|Research Code Key|
|[E] Explanation||[O] Opinion||[W] Website||[R] Further Research||[Q] Quotation||[U] Useful||[!] Critical|
|[X] Exhibition||[T] Timeline||[I] Important||[>] Indent
||[P] Photograph||[B] Book To Read|
[U] “To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap,” Stephen Shore once said. “But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.”
[U] Shore’s vision of the ordinary world is now so pervasive an influence on photography that it almost goes uncommented on. But back when he first unveiled it in New York in 1972, with a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his colour images of everyday America caused consternation and derision.
[U] “The press coverage, what little there was of it, was uniformly terrible,” he once told me.
[U] “People just did not exhibit colour images then.
[U] I remember the great Paul Strand taking me aside and advising me in no uncertain terms that it would be a disastrous career move.
[U] I am often asked what it was that people objected to exactly in the show and the answer is: all of it. Everything.’’
[U] In this context, it is doubly fascinating to wander through the Stephen Shore retrospective in Espace Van Gogh in Arles, France, where the first rooms are devoted to work that predated his controversial embrace of colour.
[U] They remind us that he was always a conceptualist at heart, but one who (like the great American traditionalists before him) saw the world in black and white.
[U] The first image is a photograph of a photograph being taken: a man with his back to Shore’s camera instructs a school football team where to look as he takes their group portrait, one hand in the air, the other poised at the shutter of his camera.
[U] Shore’s shadow, and the shadows of other onlookers, fall across the foreground, giving an oddly amateur feel. This is intentional. Shore’s images often have the appearance of snapshots (and, unlike William Eggleston, he doesn’t mind the term), yet they are anything but.
[U] He has likened taking a photograph to his other passion, fly fishing, saying they both require intelligence, concentration, delicacy and attention.
[U] These early black-and-white images show Shore’s precocious awareness of photography as a conceptual medium.
[U] In one large grid of 32 images arranged in rows of four, he photographed a car parked in a desolate desert landscape from various distances.
[U] In six shots, it fills the frame in an oddly ominous way, as if it has just been abandoned after a car chase. In others, it looks lost in the vastness.
[U] For another series, he shot his travelling companion, Doug Marsh, every half an hour on a regular day in Amarillo, Texas.
[U] If this formalism looks forward to the more obsessive serialism of his American Surfaces, where he photographed the food he ate every day and the details of the bland motel rooms he stayed in, there are also street photographs that betray the influence of Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank.
[U] A dog in a window next to a huge Stars and Stripes is, at first glance, pure Frank – but there is something more seemingly casual about Shore’s eye.
[U] It is this casualness, coupled with an unerring instinct for composition, that soon became his signature, and one writ large in epic 70s series such as American Surfaces and Uncommon Places, both of which are now landmarks of modern American photography and receive due attention here.
[U] Like his contemporary Eggleston, Shore shot the commonplace and made it seem suddenly arresting.
[U] Shore is an altogether quieter photographer, but there is quirky humour in his images of vernacular buildings and signage that has often been overlooked.
[U] His eye lights on a barber’s shop window announcing the delights of Tyrone, the Great Contour Haircutter, and on a neon pharmacy sign that reads, perhaps without irony, Strange Drugs.
[U] There is a sense of someone discovering a whole new world of surprises under his nose: an America so obvious as to go unnoticed.
[U] It is now definably Stephen Shore’s America, though it nods to Robert Frank’s and, even more so, to Walker Evans’s America.
[U] “I do think about why people are all of a sudden looking at my work,” he told me 10 years ago, “and it occurs to me that it may have needed a distance in time for people to see what I was actually looking at. People need time.
[U] It’s much easier to look at the past than to look at the present.”
[U] Now, the America he photographed in the 70s seems impossibly distant, its quirkiness having given way inexorably to a bland uniformity of malls and brands.
[U] That may be one reason he revised the medium of black and white for his series of street photographs, New York City, made between 2000 and 2002.
[U] They are more epic in scale and more traditional in feel, with Winogrand, once more, the abiding presence, but the quietude Shore brings to even the frenetic streets of Manhattan is striking.
[U] The fly-fishing comparison still holds, and his images, though no longer surprising, still evince intelligence, concentration, delicacy and attention.
[U] It’s the earliest work that intrigues the most, though, insofar as it shows the tentative emergence of a modern American master.