8 Women is a retrospective book by the Brooklyn-based photographer Collier Schorr (b. 1963). In 34 images, shot between the mid-'90s to the present, she shows her audience the bodies of women and a few men, focusing on the textures of their skin and hair and the different ways in which the human body can be represented.
When Schorr started working in the early '90s as both an artist and a fashion photographer, the representation of women as objects of desire for consumption by the male gaze was already identified as problematic in academic debates and by the media. While Schorr was interested in photographing women, she was also influenced by these new ideas about whether photographing a woman was not somehow exploitative. So instead of photographing women, she photographed androgynous men, who, unlike women, did not have a tradition of being photographed for the viewer's (sexual) pleasure. “[They] seemed oblivious and quite safe under the scrutiny," she said in a recent interview.
In 8 Women, there is not much left of Schorr's earlier avoidance of photographing women. In this book, the majority of subjects are women, and the photos are unapologetically sexual. The images show half- or fully-naked bodies, drawing attention to their breasts and pubic hair. While there are a few men in the book too, their photos are in many ways gender-ambiguous. One page presents two photos of the same young person with short hair and eyeliner on: one photo shows him/her wearing a kimono, leading us to believe that we're looking at a woman. In the other photo, however, we see the person in the nude, with exactly the same sultry expression, but Schorr takes an approach drastic enough to remove our doubts with a full view of his penis.
Schorr's point, however, seems to go beyond merely making a statement on the fluidity of genders. The bodies in the photos aren't an end in themselves. While aesthetically communicating elegance (Schorr's background in fashion photography is apparent in the models' graceful postures), there is always a hint that that the photo is just a photo and not the presentation of the real body. For example, in one of the images, a woman is holding a photo of another woman in a photo book. The woman holding the book peeks over the edge as if it's a wall she's looking over.
One photo in particular makes Schorr's project clear: it seems like we're looking at a black and white image of a reclining torso, the shirt parted so that one breast is visible. But in the middle of this photo, there's a bright red pencil, alerting us that we aren't looking at a torso directly, but at a photo of the torso.
By adding these different layers of media, and highlighting the textures of the materials that the images are drawn or printed on, Schorr's work draws attention to the physicality of images. It makes us realise how much of what we're looking at is only an image of it instead of the real thing. Even when we already think about photography as representations of objects that are actually elsewhere, in 8 Women we might be looking at a photo of a photo of that object. Because, after all, a photo is an object too.
8 women is available for sale from its publisher MACK.
Images © Collier Schorr, 2014, courtesy MACK / www.mackbooks.co.uk