It’s nearly impossible to imagine the evolution of color photography without Stephen Shore. Through ‘70s cross-country road trips, the artist defined his hallmark aesthetic in color-infused, large format snapshots and, in the process, shaped the art historical course of what photography could accomplish. In his images, Shore creates a language of his own in color-washed scenes of everyday life, visually describing the America taking place in familial backyards, on roadsides, and in main streets across the United States.
These candid, telling images offer vignettes of the day-to-day moments of our lives, presenting them as they are unconsciously lived and in the quintessential details of their making. Shore’s photographs are marked by an unfettered objectivity and the casual-but-present depth of the photos. “I wanted to be able to travel and take pictures and not have people feel like a serious photographer was photographing them,” he tells CR MEN. “I wanted people to react naturally and to see me as a regular guy who was just taking pictures.”
It was from his youngest years that Shore (b. 1947) displayed a gift for the medium. He received a camera as a gift for his sixth birthday and by age nine, he had moved on from his Kodak Junior to a 35mm camera and he began experimenting with color photography. Then he became even more vested in the art form after reading Walker Evans’ classic American Photographs. At 14, he sold his first photos—to Edward Steichen, then curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), who was so impressed with the images that he purchased three of them.
Only a few years later, Shore began photographing legendary artist Andy Warhol and his creative entourage, memorializing the likes of Warhol and Factory-goers Nico, Lou Reed, Paul Morrissey, and Edie Sedgwick. At the age of 24, Shore became the first living photographer to exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with his solo of black-and-white images. Then, five years later, he exhibited a solo of color photographs at MoMA—he was only the second living photographer to do so.
Across the five decades of photography, Shore’s sense of adventure has been a constant within his diverse oeuvre, leading his practice in an ongoing quest for new challenges and artistic possibilities. His portfolio traverses into fashion as a frequent photographer for major magazines and designers including Rodarte, Bottega Veneta, Marc Jacobs, and recently, Rag and Bone for Spring/Summer 2020. Shore unequivocally influenced the generations of photographers after him with his visual travel diary, American Surfaces and his following book of color images, Uncommon Places. Ever in step with the cultural moment, he has regularly posted iPhone photos on Instagram since 2014, recording the minute variety of moments that have always held his attention. Aptly, his latest photo series, Stephen Shore: Instagram focuses on selections from his personal social media and it is now online at 303 Gallery. Here, the trailblazing photographer speaks with CR MEN about how his signature aesthetic has evolved, why details are at the heart of his pictorial approach, and how Instagram can express the primary moments—some decisive, some simply beautiful—that make up our daily lives.
How has your interest in everyday experience guided the past five decades of your photography?
“It is nothing that I particularly planned on, it is just where my interest lies. Beginning with American Surfaces, there is a connection that I had in my mind. I wanted to take photos that felt like seeing versus photographing. I learned to do this by taking ‘screenshots’ of my field of vision and then I asked myself: What does the experience of looking look like? I did this at all different times during the day—at dinner, in a taxi, on the phone. I was paying attention to everyday moments in a random way that fed into how I saw things and what I was photographing. That’s where it started and since then, it has been very consistent through my work. There are many things that are not communicated by dramatic events, but are only seen in the average moments of life. Starting with Uncommon Places, I asked myself: What is it like to live with attention?”
It is always the details of your images that distinguish them. How do you find the acute visual moments to carry the emotion or message you wish to express?
“After American Surfaces, for the next year, I worked with a 4 x 5 camera and then I used an 8 x 10 camera for 30 years with the exception of Transparencies and my 35mm camera work. My main focus in using an 8 x 10 is that it records with such detail. In using a tripod, the process is so deliberate that it is very conscious photography. The process changes what a photographer can look for and small details can then have greater meaning in a photo, which is true now with the iPhone too. In all my work, I like to pay attention to the little details.”
You have referred to Instagram as a personal, revealing form of visual thinking. What inspired you to choose the social media platform as a medium for your work?
“Instagram has one billion users and people use it with very different intentions. There are various communities I have stumbled onto, which are fascinating because there really is anything you can think of. There are photographers who take pictures on their phones with Instagram in mind and post one or two each day. This group is less concerned with social media identity and public persona. These are the people I follow—not those with archives of best pictures, but the ones where their personal voices come through. These are people who think of Instagram as a visual and creative platform from all over the world—Italy, Iran, Mexico, South Korea, and Switzerland. Theirs, like mine is a kind of notational picture-making. It is sometimes diaristic, sometimes with the intention of going out to take pictures, and other times, just going through the day and taking pictures of that.”
In your series Stephen Shore: Instagram, how do the photos from your Instagram have a different effect when they are separated from the context of social media?
“I am printing them in a way that I haven’t before with dye sublimation on aluminum. They are literally printed on the aluminum itself in a fairly small size because I wanted to maintain the feel of Instagram. Sometimes the work is a notational, flickering moment that is interesting—it may not be enough for a standalone photograph, but it may be enough for Instagram, which has a lighter touch. It reminds me of when the Polaroid SX-70 came out in 1973, and how it could capture the way that light falls on a glass. I wanted to be able to maintain that quality in prints. This process takes it out of the phone and puts it on a wall because I still take the images seriously as photographs. It is like a haiku versus a sonnet—a haiku can be just as serious, but its magic comes from something a little bit sketchier.”
You also have two new books out based on the ‘70s era of your work, a new edition of American Surfaces and Transparencies, which focuses on your small format, 35mm images. How does your photography from that time compare to your work today?
“There are certain things we do automatically and when we try to do them consciously, they can seem awkward. You can go through a period of learning where you can learn to make those decisions feel natural. I can take a picture that looks like a snapshot then spend eight years working very deliberately, examining every structural aspect or then, after that period, I can use an 8 x 10 camera with the same feel as a very casual picture like a snapshot, but it now has the resonance of conscious attention. This process doesn’t stop, I use my phone and take what are often very similar pictures in some ways to what I did 50 years ago, but the end result is from the process of conscious seeing. Walker Evans picked up an SX-70 at end of his career and took wonderful, delightful pictures. I feel his work has influenced me more than anyone.”
What do you see as the next horizon for your photography?
“For the past two years, I have been working with a high-end Hasselblad camera that has a higher resolution than an 8 x 10. In 2018, I had a show at 303 Gallery and a show last summer at Sprueth Magers in LA. In some ways, the content was very similar to Instagram, for example, pebbles on a street that were blown up very large with extraordinary detail and printed in larger-than-life size. This is work that I am still continuing. I am exploring everyday themes in contemporary forms and taking advantage of new technology, not for the sake of novelty, but for the sake of aesthetic possibilities. The shows in 2018 couldn’t have been done one year before because the technology was not yet possible. An aesthetic door opens new possibilities and I find that very interesting. I always want to step through the threshold and into a new space.”
Stephen Shore: Instagram is on view online until May 1, 2020 at 303 Gallery in New York City.END
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