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Stephen Shore

Text from Thomas Weski, in Stephen Shore: Photographs, 1973-1993

Expeditions to Explored Areas

"[Stephen Shore and William Eggleston] are inseparable from the recognition of color photography as a legitimate medium of artistic expression. Long into the 1970s, the view of Walker Evans, the American photographer of the 1920s and 1930s, that "color photography is vulgar," was still considered axiomatic. Serious photography was only executed in black and white: color photography, expensive to use and with prints that were unstable when exposed to light, was left to the applied, commercial side of photography, to advertising and journalism. We now know that Evans, who propounded this doctrine, had worked intensively in color himself long before, but had not been satisfied with the results except in a very few cases.

"As is well known, viewing a color photograph is different from looking at a black-and-white one. Film theorist Stanley Cavell has noted that both in photographs and in movies, black-and-white pictures are psychologically perceived as documents of completed action. The motifs in color photographs, however, appear to be from the present, or even in a certain sense from the future. They are less burdened with the labor of memory, and are therefore easier to approach. As source material for scholarship, they are more exact, because the colors of the period concerned are reproduced. Since color photographs are one stage less abstract than black-and-white ones, they seem to us to be more concrete and to have a more direct connection with the world.

"The European image of the United States in my generation, born in the 1950s, was molded by a reality already shaped by its media presentation. American magazines, comics, movies, and TV - the mass media, in short have, as German director Wim Wenders has remarked, "colonialized our subconscious." Our perceptions of the country and its inhabitants are shaped by the cliches of a secondary reality, cliches that suggest familiarity, but which in reality do not exist.

"Works that Shore had produced in his early years, and which had made him a well-known figure in the USA, were published together for the first time in the 1982 monograph Uncommon Places. During the 1970s, Shore made several trips across North America. The results of these photographic expeditions into areas already explored were color photos of American landscapes and cityscapes. The images of street corners, movie theaters, gas stations, cars, baseball players, and pancakes appear to be completely normal. At first glance, one thinks, "that's what it looks like," and it is precisely this formulation of the stereotypes associated with America that is one of the strengths of Stephen Shore's photos. These expressionless views of everyday American culture, these "deadpan views," are also familiar from the photographic work of Ed Ruscha, who took photos of every single building on Sunset Strip as early as the mid-1960s, and in 1967 took aerial photos of 34 car parks in Los Angeles. Dan Graham's views of Homes for America in 1965, a piece on prefabricated houses that combined photos and text, was strongly marked by Concept Art. Since the images only serve to instantiate the artistic idea, they often seem amateurish, although the clumsiness of the design also gives them a certain naive charm. Stephen Shore's photos however, are perfectly elaborated in formal terms - he selects motifs similar to those of his fellow artists, and his shots often achieve a successful synthesis of form and content.

"Although Stephen Shore's photos also present the status quo in the America of the 1970s, they are not documentary photographs of the type produced for the police, or for architects or archaeologists. Photos of that type are produced according to set rules, so that they can later be evaluated on a scientific basis. Shore uses the stylistic methods of documentary photography, but his images are the results of a subjective vision. He therefore stands in the tradition of the photographers who shaped this apparently objective style of personal photography: Eugene Atget with his photos of Paris at the turn of the century, and Walker Evans with his photos of America at the end of the 1920s. Like those two photographers, Shore also works in series. The individual shots are placed in a sequence, in a visually complex system of references, and the cumulative effect of the photographs allows them to be viewed at several different levels. In contrast to the photographic works produced by Concept Art - which, as mentioned above, usually illustrate or document an artistic idea, and can only be read when that idea is known - these photos have to hold their own as universally comprehensible individual images before they are incorporated into the series.

"Since the beginning of the 1970s, Stephen Shore has used a large photographic camera with a film size of 8 x 10 inches (20 x 25 cm). When in use, the camera is about the size of a TV set. This monster of a camera can only be used with a tripod, and the individual sheet films, inserted in tray-sized cassettes, only allow a few shots to be taken. To be able to work successfully with this equipment, the photographer needs to know exactly what he wants. In addition, he has to have a capacity for intuition, because he cannot stage the motifs for his pictures, and can only react to what is present and the situation deriving from it. Stephen Shore does not enlarge his negatives, and his pictures are the same size as the sheet film used. The pictures are therefore contact prints, direct positive copies of the color negatives on the same scale. Color photographs produced in this way provide the greatest possible sharpness of focus and precision in the reproduction of the object being photographed. This type of photo has a peculiar aura, one that seduces the viewer into looking at it again and again. Reading the pictures, and discovering more in them than we are able to see when we look at the world directly ourselves, is what is fascinating about them. When we leave an exhibition of photos of this type, or close a book with this type of illustration, it is impossible to recall all the details the images contain. The photos are virtually saturated with information.

"Many of the photos reproduced in Uncommon Places take on a massive spatial depth, which Stephen Shore achieves by a skillful arrangement of objects in the foreground that provide links with the background. Slices of urban architecture predominate, often photographed diagonally, giving the shots the quality of stage sets. The inhabitants of these scenes, human beings, move about within them; they are never shown in dominant positions, but are nevertheless present. Small in relation to the surrounding landscape or cityscape, they look like extras in a stage play. Some of them, rigidly fixed to the scene, observe the scenery on our behalf.

"With this approach to the image and its aesthetic implementation, Stephen Shore, along with the American photographers Robert Adams, Nicholas Nixon, and Lewis Baltz, became one of the leading representatives of a new wave in American photography during the 1970s, a topographic form of photography describing localities - which was reflected in Germany in the contemporary work of Michael Schmidt and Heinrich Riebesehl. During the 1980s, a European variant of this tradition of topographic photography continued in the work of a younger generation modeling themselves on the American photographers, whether explicitly or not - photographers such as Joachim Brohm, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Paul Graham, John Davies, and Hans Aarsman.

"The photos in Uncommon Places actually show quite common places, which only become "uncommon" through the photographer's talents, because he is able to transform them into a different state. Above all, the light, which helps to reveal the character of the objects, and the choice of color, which often involves an attractive use of complementary colors or combinations of warm tones, produce a feeling of harmony with the world.

"On the surface, Stephen Shore's color photos are concerned with an "ideal" America, and his shots do in fact correspond to my own individual, imaginary notions of the country. On the other hand, the photos often contain details that disturb me during the "studium" stage, and which seriously disturb the initial sense of deja vu and harmony when looking at them - but which after a period of analysis make the picture all the more valuable. The photographer manages to achieve the trick of balancing both forms of observation - the emotional and the rational, within his pictures. In addition, these early shots present the infrastructure of a society characterized by mobility and communication, an infrastructure that is symbolically represented in the images through the choice of motifs such as cars, streets, traffic, gas stations, movie theaters, signs, advertisements, and telegraph poles. Through an interplay of form and content, the photos in Uncommon Places are thus always visual evidence of a specific period, and nevertheless, in their choice of photographic symbolism, timeless.

"The content of these photos, which are definitely critical ones, is also defined by contrasts. Again and again the stocktaking process that the image presents offers us a glimpse of what the continent might have been: a wide land of unlimited, beautiful landscapes and undreamt-of possibilities, an urban development process not shaped by centuries-old tradition, since even today, due to the settler mentality, the architecture remains only provisional in quality. A country of people who are mobile and who are fulfilling themselves in a democratic, classless society.

"Stephen Shore's photographs of the 1970s thus go beyond mere reproduction of the status quo. Since they accept the reality of society with all its consequences, they are able to approach it constructively and in addition formulate humane values, from which we as observers may benefit.

"In 1979 and 1980, Stephen Shore and his wife spent several months in Montana, camping and fishing. This period of living in nature marked a turning-point in the New York artist's work. He began to devote himself increasingly to landscape photography. The photos of this period have a barren, empty effect; they are no longer filled right to the edges with objects. The details that are so important to him are now often shown or a small scale, incidentally, so that an effort is needed to discover them. At first glance, the photos are pure, apparently timeless landscapes; during the "studium" phase, however, we discover in the images, which are arranged in comprehensive series, certain hints of civilization. The smallest objects have the greatest possible weight in this process, and often we need to use our entire concentration to decipher their significance. The incorporation of human interventions anchors the images in the present. In designing the shots, the photographer is increasingly putting his trust in the natural order of things themselves. In these formally perfect photographs, Stephen Shore withdraws as an author completely. Although the pictures still have a sophisticated pictorial structure and complex symbolism, the observer has the feeling that the objects being photographed are presenting themselves on their own and revealing their true character.

"Since the beginning of the 1980s, Stephen Shore has lived in the country in upstate New York. He enjoys living in the country, and he and his family have a house with a large garden, which he laid out some time ago. Recently, he caused some surprise by turning away again from the color photography that has become so closely associated with him. The new black-and-white photos show his garden and the immediate vicinity of his vacation residence, mostly involving plants, rocks, and trees. He decided against color photography for these shots, he said, because it would have made them "too calendary." Another reason is that Shore has been teaching photography for 13 years now, and in contrast to his color shots he wanted to process his negatives in the darkroom himself. Once again, he is taking landscape as his subject. So far, he has never repeated himself, and his very extensive artistic work, the multilayered quality of which I have only touched on here in parts, has always developed in organic phases. We can therefore assume that the results of his latest work will soon be on view. Shore has always followed his own pace, resisting the constraints of the art business, and rejecting everything unambiguous. We may eagerly await the new, unfamiliar images that he will bringing back from these new expeditions into explored areas."


 


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