The basis for Collier Schorr's newest book There I Was is almost a cinematic cliche. A friend of her father's who was the local champion muscle car driver of Ditmars Avenue gets drafted into the Vietnam war and killed within the first month of his tour. Every war film has one, a Brooklyn or Queens eighteen year old straight from central casting with an endearing accent who's hometown pride is worn on his sleeve. Always a bit player, they usually wind up dead by the third act.
For Schorr, Charlie Synder aka Astoria Chas, was that bit player. His story is a subject ripe with ideas about masculinity - a teenager already engaging death before war via his passion for racing, going to war ("No one wanted to go, but if you were from Astoria, you just plain went.") and transformed into a "man," and after his death, neighborhood legend. The dramatic change that usually follows one's return from war as seen in films like The Deer Hunter, haunted by their own brutality or that of others, would not be witnessed. No evidence of that damage to tarnish his image compounded by the legend of his car, which would later be raced by friends and set track records.
Schorr is often engaging in ideas of masculinity and There I Was explores those notions through drawings, photographs, and ephemera from this story. Schorr's father has known Astoria Chas and had written a few feature stories about him for muscle car mags in the late 60s. Where her father had mainly concentrated on the '67 Corvette Chas raced, Schorr uses the story to create a portrait of youth in transition.
Her drawings of young soldiers bring to mind (and are often revisionings of) famous war-time photos by the likes of Burrows or David Douglas Duncan. Vulnerability is read on the faces and in body language of her minimalist sketches. One soldier curls into a ball and another covers his face with his arm while his mouth reveals distress. Before the weakness shows, a photo of a silhouetted figure, bare chested and wearing a helmet fills the mind's image of a silver screen hero projecting sex appeal.
Schorr has in the past explored the real and the imagined with her work in Southern Germany. Here, it is the shift in mediums which initiates ideas of artifice. Her sketches from war reportage mixed with the staged photographs point to a gulf between both medium's ability to describe past history let alone provide a complex portrait of its players.
There I Was is handsome down to the heavyweight matte paper and clean, simple design. The whole endeavor has a lightness that adds an interesting contradiction to the weight of the subject. The title There I Was could be coming from the mouth of either Schorr or Chas and if from Schorr, it reads as a memorial - a remembrance of a time long ago. Or perhaps, with this current conflict, it is not about the past at all.