PPE 2012: Stephen Shore on Challenging Photography’s Conventions

In the 1970s, Stephen Shore, then a young photographer with one museum show to his credit, had dinner with Ansel Adams, the legendary landscape photographer. In the course of their conversation, Shore realized that he had no interest in taking beautiful pictures,  but only in “exploring the medium of photography.” During his keynote speech on the first day of PhotoPlus Expo, Shore shared roughly four decades of work exploring what a photo is, how a photographer creates a photographic image, and how the two dimensional picture plane conveys so much, including an illusion of three dimensional space, a reference to a place and a time, a wealth of cultural and historical references, and more.

One of Shore’s earliest encounters with photography came when he was eight years old and an uncle, seeing how much Shore enjoyed his darkroom kit, gave him a copy of Walker Evans’ American Photographs. “To say I was influenced by Walker Evans misses the point,” Shore said. “I feel a spiritual kinship with him.” Many of Evans’ interests, including his documentation of American culture and architecture, and his fascination with vernacular imagery, have also preoccupied Shore throughout his career. Shore noted that Evans’ work is a “paradigm” in the original, scientific sense of the word: unprecedented, but also open ended, allowing others to follow and continue the path the originator of the paradigm has forged.

The images Shore exhibited in his first show in 1971, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were highly conceptual, and inspired by the work of Ed Ruscha. At the same time, however, Shore was fascinated by vernacular images, and with two friends, he mounted an exhibit made up of police photos, press photos, pornography confiscated by a police officer in Amarillo, Texas, and postcards.

“The postcards had a strong effect on me, they were a matter of fact view of artifacts of our culture without artistic intent.” Shore began creating his own postcards. “I decided what the New York art world wanted more than anything was postcards of Amarillo. This was a huge miscalculation.” Shore ended up with 56,000 copies that no one wanted.

But his experiments in trying to recreate the postcards’ immediacy and their “lack of pretense [or] the mediation of artistic conditioning” by shooting with a Mick-o-Matic (a plastic Mickey Mouse head with a camera in it). Eventually, seeking a better lens, he switched to a Rollei 35, which looked amateurish enough that he found it easy to approach people on street and ask to take their photo. Decades before the snapshot esthetic overtook lifestyle advertising, Shore was taking the seemingly artless shots that he published in American Surfaces. “What I found was that I was keeping a visual diary,” he says, recording “every meal I ate, every television I watched, every toilet I used, residential architecture, commercial architecture.” Like Walker Evans, Shore’s photos were packed with cultural references.

At the time, Shore notes, he was one of only a handful of artists who weren’t shooting black and white. Shore says what fascinated him about color was its “transparency”—after all, real life is in color, and it’s how all amateur photographers record the world.

His fascination with creating “transparent” images – as he described it, “a screen shot of a my field of vision” – shifted when he began shooting with a large format camera on a tripod, and composed his images on a ground glass.  “Because of the detail and potential luminosity, 8×10 became the technical means of seeing the world in a state of heightened awareness, those moments when you experience the world as quieter and more vivid.”

He added, “Because the photos were more detailed, I could rely on the camera’s descriptive ability and that allowed for greater complexity in the pictures.” He became curious about the way the plane of a photo creates the illusion of three-dimensional space, and how the camera gives priority to one plane over another.

A self-described contrarian, Shore shifted between highly structured images and those that are less obviously composed. He realized that his famous photo “Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, June 21, 1975,” a photo of a gas station forms a pattern of diagonal and vertical lines, was composed with as much balance and proportion as a painting by Claude Lorrain. “I was bending to artistic convention in making this structure,” he noticed. So the next day he returned to the same intersection and, with effort, made a photo that was “more open, unstructured.” His composition of cars cut off by the left hand frame might inspire someone to say, as has been said of Picasso paintings, “My kid could do that.”

 

After he moved to Montana, his study of how photos create three-dimensional space continued as he shot landscapes – more challenging without receding lines of streets and lampposts to mark the receding space. When color was widely adopted throughout the fine-art photography world, Shore decided, he says, “Black and white isn’t so bad,” and shot black-and-white images in the woods around his house and on his travels.

Between 2003 and 2010, Shore used the new technology of print-on-demand to produce small artist’s books, each exploring a single idea or a single day in his life. In part, the experiment was inspired by his teaching. As a photography teacher, he says, he doesn’t want his students to think the way he does. “I have to learn to think like each student thinks to help guide them to the next step in their development as an artist.” That process of putting himself in the mind of other photographers “has caused me to see possibilities for photographs where I hadn’t seen them before.” He decided to devote a day or a week to each new idea, and then preserve them in the pages of books. For example, in one book he collected everything he photographed on each day the New York Times ran a six-column headline;  he devoted another book to photos taken in his garden after he had spray painted flowers white; at a flea market in Vienna, he became attracted to reproductions (including postcards, signs and paintings) that had “a Germanic quality” and collected those in another book.

 

This year Phaidon reproduced all 86 books in a two-volume boxed set that sells for $2500. The set is so “ridiculously large,”  Shore suggested to Phaidon that the box be printed with a warning to always lift heavy objects while bending from the knees. It’s also a testament to a restless imagination and to an artist who, like his beloved Evans, has created a paradigm that has been followed and imitated by countless others.

Related articles:

Heroes and Mentors: Stephen Shore and Gregory Crewdson 

 

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