Icons of Photography: Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore was born on October 8, 1947, in New York City into a world framed, he has said, by a few square miles of Manhattan – and which stayed that way till he left it for the first time at the age of 25, in a car. ‘In 1972 I set out with a friend for Amarillo, Texas. I didn’t drive, so my first view of America was framed by the passenger’s window. It was a shock.’

He wrote that in Uncommon Places, the 1982 collection which made his name and established his vision. The title is a smart, sly, arty joke, of course. His pictures are of the most common places. A red sign on a telegraph pole against a New Mexico sky as big as… a New Mexico sky. Two gas stations and a sky in Los Angeles. A Merced River shoreside in Yosemite National Park. A traffic-less road junction on California 177. His future wife in a swimsuit, from behind, half-in and half-out of a motel swimming pool in Tampa, Florida. Big, big C-prints, deep and crisp and even. ‘What the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness,’ he said. And: ‘It was as if fifteen minutes of attention had been compressed into this thing you can absorb in seconds.’

It’s an America on the cusp, a reconsideration of the national landscape – physical and emotional. Away from the poisons of Vietnam, Watergate and inner city meltaway, Shore found – created, maybe – a tourist’s view of his own country. There’s more distance to it than that, though. Its naivety, while not at all false, is not simply naïve either. ‘It’s a diary of a life geared to making photographs,’ he wrote – he’s something of a writer as well as photographer. ‘It’s things I’m encountering but also things I’m encountering for the sake of encountering them.’ Yet his work is never ironic. It has been described – perhaps fairly, perhaps pretentiously – as a ‘meditation on what it means to be in the world’.

It’s a view of the world – and America, in particular – that came to be known and shared by a world far beyond the confines of the photographic gallery. It’s there, obviously, in Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky and Martin Parr but also in David Lynch movies, Feelies records and Sam Shepherd’s face. Like all new and powerful visions, it changed our view of the world. We saw, as if for the first time, what was there all along, really, of course – but also, in a way, wasn’t till we realised it was. It’s a conscious act by Shore, too. He is nothing if not a considered photographer. He quotes Hamlet’s instructions to the travelling players that they should hold a mirror up to nature. And he describes his aim as trying to capture ‘a more diffuse experience of reality’.

Shore started taking pictures young. A child of plenty, he was given his own darkroom at six and within three years had graduated to 35mm and colour. At ten, he was given a copy of Walker Evans’ American Photographs – he says Evans is still the photographer he feels closest to. At fourteen, he showed his work to Edward Steichen, the photographer of fashion and the famous – think Garbo, think Steichen’s 1928 picture of her – who was then curator of photography at MoMA. He bought three of Shore’s pictures.

From 1965 to 1969, Shore hung out in one of the 1960s most tightly turned urban vortices, Andy Warhol’s Factory. He did the lighting for The Velvet Underground. (Much later, he put out a book of his photographs from that period, The Velvet Years, Andy Warhol’s Factory, 1965–1967.)

He studied Ed Ruscha’s book of photographs, Every Building on the Sunset Strip. He saw Warhol’s half-conscious films being made, with their self-consciously workaday pacing and framing. He watched Warhol construct his assembly line reproductions of the banal and everyday. He photographed the artist, his entourage and his ‘superstars’ – a Factory coinage. Among them was Viva, girlfriend to that other pioneer of 1970s colour photography, William Eggleston – and secretary to the fashion photographer Bob Richardson.

In 1971, Shore had his own show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, only the second given to a living photographer. It was this precocious success that he was running from when he headed out of Manhattan the following year. As the 1970s moved along, he moved up from 35mm to a 4x5in camera and eventually to the demanding grandeurs of an 8x10in.

He also took to documenting his life in precise detail, keeping a daily journal and stapling the day’s receipts to its pages. It is, of course, not true daily life – nothing can be – but a version of daily life. In particular, one that is steeped in the knowing and reflective repetitions of 1960s and 1970s conceptual art. A sample: on July 7, 1973, he slept at the Holiday Inn in Gaylord, Michigan, had roast beef for dinner, bought 110 postcards, watched CBS news and four sitcoms. Pretty much a day as directed by Andy Warhol. The same day, he also took one of his best-known photographs, of the Sugar Bowl restaurant, a seemingly emotionless (but obviously deeply emotional) polychromatic capture of brown fake-leather banquettes, white lino table tops and pale brown curtains.

He’s had a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships. He’s had a show at MoMA. He’s done fashion for Elle and landscape for W magazine. He’s shot campaigns for Nike, Orange and Glenfiddich. Since 1982, he has been the director of the photography department at Bard College in upstate New York. He has written a notable book, Nature of Photographs: A Primer (1988). In 1991, he returned to black and white and, in more recent years, has taken to working digitally.

In 2003, he produced Book of Books, a collection of all his Apple books which, day by day, captured the minutiae of his everyday life, forever. Which is, in essence, a return to where he began: looking at the common and finding in it both the uncommon and a universal commonality. Or, if you like, depth in surface.

The first showing of those photographs he took on his 1972 tour of his country was called American Surfaces. Douglas Sirk, the great film director, a poet of Hollywood colour stock, once said: ‘The surface isn’t really the surface, but rather a manifestation of the depths.’

© Peter Silverton 2019

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