Born in New York City in 1947, Stephen Shore was developing family negatives and printing them with a darkroom kit given to him by his uncle, when he was 6 years old. A few years later he received his first 35mm camera. At 11, he was given a copy of “Walker Evans’ American Photographs. At 15, Edward Steichen purchased 3 of his photographs for the Museum of Modern Art. From 1965-67 he hung around Andy Warhol’s Factory with Andy as his unofficial teacher. At the age of 24 he had his first major exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the 2nd living photographer to have that honour. In 1972 He begins to show his work at LIGHT gallery in New York City.
His most renown works are American Surfaces and
This is a map showing his stops for the photography of “Uncommon Places” between 1969 – 1979.
These road trips taken in his twenties developed Shore’s signature style photographing the banal as it is (he never cropped) but made beautiful with the creative use of colour. He has an extreme sensitivity to place, where the photographer is at a given moment. His work has been called Autobiography of Seeing because he was revealing himself in what he was discovering. For the project “American Surfaces” he travelled in the passenger seat with a friend at the wheel. His gear consisted of 35mm colour film and a Rollei 35.
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.
The results of that road trip were hundreds of rolls of film that were developed by Kodak into small prints that Shore pasted to three walls of LIGHTS gallery. It was entitled “American Surfaces”. The exhibit was panned.
But from that experience Shore refined his methods and realized he needed a larger format camera, first a 4″x 5″ then an 8″ x 10″ view camera, to express what he wanted. This kind of cumbersome gear changed the way he took pictures. He went from an impulsive casual method to a well-thought out plan taking about 20 minutes. But he realized that the time spent setting up paid off because in that click of the shutter the camera captured an intensely detailed and saturated image. The human eye cannot take in all those details at that speed. The images of Uncommon Places reveal the American landscape and what the consumer culture had done to it.
The 1982 book of the Uncommon Places was well received and set precedence by bringing large format images from the documentary and commercial tradition into photography as art. The book of 40 images is still revered but there is so much more to Stephen Shore. Thirty years later 2012, the book Uncommon Places: The Complete Works added one hundred more photographs from the project. A video of the pages of the book can be found here. An interview of Shore on the launch of this book can be found here.
AS: Is the photograph of Bozeman—the last photograph in the new edition of Uncommon Places—your street, where you moved to, and where you ended this series for good?
SS: No. But, this is the town I ended in. I was fascinated by a couple of things about the landscape. One: I simply loved being out in the land. That’s reasonable. But then I thought, “Well, I grew up in New York, and I’m supposed to be a sophisticated artist, and we’re not supposed to be just doing natural landscape.” So I thought, “Why not? What’s this prohibition against the natural landscape?” Especially when I found myself attracted to it. And, after two years there, then I felt that I began to see things in the land, where I actually had perceptions about the land. So that it wouldn’t just be, “Isn’t this pretty.” And so then I started this process of dealing with landscape, which is also very tricky in color. Because it’s hard to do a landscape in color without it looking like a calendar picture. It’d be much easier to photograph in black and white, in a way. So, that’s one thing I started to work on, that continued to hold my attention throughout most of the ‘80s. But, in the process of doing this, I found that a lot of the things I used to think about—let’s say the formal things I used to think about—I just stopped thinking about. And, that it all began to just come naturally. Like I would know where to stand. All the things I was thinking about—do I want to have this diagonal come exactly into the corner, or just be a tiny bit above the corner; do I want to have this car just jut in from the side of the frame. And all these things I used to think about and play with, I found I just stopped thinking about. And I just, kind of, knew where to stand. And, as I said, it took me a while to accept that, in fact, there was this new phase. And, it was confusing.
From a 2007 New York Times review by Michael Kimmelman of the show Biographical Landscapes digitally reprinted photographs.:
He was in his mid-20’s already a star […] then he started hanging out in Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he lighted for the Velvet Underground and absorbed Warhol’s general deadpan aesthetic, with its embrace of serialism and its fixation on banal, everyday things.
His more recent work is Israel/West Bank, 2010 which contains haunting photographs, large scale with infinite details.
Gerry Badger describes Stephen Shore as the “Quiet” photographer.
what do I mean? it’s a difficult notion to define with any exactitude, partly a question of style, more a question of voice. Shore’s voice is not of the hectoring kind, his whole artistic persona from first to last is modest, self-effacing. He photographs modest landscapes with no quirky tricks of technique or vision, and (perhaps crucially) he presents the work in a modest way. His classic style can be characterized as a non-style (though it is relatively easy to copy), but it is not style alone which makes him a “quiet” photographer. The quiet photographer interferes as little as possible with his subject.
Mr. Shore was not interested in cultural criticism, his gaze was objective and his interest was in discovery. He shows us what most people overlook as it is and without his commentary. He is very interested in the special quality of light and the mystery of place.
From an 2010 interview:
When you see your prints, does it change how you look at everyday things later in the day or week or month?
Seeing this way is the result of the repeated process of seeing the world, taking a picture, and seeing the result, and doing this over and over again in different situations. This is where the experience you relate comes in. I feel lucky that I learned this at a time when there was only one 8″x10″ colour negative film and one paper to print it on Digital capture doesn’t provide the necessary limitation and makes learning to se this way more difficult.
Are you doing any digital capture?
I’m using digital more and more. I recently got a Nikon D3x. After using a 8″x10″ for almost 30 years, I find I think in 8″x10″ terms. I take only one picture of a subject, even with a digital camera, unless I’m photographing something that is in motion or changing. Still, looking through the viewfinder is not the same as looking through an 8″x10″ ground glass and working on a tripod. But I’m getting better at it, andmuchof my new digital work seems as focused as my view-camera work. Also I get to have the pleasure of making many more images in a day.
Stephen Shore’s camera from approximately 1960 – 1979
Large Format 8×10 view camera
His digital camera
Nikon D3X Digital SLR
What is Mr. Shore doing now? Besides teaching at Bard, he gives many interviews and has his work shown internationally. Here is a Virtual Tour of his exhibition at FUNDACIÓM MAPFRE in Madrid, September 19 to November 24, 2014.