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'Then I Found Myself Seeing Pictures All the Time'

Stephen Shore's photos will make you put away your camera phone

Courtesy of Stephen Shore and 303 Gallery, New York

All great American photographs have one thing in common: power lines. This is not, strictly speaking, true. But it often feels true, especially when you look at street photography. Electricity tends to follow our roadways, just like documentary photographers. So power lines inevitably appear in their pictures. And the way an individual photographer confronts them can illuminate his style of seeing. You can observe Walker Evans’s mastery with the camera, for instance, in his treatment of power lines. He admitted them into photographs not, like most of us, by unhappy necessity, but with formal artistic intention. No one was better at it than he was—except for maybe Stephen Shore.

“There’s something about Evans’ work that I feel there’s a similarity in sensibility between me and him,” Shore told me recently. That something could be power lines. He opened the most recent edition of his 1982 book, Uncommon Places, with a picture of power lines in Union, New Jersey, and they reappear throughout its pages. Like Evans, Shore doesn’t see pylons and wires as unavoidable nuisances, but as structural elements within his pictures. The attention Shore pays them creates what the photographer Alec Soth called “this pure experience of looking at the world." Shore’s aim, wrote the photographer Joel Sternfeld, is “seeing the world with a Zen-like, awakened unconsciousness.”

I might put it this way: Shore’s photos make you want to chuck your camera phone against a wall. He took them with an 8x10 viewfinder camera—that old-fashioned thing with a tripod and a dark cloth. “I realized that with the 8x10, I could rely on its descriptive power,” Shore told Phaidon. “No longer was it pointing at something in the world saying look at this. I was creating a little world that a viewer can move their attention through without directing it.”

There are plenty of opportunities these days to see them for yourself. MoMA has devoted half of a gallery in its “XL: 19 New Acquisitions in Photography” exhibit to Shore’s career; in November, the Sprüth Magers gallery in London will also host a curated retrospective; and in early 2014, the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles will show a selection of Shore’s work.

These exhibits are an opportunity to admire the pure power of the camera at a time when many of us regard it as just another app on our smartphones. On social media, we stand in a buffet line of each other’s photos, stuffed but never satisfied. Shore’s large-format pictures from the 1970s, by contrast, are gourmet meals. The shows are also reminders, however, that before Shore adopted the large-format camera, he was making visual diaries in which he took a snapshot of every meal he ate, person he met, and bed he slept in.

“It was totally baffling then to almost everyone who saw it,” Shore laughed. Today, though, the snapshots feel familiar: They look like a proto-Instagram, without the forgiving filters. The writer Lynne Tillman described the photos as “close up, sometimes tawdry, even abject.” Geoff Dyer, in his book The Ongoing Moment, awarded one of them “the prize, if such a thing existed, for the most disgusting picture of a bed.”

Stephen Shore, courtesy of Stephen Shore and 303 Gallery, New York
Granite, Oklahoma, July 1972. From American Surfaces.

In many ways, these casual snapshots from the early '70s, which were exhibited at the time and published in 1999 as the book American Surfaces, seem the opposite of the formal large-format photos that Shore made next and published as Uncommon Places. This polarity makes Shore’s work doubly relevant: To our current photographic culture, his photos seem both antidote and antecedent. Unlike many artists, who develop toward a mature style over the course of their careers, Shore made two early, important, and antipodal aesthetic statements. He has mapped the terrain between them ever since. 

“It’s the bane of my existence that I see photography not as a way of recording personal experience particularly, but as this process of exploring the world and the medium,” Shore told me in his studio. “I have to be reminded, “’It’s your son’s birthday party. Bring a camera.’ And then, when I’m there, ‘Take a picture,’ because it doesn’t occur to me to use it as this memorializing thing.”

It’s an unexpected statement coming from the man who made American Surfaces. But then American Surfaces was not the random result of some photographic compulsion: Shore conceived of and executed it as a disciplined artistic undertaking. “I think there may have been a slight difference,” Shore said about the symmetry between these photos and social-media photography. “When people are posting, I actually find it a little peculiar. Why would they think that I would be curious what they had for breakfast? But this was more a way of using my own experience as—it was about me, but it was also about exploring the culture through this mechanism [the snapshot].”

Today, Shore is the director of photography at Bard College, where he started as a professor in 1982. He wears tortoiseshell glasses and a wardrobe of corduroy, wool, and tweed. His hair is gray and slightly wild. He appears so adapted to the professorial role that it’s a surprise to learn that he has almost no formal schooling of his own.

Shore was born in New York City in 1947, the sole son of Jewish parents who ran a handbag company. At the age of six, he began to develop his family’s photos with a dark-room kit his uncle had given him as a present. He received his first camera a couple years later, and when he was ten he received a copy of Walker Evans’ American Photographs.

His greatest gift, however, was natural. He had pluck, like a highbrow Horatio Alger character. When Shore was 14, he called Edward Steichen, the director of photography at MoMA, and arranged a meeting. Steichen bought three of his photos. A few years later, he approached Steichen’s successor, the influential curator John Szarkowski, in the same way. Szarkowski also agreed to meet Shore, and the two struck up a friendship. “He was essentially my teacher,” Shore said. “I understood the importance of input from someone who had a larger perspective, someone who had been there before and knew where you were in the process of development and could help guide you to the next step.”

Shore’s other unofficial teacher was Andy Warhol. Shore met him as a senior in high school at a film festival in New York. “By the time I met Warhol, which was I guess in very early ’65, I realized I couldn’t keep up the pretense that I was a student,” Shore said. “Sitting through classes that I found of no interest or hanging out at the Factory? It was a very easy choice.”

Courtesy of Stephen Shore and 303 Gallery, New York
Nico Icon (Christa Paffgen), 1965-1967

Shore arrived at the Factory with his camera and set about taking pictures. (They’ve since been collected in The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965-67.) On the nights when the Factory was full, Shore often brought the overflow back to his parents’ apartment. One of his photos from the period shows Nico at his family’s breakfast table with a box of matzo. Warhol himself would occasionally stop by and talk to Shore’s parents.

Warhol was a role model of a working artist. “An equally significant thing I derived from Warhol,” Shore once said, “was a delight in our culture, a kind of ambiguous delight.” His early photography was also influenced by Warhol’s conceptual art. Still working in black and white, Shore photographed a friend every 30 minutes over a 24-hour period; and he stood his friend in the desert and then took a photograph of him from each of the eight points on the compass. And Shore’s pluck continued to impress: In 1971, he gave some of his photos to John McKendry, the head of the Department of Prints and Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later that year, Shore, then 23 years old, became the first living photographer to have a one-man show at the Met.

It’s odd that such a monumental accomplishment typically only gets a brief mention in the preamble of Shore’s career. It’s probably because he had not yet begun photographing in color. At the time, black-and-white still dominated fine-art photography. Shore likes to tell a story about the time the photographer Paul Strand took him to lunch and told him that “higher emotions couldn’t be expressed in color.”1 Shore would be one of the most important photographers, alongside William Eggleston, in changing this.

“The cheesiest postcard photography of the 50s and 60s had a lot to do with closing people’s minds to the value of color,” said historian Luc Sante, who teaches in the photography department at Bard with Shore. It was only natural that Shore, as a student of Warhol, would introduce color to his work through postcards. The same year as the Met show, he made a series of postcards from pictures he had taken of buildings in Amarillo, Texas. He also began taking pictures in color using a “Mick-o-Matic” Mickey Mouse camera.

These projects led to American Surfaces, where he set out to fully explore the main medium of vernacular photography: the color snapshot. “The word I used then for myself was ‘natural,’” Shore said. “I wanted to make pictures that felt natural, that felt like seeing, that didn’t feel like taking something in the world and making a piece of art out of it.”

Shore began in March 1972 with several photos he took around New York with a 35 mm camera. He then set off on a road trip, due south through the Carolinas and then across the Deep South to Texas and New Mexico. He weaved around the West then back through the Midwest toward New York—a road trip that, atypically, never touched California. His goal, he has said, was not Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments” but, in fact, their opposite: the moments where nothing happened, where the culture was unself-conscious. “I didn’t think about beauty a lot,” Shore told the photographer Gregory Crewdson. “I saw myself as an explorer.”

Courtesy of Stephen Shore and 303 Gallery, New York
Farmington, New Mexico. June 1972. From American Surfaces

In addition to the motel beds and greasy meals, there are photos of storefronts, televisions, wall art, and toilets. Shore did not shoot these objects from novel or artistic vantage points but approached them directly, as a person would if he were going to use them (the toilets from an undeniably male point of view). And he used a flash constantly, not necessarily as an aid to vision but as a reminder, in the glare reflected back from glass surfaces, that he was there pointing the camera.

Shore returned from that initial road trip with nearly 100 rolls of film, which he developed as any ordinary person would: He sent them to a Kodak factory in New Jersey. He then showed the snapshots in New York’s LIGHT Gallery in 1972. The art world was not enthused, but Shore continued the project anyway. He kept photographing places around the country (and a few in England) through 1973. This same year, he switched to the large-format camera, first a 4x5 and later an 8x10.

“I went to the view camera really for a simple reason that I wanted to continue with American Surfaces, but I wanted a larger negative to make bigger prints, because film at the time wasn’t very sharp,” he said. Look at the first Uncommon Places photos and the continuity with American Surfaces is obvious: For instance, he shoots his hotel television and bed. Soon, however, the images move away from interior spaces toward large images of neglected architecture, parking lots, and street intersections, .

The change was not a deliberate stylistic overhaul but a natural response to the technical differences of the large-format camera. 8x10 color is, Shore said, the most cumbersome and expensive photographic process possible.” As a result, he had to be much more mindful of when and why he took a picture.

“The process took me to this new place,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ve abandoned American Surfaces and my work is much more formal now.’” Still, Shore’s “little worlds” had a remarkable order about them—an effect, in part, of the grid that overlays an image on the 8x10’s ground glass. What Shore called the 8x10’s “descriptive power” lent his new photos an incredible amount of detail: You could see faces in far-off windows and read the words on distant signs. "When pictures have a great deal of information, that information has to have a shape of its own, even a shapeliness," Szarkowski once said while discussing Shore's work.

Shore’s camera no longer pointed at a single thing—a building, a bed, a toilet. His photos no longer felt like peepholes into his life. Tillman has described the photos of Uncommon Places as expressing a “willed objectivity.” The 8x10 opened the photograph up; they were vast, impersonal spaces, as though a viewer might wander into them and claim it for herself. In one photo of a street intersection in El Paso, a man standing on a corner in the foreground seems to have done exactly that. 

Courtesy of Stephen Shore and 303 Gallery, New York
El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975 from Uncommon Places

“I’d thought about this in a certain way before—about this idea of how to make a picture look natural,” Shore said. “In a way I deconstructed all of that over a period of years and made pictures that were almost the opposite, very intensely structured.” 

Uncommon Places is the moment at which Shore passed from under the house of Warhol and into the house of Evans. “There’s something in my temperament that just connects to [Evans],” Shore told Crewdson. “The word that comes to mind is classical, in terms of an understanding of the relationship of structure and content, and an empathetic distance.” In another interview, Shore described photography as an “analytic process”: “With a painting, you’re taking basic building blocks and making something that’s more complex than what you started with. It is a synthetic process. A photograph does the opposite: It takes the world, and puts an order on it, simplifies it.”

Shore’s technological step back to the 8x10 in the Uncommon Places photos became the next step forward in the canon of American photography. “Their place on the map was immediately evident,” said Sante. “If you know anything about the history of photography you saw this little chart that went Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and then these pictures.”2 It helped that the greater art world’s interest in photography—until then, in many ways, still regarded as a stepchild to other mediums—was exploding when Uncommon Places was published in 1982. “Stephen became noticed really starting in the '80s,” Sante said. “but he hadn’t waited to be noticed. He had done all this work without worrying. … He suddenly appeared on the landscape fully formed with this huge body of work.”

Shore worked with the 8x10 for the next 20 years, focusing on landscape photography in the '80s, and then on black-and-white street photography in the '90s. “During the time of Uncommon Places, I took an average of eight pictures a day,” Shore said. “By the early '90s, I was doing a project in the Yucatan and could easily do 20 pictures in a day. And then I found myself seeing pictures all the time that I couldn’t take because I just didn’t have enough time to do it because of what’s involved in setting up the 8x10.”

Digital photography allowed Shore to return to reclaim some of the casualness and immediacy of American Surfaces without sacrificing the image quality of Uncommon Places. “Cameras are now made that are the size of a 35 mm SLR that can take a picture that has the resolution of a view camera,” he said. “And so that camera that I was looking for in 1972? By 2008 that camera was being made.”

In the 21st century, Shore traveled with a digital camera to new cities like Hebron and Abu Dhabi, but the most interesting of his recent projects took place at home. Just as he once used the Kodak factory to print snapshots for American Surfaces, Shore began making daily visual diaries and publishing them as print-on-demand photography books using Apple’s Aperture application. Aggregated now as The Book of Books (beware the $2,250 price tag), these images are among the most personal of Shore’s career.

“The idea was to do a book that was a time capsule,” he said, and so he began making books on days when The New York Times ran six-column banner headlines—a decision he said he did not intend as a political statement. (Shore generally eschews political photography; he has said part of him “bristles at” the more overt politics of a photographer like Robert Frank.) “It turns out that the Times used the bigger headline more often than I thought it was going to,” Shore said. “It got tricky when Bush was reelected: There were three banner headlines in a row.”

Courtesy of Stephen Shore and 303 Gallery, New York
Tzylia Bederman, Bucha, Ukraine, July 18, 2012

He also has been working on a series about Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. It is an unusual project for Shore: Art critics have typically downplayed his photos’ content and discussed instead their formal qualities or conceptual ideas. “I’m self aware enough to know that when I’m doing this, I‘m photographing much more loaded subject matter than I’ve ever dealt with before,” Shore said. “So the question is: Can I take a picture that is not just an illustration of the content but is a visually coherent picture and that could stand alone even if one didn’t know what I was photographing and also somehow communicate some essence of the situation?”

Looking through these photos, Shore paused on certain images, as though catching his breath, before turning the page. “I see pictures that look like American Surfaces but I also see photos that look like Uncommon Places,” he said. Shore then closed the book of Ukraine photos and returned it to the shelf where he kept his Mick-o-Matic camera.

Courtesy of Stephen Shore and 303 Gallery, New York
Badlands National Monument, South Dakota, July 14, 1973
  1. Shore also tells a story of a dinner with Ansel Adams where Adams “drank six tall glasses of straight vodka” and then rued that he had been “pot boiling” since his creative heyday in the 1940s. 

  2. Despite their divergent styles, Shore owns more of Winogrand’s photographs than anyone else’s. “That’s what I hang on my wall,” he said.