Originally published in Modern Painters, Spring 2004
Few teenage boys possess the confidence to approach a pretty girl, let alone the courage to court the Museum of Modern Art. But in 1961, Edward Steichen—the director of MoMA’s Department of Photography at the time, and a revered photographer in his own right—received a phone call from an optimistic fourteen-year-old, by the name of Stephen Shore. “I think I didn’t know any better,” Shore explains today, “I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to do this. So I just called him up and said, ‘I’d like to show you my work.’…He bought three!”
Such was the beginning of Stephen Shore’s illustrious photographic career, and only the first of many enviable twists and turns within its course. By the time he was seventeen, Shore was already an emerging member of New York’s thriving Conceptual and Pop art scenes, and inevitably, he crossed paths with Andy Warhol. At their first meeting in 1965, Warhol was so impressed by the young photographer, that he offered him an open invitation to visit the infamous Factory. Over the course of the following two years, Shore turned up at Warhol’s door nearly every day, camera in hand, and by the end of 1967, he had compiled one of the most comprehensive photographic documentations of the artist’s studio, and the scene surrounding it, during its most innovative years. Furthermore, inspired by Warhol’s impressive work ethic, Shore also continued to pursue his own artwork, frequently showing
both his photographic and conceptual projects at the renowned Light Gallery. His youthful passion, talent, and determination quickly caught the attention of the curatorial elite, and in 1971—at the tender age of twenty-four—Shore was given the unique honor of being the first living photographer to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Yet, despite his early success, Shore had experienced very little of the world outside of his native New York City. In 1982, he wrote, “Until I was twenty-three, I lived mostly in a few square miles in Manhattan. 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.” Later that year, Shore set out again across America, this time alone, with an insatiable desire to capture and communicate precisely what he had seen within the frame of that window.
Intent on exploring both the country, and photography itself, through the eyes of an everyday tourist, Shore elected to record the trip on 35mm color film, and brought along his Rollei 35, an early precursor to the “point-and-shoot” cameras of today. He entitled the project “American Surfaces”, literally emphasizing the superficial nature of both his brief encounters whilst on the road, and the underlying character of the images that he hoped to produce. With such an easy-to-use camera at hand, Shore photographed relentlessly. “In American Surfaces, I was photographing almost every meal I ate, every person I met, every waiter or waitress who served me, every bed I slept in, every toilet I used. But also, I was photographing streets I was driving through, buildings I would see. I would just pull over and say, ‘Okay, this is a picture I want.’”
Shore returned to New York triumphant, with hundreds of rolls of film spilling from his bags. In order to remain faithful to the conceptual foundations of the project, he followed the lead of most tourists at the time, and sent off his film to be developed and printed by Kodak’s labs, in New Jersey. Thrilled with the results, Shore secured the back room at the Light Gallery, and plastered three of its walls with a tightly-knit grid of small, glossy prints, barraging his audience with a photographic wallpaper of what seemed like amateurish, color snapshots. Despite Shore’s insistence that the work’s conventional aesthetic was entirely intentional—and was, in many ways, the essence of the project itself—the exhibition received poor reviews. Even the most open-minded curators and critics of the time, such as John Szarkowski, questioned Shore at length about his artistic methods, suspecting that the semi-automated camera may have been responsible for the success of the work, rather than the photographer’s own artistry.
Fortunately, Szarkowski’s harsh criticism only fuelled Shore’s determination, encouraging him to refine, rather than abandon, his initial creative impulse. At first, he suspected that if he were to make larger hand-made prints, he might convince others of the relevance of the work. But he soon realized that his negatives just weren’t up to scratch. “I found that the film just wasn’t good enough to support an 8”x10” [print] even. It was just ridiculously grainy.” Refusing to concede, Shore finally settled upon his only option; “I needed to go to a
Such was the impetus behind one of the most celebrated, imitated, and influential bodies of photographic work produced during the last forty years; Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places”. From 1973 to 1981, Shore frequently returned to the roads of North America, initially with a 4”x5” press camera, and eventually with an 8”x10” view camera. At first, his intention was to simply recapture “American Surfaces”—again, in full color—but this time, using better equipment. Yet almost immediately, Shore discovered that this new equipment forced him to photograph in an altogether different way. Because of the bulk of the large format camera, the time that it took to set up, the expense of the sheet film, and the fact that it required a tripod, Shore found that he could not shoot as casually as he had in “American Surfaces”. But, as Shore explains it, these restrictions simply encouraged him to improve his working methods. “The view camera forces conscious decision making. You can’t sort of stand somewhere; it is exactly where you want to be… So what happens is that you develop a kind of taste for certainty.” At the same time, Shore discovered another important advantage of the larger negative; what he refers to today as its “surreal density of information”. Essentially, he deducted that during the twenty minutes it took him to carefully arrange one photograph, he was forced to process a large amount of information; but with the simple click of the shutter, all of that information was instantaneously condensed into an incredibly saturated and detailed image, which took the viewer only seconds to comprehend. Therefore, he no longer needed to explain himself too obviously or explicitly—he could complicate his photographs. “Especially if I’m photographing an intersection, I don’t have to
have a single point of emphasis in the picture. It can be complex, because it’s so detailed that the viewer can take time and read it; they can pay attention to a lot more.”
Throughout the 1970’s, Shore exhibited hundreds of successful images from “Uncommon Places”, finally receiving rave reviews for his efforts. But by 1981, he felt that nearly all of the creative questions behind the project had ultimately been answered, and to avoid repetition, Shore valiantly put an end to the series. After gathering together his contact prints, he approached the Aperture Foundation in the hopes that they might publish a monograph of the entire body of work. They agreed to back a book, but unfortunately couldonly offer him a limited budget, and Shore was forced to whittle the series down to a mere forty images.
Surprisingly, Shore chose to edit out most of the photographs that alluded to the initial influence “American Surfaces”, and the underlying autobiographical nature of his work. Other than several seemingly incongruous images—such as a stunning portrait of the photographer’s wife, or a extremely frank still-life of his pancake breakfast—Shore chose a set of photographs that coolly focused on the American landscape, and its transformation at the hands of twentieth-century consumer culture. Domineering edifices loom high within these photographs, invasive roads often divide the frame; oversized billboards fill the skies, and brightly colored cars roam freely throughout the land. From Shore’s point of view, even the seemingly irrepressible grandeur of Yosemite—so famously celebrated and romanticized in the photographs of Ansel Adams—had been humbled by families of pale, invasive tourists.
In 1982, a slender yet hugely impressive version of Uncommon Places was released. Its impact was felt almost immediately, forever changing the course of art photography, and securing Stephen Shore a place within the canon of photographic history. Today, there is little doubt that Uncommon Places remains a classic. Still revered throughout the international photographic community, it has, in many ways, influenced how we have come to define “art photography” itself. Firstly, it introduced large-format color photography into the artistic arena. Previously this technical genre had been reserved for commercial work, but today, it has become almost ubiquitous throughout contemporary art galleries and museums around the world. Secondly, it established a number of subjective and stylistic links to the long-standing tradition of large-format, documentary photography. In the same way that Shore drew inspiration from the work of his predecessors—the attentive formalism and rich detail of Eugene Atget, the straight-forward manner and fondness for the America vernacular of Walker Evans—many of today’s photographers use Uncommon Places as a crucial source for their own imagery. For example, Thomas Struth’s first book was entitled Unconscious Places, as an homage to Shore’s masterpiece. And as often as one sees a
Shore-like palette in the photographs of Thomas Struth, one can also discern the underlying influence of Atget and Evans’ perspective, having been filtered through the color work of Stephen Shore.
Yet, despite the importance of the original Uncommon Places, its forty plates offered a very limited look at the scope of Shore’s overall accomplishment during a remarkably prolific nine-year period. When one looks at the book carefully, and with the diversity of the entire project in mind, one gets the distinct sense that something has been left out; or to be more accurate, that these forty photographs represent only the tip of an iceberg.
In recent years, there has been a massive resurgence of interest in color photography’s pioneers, culminating in many high-profile exhibitions, and the reissuing of seminal books that have long been out of print, such as William Eggleston’s Guide. Last spring, Andrew Hiller—an up-and-coming editor at Aperture—approached Shore with an offer to not only reissue Uncommon Places, but to publish the work in its entirety, as Shore had always intended. Shore was elated, and for months, he and Hiller poured over thousands of longforgotten negatives, attempting to recover the complexity of the original project. Along with the original forty plates, they eventually agreed to include nearly one-hundred additional photographs, some of which had never even been printed by Shore in the first place, let alone been seen by a wider audience. Finally, more than thirty years after the project was first embarked upon, Uncommon Places: The Complete Works is due to be released, in May 2004.
Shore is quick to point out that the new book is not meant to diminish the importance of the original Uncommon Places. “I’m not turning my back on that work. It’s all included in the new edition. It’s just that the original ought to have been twice the size to include other stuff…It just wasn’t the complete project.”10 Like the original forty plates, many of the additional photographs reiterate Shore’s masterful treatment of both photographic space, and the twentieth-century American landscape. But The Complete Works also features a surprising number of previously unseen interiors, still-lifes, and portraits, which point directly to the important influence of Shore’s earlier project, “American Surfaces”. Shore’s own motel rooms, and their various accoutrements—garish paintings, shag rugs, brightly upholstered furniture, and clunky television sets—are featured throughout this new edition. Furthermore, there are three additional portraits of Shore’s wife, as well as one of her father, two self-portraits of the photographer himself (one in which he stares blatantly into the camera, and another in which he appears as a pair of disembodied legs, placed casually across a motel’s green bedspread), and many more images of strangers, whom Shore simply stopped on the street. Amazingly, when one compares the limited scope of the original Uncommon Places with the added diversity of The Complete Works, one realizes that the project itself manages to retain its consistency in both versions, but for different reasons altogether.
Because of the apparently unsentimental nature of the forty original plates, Uncommon Places has often been characterized as “formal”, “clinical”, “objective”, “impersonal”, or “dispassionate”. Shore is careful not to reject any of these labels, understanding that they only serve to invest the work with even more sophistication, and help others to appreciate it within their own aesthetic ideologies. Yet, looking at The Complete Works, one recognizes
that below the coolly objective facade for which Uncommon Places is so well known, lies a deeply personal record of the photographer’s nine-year journey within the photographic medium itself. “In a way, it’s in this funny position of being a diary,” Shore explains, “But it’s a diary of a life geared to making photographs. It’s a diary of a photographic trip. It’s things I’m encountering, but for the sake of encountering them… I don’t expect someone to look at this and have any particular sense of what I did in my life. But what [Uncommon Places] is really about, is my explorations, my travels, through looking.”
Ultimately, Shore’s new book finally reveals that this extensive body of work has always essentially been a photographic autobiography—an autobiography of seeing. In the words of Walker Evans, “The matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.” Uncommon Places: The Complete Works offers the viewer a unique opportunity to share
Shore’s revelry in the “delight of seeing”, and to travel with him as he gradually refines his photographic dexterity, transforming his acute observations into fine art.