NEW YORK — More than 35 years after Andrew Wyeth painted his neighbor, “Helga,” photographer Collier Schorr has reinvented her with a new book and art exhibition titled “Jens F.”
In Schorr’s eyes, Helga is Jens (pronounced Yens), the twentysomething man from Germany whom she met six years ago on a train in Europe. In 1999, while leafing through a copy of Wyeth’s book, “The Helga Pictures,” in The Strand bookstore in Manhattan, Schorr could not get over the resemblance between Helga and the then-teenage boy. Instead of chalking that up to coincidence, she set out to shoot her European friend in poses similar to the ones Helga struck, save for the fact he never completely strips.
“I was forcing him to undress emotionally because I was forcefully taking him out of his natural habitat,” she said in an interview in her Brooklyn, N.Y., walkup. The exhibition runs through Dec. 17 at the Roth Gallery at 160A East 70th Street in Manhattan.
Germany provided the backdrop for most of the 1,000 images she took of the young man over the past five years. She had actually shot Jens once in the late Nineties wearing a Hussein Chalayan women’s sweater for an I.D. magazine fashion spread. Schorr’s schedule as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, Yale and Columbia universities, allowed the Queens, N.Y., native to make frequent trips to Germany.
“When I am shooting in America, I feel the presence of too many people,” Schorr said. “In Germany, I am the only Jew in town [so to speak] so I see things differently. I see things differently than Germans do. I make different pictures than Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth could. I see a ghost town and they see a new town.”
Instead of re-creating “The Helga Pictures” page by page with a male model, Schorr’s 160-page book, published by DAP, comprises individual collages, most of which cover any trace of Wyeth’s work. Each page consists of a variety of her photographs in different shapes and sizes, with cutout silhouettes and handwritten notes. “I wanted to use every piece of the pictures to make a gesture or a brush stroke,” Schorr said.
Occasionally she spells out what has been removed, as is the case with the note: “A beautiful girl stands on giant driftwood her skirt as round as a bell.”
Wary about how long Jens would participate in her project, Schorr photographed a woman with short dark hair as an understudy. “I thought, ‘Maybe he won’t be there next year.’ Or if the picture didn’t come out, I’d have to wait a whole other year to shoot him,” she said. “It was kind of like being separated from your lover and you’re writing in your diary because you can’t wait to see them again to make this happen.”
Schorr also worked in her own version of a modern-day Helga, a graduate student she happened upon at the School of Visual Arts. After initially refraining from reading about Wyeth to sidestep any preconceived notions, Schorr was pleased to learn: “In some of the pictures, he painted another woman’s face over Helga’s because he didn’t want to seem too obsessed with one model.”
The project has made Jens more introspective, as well. He is now studying to be a child psychologist.
Schorr said, “My hope is that when people look at this, they will see inside the attempt and failure of trying to ultimately define someone with an image. Personally, I wanted to be able to photograph women in ways that women acknowledge they are being looked at and have a reaction to that.”