Charles Schorre: Artists' Handbook

By Dave Crossley

A fifteen-year project goes on, as do all the artist’s other works, proving that nice guys don’t finish at all

Charles Schorre’s resume has near the beginning the words “Considers himself reclusive…lives and works in Houston, Texas.” Is he saying that he’s reclusive because he lives and works there? Or that he lives and works there? Or that he lives and works there because he’s reclusive? Or, if asked, would he say, as he so often does, “I don’t know, I never thought about it before.”
Schorre defines himself as a painter and insists he is not a very good photographer. He also insists that he’s a hermit, that he’s old (he’s 60), that he’s still a child, and that he really doesn’t know what he’s doing until he’s done it. He uses photography extensively in his paintings, affixing his photographs to the surface of the work where it seems they were always meant to be. The process he uses requires some serendipity: paintings are painted and photographs are photographed and later, while looking at a painting he’ll remember a photograph that is stored away somewhere in his studio (which should be a national treasure and open to the public) and soon he’s leaning over the work carefully positioning the print, which now looks miraculously, as though it had been made precisely to fit in that place on that painting.
Schorre calls his manner of working intuitive. He goes into the studio each day without a plan and begins to paint and to scrabble around and observe as things begin to come together. He always has five or six projects going on at the same time. When one fails of solution he moves to another “station” in the studio. He loves scratches and marks fossils and shapes, and he notes them everywhere, then gives himself over to his memory while he works.
One of his memories is of time he spent as a designer in advertising. He did a lot of photography then and learned how to make work that was simple and communicated fast. That experience has left him with a love of printing and publishing. In conjunction with his painting, he has steadily worked on two series since 1969: Artists’ Handbook (selections of which are published here) and Pages from Books Unpublished, some of which have used pictures from thee handbook. He is now working with Houston designer Jerry Herring to publish the Artists’ Handbook.
What follows is his side of a conversation about the Artists’ Handbook:
“I started out photographing people who use their hands to make their livelihood and then I focused just on artists and then I returned to everyman, realizing that there were a lot of people I wanted to photograph who didn’t call themselves artists. Basically, Artists’ Handbook is a silent, visual answer to the question, How do you do it? It started out as a polemic against how to paint or how to photograph or how to do anything books. I never taught technique or anything like that because if you came to me to learn how to do it and in a year you learned, it would take you ten years to forget about it. All that time you’re standing in the wing waiting to come on stage and by the time you come on you’re all dried up, gone. I’m against all how to do it. You have to learn, but as soon as that’s over you have to forget it.
“Once I was asked by a publisher to do a how to paint book, and the more I got into it I realized I didn’t believe what I was attempting to do; it was sacrilegious brainwash. That’s when I realized that my how to book, the Artists’ Handbook would have no words except their signatures and their birthdates and maybe a foreword or afterward.
“Another realization came to me with the Pages from Books Unpublished series. I like to make books but at that time —fifteen years ago — there seemed to be no publishers in this part of the country. I was frustrated and the answer to this frustration became a series of unpublished spreads that are now a big part of my art. The spread is the art. The pages inform my paintings and the paintings inform the pages.
“The first Artists’ Handbook photographs were part of the first Pages. The first complete hand thing had two 8x10 images, one of Aaron Siskand and one of Georgi Kepes, and about 60 face/palm pictures that were contact prints with written notations to me about their future use. It was a sort of notebook of process, to myself.”
“I have pictures of approximately 50-60 painters and sculptors, 10 writers, 12 graphic designers, 20 photographers. Over 100 in all. It’s getting to be a problem because I’m trying to get model releases from everybody now and some people aren’t cooperating and some are dead and their estates aren’t cooperating. A guy like Robert Motherwell, whom I didn’t get one from at the time, is now so cloistered and surrounded by people that I can’t get to him. He’s seen the little booklet I’ve printed and he likes it but he lost it, and then when I sent a model release people were afraid to get him to sign it. I just can’t get to him. I don’t know his phone number, it’s unlisted. After a day and a half of trying I realized I had to start painting, I was tired of this stuff. When it becomes a hassle I stop.
“I like to boil things down to their essential elements, like the silhouette of a hand. What I need is the man or woman’s face and their hands. That’s all I want. I first ask them to do a certain thing: hold your hands up by your ears, palms facing me. I shoot hat and then I say ‘Do you want to vary that in any way?’ and sometimes when they get into these variations it’s very interesting.
“Usually, I use the controlled picture, but if a variation is so important I use it in juxtaposition within the control, and sometimes eliminate the control entirely. When I shot Barbara Rose, for her variation she chose almost a judo stance, and I like it better than the control, because that’s almost the way she was when she was here at the Museum of Fine Arts.
“I don’t worry about the background. I’ve stripped it down and if the background interferes, that’s a problem. I want to get a sort of a straight mug shot, police lineup thing. It’s just a common photograph, so the only thing of real interest there intellectually or artistically would be this face and these hands. I’m not really interested in the connection with the background, but when it happens, as in the Witkin picture, that is very interesting.
“These photographs are anti-design. I like to design, so I decided to boil these things down and not have any design, boil it down to what I want. I don’t want that guy to comb his hair. I don’t want that girl to put her dress on in a certain way. I’m not going to just shoot her in her bedroom. I want it to just happen to be.
“On the surface, the thing I’m asking people to do for these pictures is silly. Some sophisticated people don’t care to do it. There was one German photographer who first rejected the idea, then begged me to shoot him after he realized that I had photographed several of his gods. I shot him to make him feel good, but I shot him out of focus, which is not at all hard for me to do, but I did that on purpose.
“When you ask some people it’s almost as if you said ‘Take your clothes off for a minute.’ People like Jim Dine and Lee Friedlander — who are friends and both rejected me at different times although they didn’t know it. Lee spent about three coming hours coming over here and visiting and talking and finally I said ‘You’re here to tell me you don’t want to do it, aren’t you?’ and he said yeah. It’s odd, because he’s a sort of invader of privacy too. I had a violent argument with Garry Winogrand, but he finally wanted me to do it. I said it didn’t matter to me, and as soon as I said that, it was his turn and he agreed. It’s like a bullfight sometimes.
“Sometimes they backfire. I was at a conference and ran into former Governor Jerry Brown of California and I showed him my little booklet and asked if he would let me photograph him in that manner. Well, all that time I should have known he wasn’t listening, he was looking over my shoulder. But he said ‘Yeah, I’ll do it, but we have to hurry, we have to hurry, where do you want me?’ I said ‘Just stand there and put your hands up by your ears’ and he said ‘I’m not going to do that’ so I said ‘Well, forget it, that’s okay, go about your business.’ He’s like the German: if he finally caught on to what I was doing, he might be interested in it, but I don’t have time to fool around. I have to do it fast, I have to explain fast what I’m doing.
“I approached William Wegman the night of his opening at Texas Gallery in Houston and he asked me ‘What are you doing this for? How did you start?’ I told him and I thought he was listening but he wasn’t. The next morning when I came to shoot him he asked the same questions that he asked me the night be fore. It’s not very hard to catch on to. I’m not going to dress the dog up and have him eat cake or anything. But a lot of people have such a hard time getting into it it’s pitiful. Some people get it fast. Some people think it’s a riot. Some people are just suspicious.
“Sometimes I scare the hell out of them. I dominate them and scare them off. I can identify the ego immediately. As soon as I explain the thing, that’s one of the things that comes out. The ego is identified fast. It’s revealed. If it’s someone who’s on stage all the time, someone who thinks he’s the greatest artist, it comes out real fast. That might be why some of them are really embarrassed; the greatest artist in his own mind might have a hard time doing this humbling thing. It’s not a normal position to put your hands in.
“The hands are very important. Robert Motherwell, when he walked out of the room after I shot his photograph, mumbled something and I said ‘What did you say?’ and he said ‘My hands are so small.’ I said ‘What difference does that make?’ And he said ‘They’re so small, for what I do.’ Things like that are really interesting.

“Sometimes the hands play almost as big a part as the face. It’s a real identification tag, and I haven’t even thought about what a palmist might say.

“Sometimes I’ll go to hear someone speak and not take my camera because I don’t shoot photographs at night so I’m hampered by my manner, my technique. When it becomes any kind of a hassle, I don’t do it. I do it mostly with grace when people come by the studio. I can just say, ‘Let’s go outside and shoot our photograph.’

“Once when I had a show in New York, I walked out of the gallery just to get away for a moment and I saw a policeman there with white gloves on. I asked him to do it, but to leave his gloves on and he held his hands a little away from his head and I backed him up against the building right next to Parke Bernet. I didn’t realize how intense I was being and I was back by the garbage can and people were walking around us because they thought I was holding him up with a camera gun of some sort. It was weird, and I didn’t know until after it was over.

“They actually stood around kind of watching, waiting for something to go off. No one touched me. A guy told me he couldn’t figure out how I was holding this cop up with a camera.

“It’s such an antithesis of the way I go about things. I work in an intuitive manner as an artist, and then when I’m working on this series as a photographer, I ask them to do this particular thing, the same thing of everyone, and so that’s a control ting, which leaves me on a kind of see-saw.

“I don’t want to get too far into photography because I’m really not a photographer. But I always heralded photography as art before people in this town even saw the Family of Man show.

“There’s lots of things I’ve tried to do for photography and I still do. But now it’s a contagious disease, it’s almost gotten out of hand. But I still use it in my work and it informs my paintings.

“It’s a way of note taking that I consider very valuable.

“It’s fun to do it when I feel like it. I’m not stalking people, so I miss a lot of people I really want and perhaps will never see again, but I’m not in the mood that day or I’m without a camera or film. Since I’m a painter, I fail to realize that being ready is part of it. It can be joyful, meeting people for only a few seconds that I would not otherwise meet, since I’m not a very social person. I have a good time when I go to a party, but it’s hard for me to get there. This project is an excuse for me to say hello to someone for an intense minute. It’s amazing what people say and do in these moments.

“It appears to be foolish but I don’t look upon this endeavor as foolish. I sometimes feel it is the essence of the person I photograph and this always gives me a feeling of deep respect for the human being and what he or she is doing. It’s an intense experience and one that I appreciate very much. I’ll probably do it as long as I live.”