Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Vision Quest: Collier Schorr's Wrestlers

by Drew Martin
Thomas Wolfe penned "you can't go home again" in his beautifully written novel Look Homeward Angel. Personally, I feel like I disproved this many times in my life but sometimes there are periods that seem lost forever or at least buried without a headstone. One of these episodes was my eight years as a young wrestler, starting in second grade. Seeing Collier Schorr's photos of wrestlers and listening to her speak about the project (Art:21 Loss & Desire) revived a past I could not previously bring myself to revisit.

Wrestling is a grueling but extremely disciplined sport that borders on torture because of the physical stress and, worst of all, the forced weight loss. Once, I had to lose 30 pounds in a couple weeks: dropping from a lean 140 to a dangerously skinny 110 lbs. as I was growing towards my current 6' 3" stature. Wrestling is also a graceful and efficient sport: a Greek ideal that emphasizes perfect balance in self and action, which seems alien in the ball-game oriented culture of the United States. As with boxing, performance is scored with points and likewise, this system is thrown out the window with the equivalent of a knock-out, the "pin", the ultimate dominance and submission. Unlike the corporeal separation of the KO, the pin is a tense moment of extreme closeness to one's opponent, similar to the python's fatal squeeze. Schorr speaks about capturing the introspection of the young men, especially after a defeat, which is a compounded loss, for oneself and the team.

The wrestlers' bodies, which Schorr shows, are youthful incarnations of classical Greek sculptures. In her voice-over she talks about their sameness. They are naturally strong and are a byproduct of a regimen as opposed to the cartoonish Hulk forms of body builders, which are merely for show and a product of steroids (best examined in Christopher Bell's documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster) and, more than anything else, are simply an extension of mainstream America's "gross" fascination with all things big, including oversized McMansions and Monster Trucks.

When I left wrestling after my sophomore year in high school to be a full time runner I did not look back, though I unconsciously carry the Spartan discipline with me for everything I do. Schorr's wrestling photos and explanation of the subjects was a revelation to me because she explained what she saw in the young men as a sensitive observer. I viewed the images first as a former wrestler before appreciating them as an artist. Her photos do not (and cannot) capture how I felt at the time because those are much deeper and darker thoughts. More importantly, her work lets me look at myself as an outsider. They give me an out-of-body experience for an activity that was all about the body, which is constantly reacting to movement and touch.

It is important when you look at Schorr's photos to trust her when she talks about a sexuality she does not ask for; that the teenage sexuality of the young men belongs to them, otherwise the pictures are lost to voyeurism, or worse. One fault of the series is that Schorr's tribe approach assumes a synchronicity and harmony, when quite the opposite was true, in my own experience. At the time, it seemed more like an involuntary cult. When I tried to quit there were consequences that were reminiscent of the mafia, but perhaps that was simply a local flavor, as I was wrestling in Sopranos territory...New Jersey. As for the theme of sameness, I mainly remember the differences inside the tribe: the weight differences, the skill levels and that my brother (who also wrestled) and I were a rare breed because we were good students. Some wrestlers were quite physically different. Some were blind, while others had lost one or both legs to amputation. Until a certain age there was also the occasional girl who participated in the sport.

What I do not trust in Schorr's wrestling series is the set up. In much of her other work, the arrangement is obvious, as we see in her German jugend dressed in WWII US and Nazi uniforms. With the wrestlers, however, Schorr offers the young men as if she just happened upon them, yet something has been manipulated and the question is to what end and for what purpose. Wrestlers do not practice, as she shows, in their competition singlets or bare chested. They wear sweat pants and other gym clothes to induce and absorb perspiration.

The fault of many photographers is the pursuit of their envisioned key shots. They can plan to be at a certain place and a certain time and they can hope for a situation but they often step over a line and corrupt the scene. Ironically, the photographer misses out on the less obvious shots, which will prove over time to be the more valuable work. In this case what is absent is the tribes' authentic fashion. Schorr shows us the "tourist" garb but does not give us a glimpse into more interesting apparel, such as the rubber suits worn by those who need to lose weight quickly. I used to wrap my waist in layers of clear plastic foil before running after the workouts to lose more weight, which is quite an image.

The most interesting aspect of this series is Schorr's return to her own high school without depicting it as an older adult. She is primarily there to observe and capture something she overlooked in her past and fortunately, brought me a little closer to home. When I reached out to Schorr to express that I liked her work, I was surprised and impressed with her response: "Thanks! The highest compliment is one paid by a wrestler."

In addition to watching the Art:21 documentary with Schorr, which I linked to in the first paragraph, I recommend reading her interview with Art:21, which shares her motivation and approach to this series >>>

Here's an excerpt from her interview, in response to the question about the facial features of wrestlers when she says can pick former wrestlers out in the crowd:

"Usually their ears get a little smaller as time goes by and the ridge starts to come out of their forehead. They start to get a bit more of a heavy brow. The nose is either pushed up or it’s pushed down. For me they’re really beautiful, but they’re definitely unusual looking. I remember that even about guys in my high school. The guys that wrestled looked different than the other guys. They weren’t the same kind of sports hero, but they were sportsmen."