rarified press to a buyership that by definition is discriminating.
CS: And that is really important to me. I’m not interested in making something that falls apart. I want to use the texture of that material for a purpose: to fuck my pictures up and make them look like they came from old reportage books, without the grandiose scenes of apocalyptic carnage. Reportage pictures weren’t generally taken with large-format cameras and a handheld flash. Some of them were just snapshots from the battlefield, enlarged more than their negatives were really meant to allow for. I use the Xerox of the actual “good” photograph to create a sense of time and erosion. Then I combine that with the unexpected newness of a Nazi soldier in Neighbors, next to the newness of a soldier from Vietnam traipsing through the woods.
In any case, this is just one project that I’m doing with Steidl. It’s not the final presentation of these pictures; it’s only one version. But I agree that there’s a sense of luxurious indulgence to the project. There’s always in me a desire to be rough and raw, but there’s also the desire to be sumptuous and beautiful.
GB: To me, the pivotal issue that the series poses, then, is to find out at what point critique becomes style.
CS: Yeah, that’s not an issue for me. I don’t think I have a problem with that because I think the criticality is always there. There are interruptions in everything I do, and whoever looks at the photographs is never able to indulge in them without being on the receiving end of some kind of smack—without being pulled out of their fantasy.