Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, 1973. Image © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Sprüth Magers Berlin, London.
He hung out with Andy Warhol in his teens, experimented with vernacular imagery in his early twenties and had his first solo show at the Met in New York at the tender age of 24 – all before hitting the road to create some of the most influential photographs of the 20th century. Reuel Golden meets Stephen Shore
Author: Reuel Golden
01 Dec 2010
When American Surfaces was exhibited at the Light Gallery in New York in 1972, while Stephen Shore was still in his mid-twenties, another of the gallery’s artists – one of the most noted photographers of the early 20th century – took him to lunch and gave a little advice, politely explaining that “higher emotions couldn’t be expressed in colour”. How did Shore respond? “I nodded politely, [Paul Strand] was, after all, this great figure. But inside I was thinking, ‘what about Kandinsky’?”
Strand was not alone. On its debut, American Surfaces, a uniquely deadpan interpretation of the social, cultural and physical landscape in the US, was greeted with scepticism bordering on disdain. The fact that Shore had photographed the mementoes of his multiple road trips through the American heartlands – motels, diners, cars, shabby rooms, cheap furniture, toilets and the characters he hung out with – in searing and unforgiving colour, shot with a 35mm Rollei and cheaply printed out using a Kodak lab, gave his critics extra ammunition.
Now this body of work, and Shore’s next, Uncommon Places, are regarded as pivotal moments in the history of photography. He was the first person to photograph a greasy breakfast and turn it into something beautifully banal, yet profound, and by combining this seemingly insignificant moment with hundreds of others, he built a compelling narrative about America as it was undergoing massive change in the 1970s, taking the perspective of both detached observer and protagonist.
Now in his mid-60s, Shore’s early work is undergoing yet another reappraisal, with two major exhibitions in Germany, including the country’s first showing of Uncommon Places at Sprüth Magers in Berlin (12 November until 08 January). The other, Der Rote Bulli, on show at NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf until 16 January, pitches him alongside the city’s two most influential photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, with whom he became close friends in 1973 and who together were exhibited in the legendary New Topographics show, along with some of most notable graduates of their legendary “school”, such as Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Volker Döhne, Tata Ronkholz, Thomas Struth and Axel Hütte.
Meeting at his Manhattan flat, Shore is self-effacing, highly articulate, measured in his responses, and professorial in his intellect and demeanour as befits the man who has been professor of photography at the prestigious Bard College in upstate New York since 1982. Occasionally he breaks into an infectious giggle, giving a hint of the 17-year-old kid who hung out with Andy Warhol at The Factory and spent a large part of the early 1970s travelling around the US.
Born in New York, Shore caught the photography bug early but, revealingly, it wasn’t the taking of pictures he started with. An uncle bought him a darkroom set for his sixth birthday and Shore would develop the family snapshots with great dedication. To this day, he is fascinated by the mechanics of the medium; how the stretching of technical boundaries can complement and enrich his vision. On his ninth birthday he got his first 35mm camera, and a year later a copy of Walker Evans’ seminal 1938 book American Photographs, which accompanied Evans’ one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
When asked what appealed to him about photography, he deadpans: “Can you remember what you felt about something when you were nine years old?”
Later he started shooting movies, which propelled him into Andy Warhol’s orbit and The Factory scene of the mid-1960s. These were Warhol’s peak years as an artist and cultural influence, and Shore witnessed it first hand, helping, among other things, with the lighting for the Velvet Underground shows. “This was the first time I really watched an artist at work,” he says. “Andy was very open about his art. He would involve people and feed off their energy and interest in his creative process. I got to see decisions being made, finer and finer, subtler and subtler decisions about creating art. It impacted on me because photography is a series of decisions; that’s almost all it is.”
Warhol was also fascinated with the everyday and the commonplace, says Shore, which became another lasting influence. “He took delight in contemporary culture, he thought that it was amazing and fascinating, and I connected with that, although I must add that I didn’t go there [The Factory] to enrich myself professionally or aesthetically. I went there because it was fun.” Warhol produced work in series and, together with the book Serial Imagery by the artist and critic John Coplans, that had a big impact on Shore.
Show at the Met
The conceptual-based sequences of images Shore began making created an immediate impact and were exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was just 24, then only the second living photographer to win such an honour. “It was a dream to have a show at the Met, but also a shock to the system. I wasn’t ready emotionally, and the show brought the body of work to a close.”
Shore headed downtown to the burgeoning and organic arts scene of early 1970s SoHo instead, curating a show called All the Meat You Can Eat in 1971. The first of three projects involving vernacular photography, it comprised pictures that Shore and two friends had collected, including news photos, publicity stills, police photographs, propaganda images and pornography, jumbled together in a 1970s “happening” kind of way. The second project was Amarillo – Tall In Texas, a set of 10 postcards Shore shot in Amarillo, Texas, featuring glories of the city such as its courthouse and Main Street. He had 56,000 printed but, he says, “I overestimated the demand for them and sold none.” The third project, The Mick-o-Matics, took its title from the name of the camera he used, featuring a big plastic head of Mickey Mouse, playing off the genre of the snapshot by including leftfield images of shrubs and suitcases alongside more conventional photos of smiling people.
His blend of colour and an ironic viewpoint – before the idea of postmodernism had been even conceptualised – where people, places and objects are photographed in a unemotional, almost matter-of-fact manner, created a new visual language that is still spoken by countless photography students, and many famous contemporary fashion, fine art and social documentary photographers. But he looks uncomfortable at the suggestion that he has left a photographic legacy, and is unwilling to talk much about it. “This is something that I’m always asked and have never answered until now. I’m only doing it because of the context of the Düsseldorf show, which after all is about my influence.” After another long pause, he reflects: “Some people make a thing that I’ve had an influence on other photographers, but all artists are influenced by other artists, and this is the way that art moves and it’s the natural course of things. It doesn’t demean another photographer to say that I’ve influenced their work, and a number of them have publicly said it themselves. I will publicly say that Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Bach, Edward Hopper and a lot of other artists have all influenced me.”
Wigwam Motel, Holbrook, AZ, August 10, 1973. Image © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Sprüth Magers Berlin, London.
Road to recognition
Shore started documenting his road trips in 1972, using a 35mm camera that gave him the freedom to shoot with random spontaneity. He gravitated towards Amarillo because he had a group of Texan friends in New York who returned to their home state each summer, and because the mix of wide and endless roads, open plains, car culture, uniformity and small-town life were totally alien to the committed urbanite. “I felt like an outsider,” he says. “It was like an anthropologist going into a different culture and noticing things, everyday things that people living there would take for granted. Being an outsider allowed me that frame of mind just to observe the everyday nuances of life.”
It was his own take on the great American road trip, following in the tyre tracks of a previous generation that included Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and Swiss photographer Robert Frank. But while Frank’s The Americans imposed a European’s subjective and somewhat austere vision on his subject, Shore’s work is laced with delight and an infectious curiosity, more in the tradition of Warhol.
“I was exposed to a way of life that was very unfamiliar to me and, to someone who grew up in Manhattan, there was a tremendous feeling of freedom,” he says. “I could go to my local Avis office and drive anywhere I wanted for three months at a time.”
He was fortunate, too, that he had the financial backing to do so. “My family had money, which supported my work until 1974,” he admits. “I wish there was a more romantic answer.”
Later Shore moved onto larger format cameras, first a 4×5 then a 10×8, which gave him both literally and metaphorically a wider view of the American landscape. However, the landscape he chose to focus on was man-made; the streetscapes and humdrum intersections where nothing much happens day to day. Shore was out of the frame, as it were, and the slower method of making pictures meant that the results were more planned and detached.
But after some initial interest, the work went out of fashion until the early 1980s, when Aperture published a book of the larger format landscapes, Uncommon Places, and colour was suddenly the palette for “art” photography. Shore, along with William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz and William Christenberry, were now seen as part of a new movement.
“We didn’t invent colour. Colour had been around for a long time – and all the magazines and commercial photography were in colour. Edward Weston had shot in colour, Kertesz as well,” he says. “We just spent a long time trying to figure out how to make a visually coherent photograph in colour that isn’t simply about colour, but where the colour is integrated into all the other aspects of the photograph.” On why the art world suddenly championed colour, Shore has a compelling theory: “Some of the people in the 1980s art world thought it was totally new and sprang out of nowhere, but the artists, people like Jeff Wall and Richard Prince, referenced our work from the 1970s and talked about our influence. The artists knew all along where the roots were, and the art world rediscovered those roots.”
The voyage of rediscovery continued when Schirmer/Mosel published American Surfaces in 1999 (Phaidon published a hugely expanded edition in 2005). Perhaps the easiest way to view this book, and the new version of Uncommon Places that followed it, is as a double concept album, each side complementing and offering a variation on the same theme. This reading becomes more apparent with the 2004 publication of Uncommon Places: The Complete Works (Aperture), which expanded and revised Shore’s first version (published in 1982), adding 100 images to the original 40, many of which are more intimate and closer in sensibility to American Surfaces.
To Craig Garrett, the commissioning editor at Phaidon who edited Stephen Shore, the monograph published in 2007 as part of the publisher’s Contemporary Artists series, the work signifies the point at which photography became contemporary art. “The list of Stephen Shore’s accomplishments is impressive: his pioneering use of colour, rehabilitation of the snapshot and breakthroughs in the photobook format, to name a few. But the most significant may be his bridging the gap between photography and contemporary art,” he says. “His work from the late 1960s and 70s created a new vision of the social landscape, a vision that would exert a profound influence a whole generation of artists – Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth notable among them.”
Towards the end of 1990s, Shore also began shooting editorial and advertising assignments. The 1970s were back in vogue and, rather than recreating the look and vibe of that era through a contemporary image-maker, picture editors and creatives went back to the original source – and are still doing so. Shore has shot campaigns for Orange, Glenfiddich and, most recently, Urban Outfitters, plus editorial and fashion for magazines including W, Details and Another. Until three years ago, he had never worked with a model, but he gave it a try and says he finds the collaborative process of commercial assignments “comforting, especially when I first started and didn’t know what I was doing”.
“I also don’t feel I’m sacrificing something of myself, or my integrity by doing it,” he adds. “I find it challenging, fascinating and something that I apply my full attention to, in some ways more than my own personal work because if I screw up my personal work, no-one cares. Here I have to satisfy the needs of my clients. It is an intellectual and aesthetic challenge.”
“Challenge” is a recurring theme throughout the interview, and it’s something Shore has pushed himself to do throughout his career. “Perhaps it’s a character flaw, but when I find something works, I lose interest in it,” he laughs. This passion has ensured he has always been open to new ideas and techniques, trying out different formats and adopting digital early on. He remembers a student first coming into Bard with a Casio camera the size of the credit card, he says, adding that after all those years of shooting with large-format cameras, he was jealous of the diminutive size alone.
But he’s also impressed with the way that digital production can augment colour, offering greater control on the final print. “I spent many years varying the contrast through different methods, such as changing the levels of exposure in the film, using different lenses, uncoated lenses; I developed a system of masking that effected contrast,” he says. “I was trying to bring the control and precision that I had in black-and-white to colour, but doing it with imprecision and great effort. With digital, there is a slider that controls contrast and colour, it is precise and requires little effort. But because it’s an exact technique, you need to know what you want.”
Even so, Shore isn’t quite ready to forgo film just yet, especially when it comes to educating his students. He was happy to see his school upgrade its darkroom with high-quality enlargers recently, worried that in the next few years such enlargers will become extinct. “I’m convinced that learning photography through film, paper and chemistry teaches things that people who have only come to photography via digital don’t learn,” he says. “It isn’t just about printing, it is awareness of light and organisation with colour. So for the first two years of our programme, students need to work with film.”
There is a certain paradox that there are more people studying photography than ever before, but fewer opportunities when they leave the confines of their college – although, as Shore rightly points out, when he was the age of his students, photographers didn’t aspire to become famous artists. Apart from Ansel Adams, there simply wasn’t a market for the buying and selling of prints. He says the emergence of the photography art market hasn’t impacted on his teaching, but it has impacted on the motivation of some of his former students.
“Success can be both a wonderful thing and a problem. I do see artists, former students of mine, gain some success, but then they are afraid of evolving because they’ve made money based on what they’ve done. This wasn’t an issue a couple of decades ago.” So can this be a constraint for them? “The constraint is only psychological, it isn’t a constraint if you are driven to explore and you aren’t satisfied with repeating yourself.”
He tells a salutary tale about an encounter with Adams when he was in his twenties. “We were having dinner and I saw him drink several tumblers of straight vodka. He remained very lucid, but at one point, late at night, he said: ‘I had a creative streak in the 1940s and since then, I’ve been popular.’ When I’m 85 and having dinner with a 25-year-old aspiring artist, I really don’t want to be saying that.” BJP
Stephen Shore is represented by Sprüth Magers, which is showing Uncommon Places at its gallery in Berlin from 12 November until 08 January. Der Rote Bulli: Stephen Shore and the New Düsseldorf Photography is on at NRW-Forum
in Düsseldorf until 16 January.
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