This week, we're rolling out the three covers of the spring issue of Self Service, the biannual cult fashion tome (that we happen to be obsessed with), and speaking to the brains behind the pictures: the mag's creative director Suzanne Koller, photographer Collier Schorr, and makeup artist Karim Rahman. Here, Schorr talks about shooting women vs. men, monogamous shopping, and why a red lip is “like a leather jacket":
"When I first started noticing fashion in high school, it was probably by looking at The New York Times Magazine. There would be a lot of Bruce Weber, or that’s what I remember, and there were all these Calvin Klein Jeans ads and Ralph Lauren stuff and all the girls seemed like tomboys, or else it was sort of the Faye Dunaway woman in a suit. Either way, there was an edgy masculinity. I thought, ‘Oh, you grow up in a world that’s full of beautiful women that like men’s clothes.’ And I’ve kind of been searching ever since for those beautiful women that like men’s clothes—in my art, as well. I just heard this quote that made a lot of sense to me: ‘Women have multiple ideals of beauty, whereas men only have one type.’ It’s actually from Fran Lebowitz. She said it to a friend of mine, who told me, and I really agreed. I think it’s ultimately why women are so interesting; they have the ability to be attracted to, and interested in, various types of women.
In the beginning of my career, though, I was doing a lot of boy stuff—it was easier for me for personal reasons. Also, politically, I was basically told not to shoot women. A female photographer shooting women was seen as a continuation of representing women in a certain limited way. It was essentially this idea that the world did need more images of women because there was a huge library of them already, and that if you took a picture of a woman, it rendered her speechless. It was a lot of heavy art stuff. The art world in the mid-'80s was kind of a revolution. Half the art world was making money and making Jeff Koons-type work and painting, and the other half was really conceptual, political, really interesting, but there really was not a place to take a picture of a woman. So, I just shot boys and I figured, ‘Fuck them,’ [Laughs] like I wasn’t concerned with their reputation, but I was essentially treating them like girls... I was admiring them and fetishizing them and making them pretty and soft and girlish. In a way, it was great because it was like training for shooting women. But at some point, I just realized, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so repressive. How can I not be talking to women and picturing women? They’re completely missing from my work and I love them.’ So, then I thought, 'Well, I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t,' so I just went for it and let my work stand there for itself and created a bunch of pictures that incite some type of dialogue and that are engaged with each other and the world.
I used to be really shy about shooting women. I basically felt like they were going to walk in and see a girl standing there with a camera, all ‘Hey, how are you?’ and be disappointed because there wouldn’t be loud music and this guy in tight jeans saying, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah! That’s hot.’ It took me a while to understand that there was something else that women would get out of the experience that was just as exciting. I also wear jeans and I also tell them they’re looking hot, I just tell them in a different way, and I think that I give them more permission to gaze strongly. I think they feel that they have the power; that their power isn’t momentary. That it’s not just an artificial power they're projecting in the picture—they’re actually having a powerful experience. They’re not characters, and they feel, I think, nine times out of ten, that I like them, that I think they’re sexy, and I think that feels good, you know? And it has nothing to do with lingerie, or something. A lot of things changed in me after I shot Freja [Beha Erichsen]. I shot her in 2009, or 2008 maybe—it was a while ago—for i-D, in the stylist’s house, in his bed. There was no hair, and makeup was only allowed to be in the other room, and the stylist pretty much wasn’t in the room. It was just me, not very much camera equipment, not very much light, and I was literally standing on the bed looking down on her. She was saying that people either want to put her in a suit or a ball gown, and neither one of those are her. I really got what was sexy about her, and it didn’t have to be 'dressed up' to create the image. The pictures felt really good. And simple. I guess I don’t want to overdo things; I don’t want to create such a costume drama. I remember when I was younger, I looked at pictures and movies and I was like, ‘Oh, is she really like that?’ I want there to be that possibility: that she’s really like that. I don’t want to make a picture that’s so ridiculous that everyone knows she’s not anything like that. Everyone has different agendas; I have a simple agenda.
I started getting into fashion photography about 15 years ago because I wanted to see what it was like to do something more collaborative in nature—working to represent things other than your ideas. When you’re an artist, all you’re doing is representing your ideas. It might sound amazing for people who have to compromise all of the time [in their jobs], but as a full-time job, being completely obsessed with your idea and spending all your time thinking about it, it can be almost too much of a good thing. In the fall, I said to my agent, ‘I think it’s time for me to shoot with Self Service.’ It was just a feeling, and I don’t say that about everything. I’m interested in certain magazines based on what kind of girl they are trying to style...or if I see a stylist who looks a certain way or I see a certain vibe, depending on where I am in my evolution of shooting girls. When I met Suzanne [Koller, the Creative Director of Self Service], we were wearing essentially the same thing: jeans, men’s shoes, and a denim shirt. We were both wearing the same type of watch except hers was the girl's version, mine was the men’s.
Part of the beauty of fashion is that you can wear something that makes you feel rougher or more dangerous; you can borrow that, even though that might not really be you... I do like clothes. I like achieving a certain ideal of something. It’s so embarrassing to talk about because I recently had to instill a new shopping rule, which is 'no doubles': you can’t have a collection of sweaters that all look the same, or two shades that are the same, or five of one thing because it’s free. Once upon a time, I had a fantasy of a closet that had, like, four white t-shirts and two pairs of jeans and three sweatshirts and a windbreaker and a jean jacket, and I think it really came from the gay men’s fashion look in the early-'80s, late-'70s; it was a really regimented uniform. It seemed to me that you could achieve this perfect look and then you wouldn’t want anything else. That’s how I thought it would work, but that’s not true, so I went on to hoard and accumulate multiple colors and sizes of things, standard things. But now I want to look in my closet and know that I don’t have a good one, a better one, and a best one—I want to just have the best one. And then I have a better one of something else. That way, I have a better chance of fetishizing it and living in it. It’s kind of like a monogamy experience, but with clothes. Either you believe that monogamy is the answer and that it's the way to fulfillment, or you believe multiple experiences are better because you’re experiencing the whole world, right? It’s kind of like, either I have ten great leather jackets to choose from, or I have this one amazing leather jacket and I wear it all the time and it’s me.
Makeup is tough. In my work, I usually say, ‘Light on the makeup.’ With makeup on, you’re no longer getting her, you’re shooting it. You’re shooting that design. What was great with Karim [Rahman, the makeup artist] on this Self Service shoot was that he would decide, all of a sudden, to put a lip on, and I could tell that he was thinking, ‘This is the moment, this is the color, and it’s gonna make sense given what I’ve seen.’ I think makeup can look sexy—it’s kind of a visual authority. A red lip is like a leather jacket, or a high heel: it says that someone is not afraid to be looked at. Would I want to make out with someone with a red lip? Probably not. I might want to make out with someone that would have a red lip, but I wouldn’t actually want to make out with somebody with a red lip on. It would feel like there was something in between me and the skin. My work, I think, has always been about touching the skin. Because I want to see it. I want to feel it. And it can be made up, to cover up what’s underneath, but it still has to feel like skin. Touchable.”
—as told to ITG