“Wrestlers Love America”
In this interview, Collier Schorr talks about what it was like photographing wrestlers during matches, and how the resulting photographs are installed and received by viewers.
ART21: You’ve been photographing wrestlers for several years now. Where do you see this project going?
SCHORR: I’m working on a comprehensive study of amateur wrestling, which is Folkstyle. I’m doing Folkstyle and Freestyle. Greco-Roman—I haven’t really come across that yet. I won’t say I won’t do it, but I’m not at the moment doing it. I basically want to make a book that documents every facet of the experience: victory, defeat, blood, battered egos, humiliation; the guy that wasn’t supposed to win that wins; the guy that was supposed to win but doesn’t win; the way the coaches interact with the players; the way practice partners work together.
I want to show the whole temperature because—and I can only approach it as a woman, but—for me, from the outside, masculinity has been depicted in very black and white terms. There never seems to be a wide range of emotional definitions of men. And I think in wrestling, you really see so many different emotions, so many different reactions and interactions. I think there’s a romantic side of it, for me, because it’s a sport that’s slowly being outmoded and outdated. Outmoded because of Title IX (or whatever the women’s sports legislation has been), and a lot of wrestling programs are cancelled. Politically, I don’t take a side because obviously I’m all for every woman’s sport possible. But wrestling is a sport where people don’t go and see it, and it survives sometimes because a lot of college wrestlers will volunteer coaching. It’s a very small world. And so, I wanted to make a book that really tells people all about that world because I’m not sure it will be here in twenty years. And the book is called Wrestlers Love America.
ART21: Why is that the title?
SCHORR: When I went to Wisconsin, there was a guy wrestling who had a t-shirt on, a white t-shirt, and it said, “Wrestlers Love America.” And then it said, “We Support Desert Storm.” It was from that Desert Storm time, and it had the American flag and stuff on it. So, obviously the guy looks like he’s just come out of a battlefield. He’s bloody and he’s soaking wet. If you saw his head, you would be scared; you would go running in the other direction, it’s so monstrous. But I loved the idea that they found a way to pair themselves up with this. And I think that, in some way, in their mind, they saw themselves too as some sort of political underdog. They wanted to align themselves with the idea of fighting for their country. And I think wrestlers really do feel like it’s a kind of battle, in a real old-fashioned sense. It’s a duel, you know; it goes way back. It’s not about a lot of uniforms and pads. It’s mano a mano. That image always sticks in my head, as the intensity of wrestling, and so it titled the book.
ART21: How is the process of making the wrestling pictures different from, say, the military uniform or Helga pictures?
SCHORR: It’s completely different. This is the project where I just go and throw myself into it. I don’t think about anything. Whatever I’m drawn to, I run to. I don’t have any responsibility to set anything up. It’s so stressful because you’re dancing—I’m literally dancing in between thirty pairs of guys. But it’s so relaxing because it’s simply about eye and hand all the time.
ART21: What was it like, taking pictures at the West Point match?
SCHORR: West Point was difficult because it was a quad meet. And I was there to support West Point. So I told Coach Barbie, “You know, I’m rooting for West Point, but I’m going to be shooting other guys.”
At matches, I’m not really looking for the pin. If I get it, that’s a bonus, but it’s so fast, and it may be across the room from you. You get it if it’s in front of you. I think I’m looking for introspection. I’m looking for the moment before the guy goes out there, and he’s warming up; the moment when he comes off, either exhilarated because he won or devastated because he lost. I’m looking for anyone that’s bleeding, anyone that’s been beaten up a bit.
A theme of twinship has always run through my work, of people that look alike. And that was another reason I was drawn to wrestling, because I feel like wrestlers look a certain way. I meet guys sometimes, and I’ll just say, “Oh, did you wrestle in high school?” And eight times out of ten, I’m right. I can just tell a wrestler, and I’ve grown to love that face. And so, I’m looking for guys that fit that pattern. I’m looking for this tribe of people.
ART21: What are those facial characteristics?
SCHORR: 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.
Sometimes I’m drawn to someone for a haircut. I’ll go up to a guy with a crew cut and just start talking to him, or I’ll go up to a guy with a black eye, and I’ll ask to take his picture. Part of it, for me, is that I really love the interaction. I really love talking to them about what their routine is like or what their workout was like. I was really curious when talking to the Citadel guys and the West Point guys. I wanted to know what was more difficult: wrestling or basic training? I remember the Citadel guys in unison said, “Wrestling!” And I thought, “Well, god, they have such an advantage over the rest of the cadets because they already know what it’s like to be tortured.”
ART21: Do you think being a woman makes it easier for you to approach the wrestlers, when taking a picture?
SCHORR: It’s still really difficult. As much as you explain to someone that you want to show all sides of it, no one who lost wants a flash in their face. Some guys are fine about it, and some guys get really upset. I took a picture of a Franklin and Marshall guy who had lost, and he was upset. He was, like, “Hey, I just lost my match.” And I feel terrible because I always feel like photography’s an intrusion. Photographers walk around with huge guilt complexes because they always feel like they’re pushing in and stealing something. Or they’re intruding, or they’re misrepresenting.
But later, I went over to him and I said, “Look, you know, I just wanted to let you know I was really sorry that I was in your face.” And he said, “Oh, no, I understand. Sorry, I just lost the match and I felt bad, but take whatever pictures you want.” That, for me, is a key wrestler personality. Like, if they were unfriendly, they’re sorry about it, because basically they want people watching. I think wrestlers are into the project because they’re happy someone cares and it’s not just about the Army-Navy football game.
But I think that having a woman approach them is different. Most of the people in the wrestling world are guys. I think that they’re not sure what motivates me, but they’re flattered and they’re happy. And women don’t take up as much space, so I seem to float in. And I also think that I don’t offer up any competition. Although, whenever I’m in practice, I have these incredible urges to just throw down, you know, just get into the position. When I did wrestling in high school—and I should preface this by saying that we had, like, three days where girls had to do wrestling ’cause guys were doing wrestling—I hated it. It was humiliating, and it was embarrassing, and the contact is much too close, which is why I really admire what they do. Because I think they get past certain stereotypes.
ART21: What do you like most about the wrestlers?
SCHORR: I like devastation. I like exhaustion. I really like seeing someone that I know can’t barely get up. The thing about a wrestling practice is, in a good school like Blair, the coach will get every last bit of energy out of you, and then you’re just deflated. And there’s a peacefulness in that moment that I really love—to see someone who’s just used their entire body. For me, it’s all performance; it’s all dance. Particularly wrestling practice—it’s about choreography because there are particular moves. There are many of them, and they put them in certain orders. And they do certain moves with names, and everyone knows those moves. So, instead of a plié, it’s a single leg or something. I love watching them perform these movements and in an extremely graceful way.
On the one hand, it’s extremely macho, extremely masculine, extremely brutal. I’ve seen people really get hurt. And at the same time, it’s about dance, and it’s about fluidity. It’s about grace. And it’s the one place where you see that. People say, “Oh, football is graceful,” but I don’t think football is graceful.
ART21: How do you think the general public sees these wrestling images?
SCHORR: I think they see all of the great themes packed in. They see youth, and they see triumph, and they see tension, and they see sexuality. People bring to it what they want. When it’s in the wrestling domain, people only see the moves; they only see the singlets. They only see what they recognize. They don’t bring anything else to it, I think. And I think that when people see it in a gallery, they’re being told, “You can look for other things. You can look beyond the surface of the picture.”
And I think a lot of people see their own struggles as teenagers in the pictures. They see that transition from adolescent to grownup to adult. I think they see someone living life in a way that, maybe, they don’t any longer. I think they see kids that are doing something extreme with their life that takes incredible determination. And so, I hope that it’s inspiring. And I hope it’s scary. I mean, it’s supposed to be scary as well. They’re warriors after all.
The earlier work was more about that. The earlier work was much more about them being warriors and about them being, in a sense, my army and a barricade between me and my audience, somehow. And I think the more recent wrestling pictures have a lot more to do with the relationship between the figure and the field—and movement and a more esoteric or metaphysical relationship of the wrestler to his own body.
ART21: When you show the pictures, how are they installed?
SCHORR: The first show I did was called Excuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, based obviously on the great Jimi Hendrix. And, like I said, it was about building a barricade. It was about coming in with all these really tough guys on the walls, and they were going to dare people to confront them. I felt very aggressive, and they were representing that aggressiveness. I wanted them to be literally breaking out of the gallery. It was mainly portraits of wrestlers and a few guys from track and field and one or two just regular guys. It was the first show I had done that had much less of a conceptual framework. It was more portraiture and just letting the faces tell the story.
The second show I did was called Wrestlers Love America, and it was a sort of collaboration between my father and myself. My father was a muscle-car photographer and magazine publisher in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. And so, I took tear sheets out of all his Corvette magazines, his Trans Ams and Camaros and ‘Cudas. I arranged them in clusters with my work and his work. Those were the pictures that my brother and I had decorated our rec room with. And my brother had a lot of parties down there, and I always imagined that there were these guys dancing around, and there were these pictures. And so, I wanted to recreate that. And I put in a really thin, cheap green carpet, and I had a ’70s record player with wooden speakers and all the music that my brother listened to from thirteen to nineteen. So, it went from Black Sabbath to Ice-T and Ice Cube. It was all this boy-kind of music: Kansas and the Police (“Roxanne”). It was really an eclectic selection of music.
I was really satisfied with that show. Not that I wanted to make an installation, but I wanted to make a context in which I felt the guys belonged in. They weren’t simply butterflies pinned to the wall in this pristine space. They had company; they had their cars, they had their tunes. And then at the opening, people were drinking beer, so I just left the beer bottles out. It was very much like what it would be, if you had your wrestling meet and then you went to a party at someone’s house that night. That’s what I wanted it to be like: the party I never got to go to, and the party I always want to go to now.