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In June 1972, Stephen Shore picked up a Rollei 35mm camera and photographed a half-eaten slice of chocolate cake on a table with dirty plates, a cup of coffee, the handwritten check, and two dollar bills. There is nothing remarkable about this scene; in its banality, it is the very antithesis of Cartier Bresson’s demand for “the perfect moment.” Yet, with the assistance of Shore’s acute eye and resolute impartiality, the picture becomes a tight composition of shades of brown, punctuated by the dull red pattern on the dish-ware and the muted green of the well-worn currency. This is not a celebration of an American eatery nor a condemnation of poor dietary habits. It is just an ordinary rest stop on a road trip, undertaken by the photographer when he set out to make his body of work, American Surfaces.
At Stephen Shore, the monumental retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, American Surfaces is presented as it was first shown at Light Gallery in 1972: over 200 postcard-sized images, unframed and pinned to the wall in an indeterminate grid. There are plenty of shots of motels and highways, random pictures of unremarkable people, off-kilter views of shop windows and commercial advertising. As opposed to Robert Frank, an earlier photographer who traipsed the United States, this is not an indictment of a crass country. The political events of the time are almost entirely invisible. Instead, we get a photographic oxymoron: a diaristic account that is thoroughly impersonal. We get to see what Shore has encountered, a trip turned into two-dimensional depictions with no emotional GPS to tell us where to go or what to feel.
It would seem, in this age of Instagram, that we are all picture-makers in the Stephen Shore mold. These days, we are all inspired to capture our meals and post them online, to visit locales merely to take a picture, to attend parties and pursue friendships so we have enough followers on our accounts. Given the popularity of these pursuits, it may be surprising to know that when Stephen Shore created American Surfaces, and later improved on this effort with Uncommon Places, for which he used an 8 x 10 view camera, he did not win fans or get a positive response from art critics. His pioneering use of color photography was at first dismissed as too commercial and anti-artistic. Only much later would he be heralded for his prescient adoption of vernacular subject matter and his sophisticated use of composition and color. Walking through this retrospective, one is struck repeatedly by the sly humor and visual catchiness of his most iconic images. Yet you might repeatedly ask yourself, why your images are not here as well? Don’t you take pictures just like these?
Part of the answer to why Stephen Shore’s photos are on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art and yours are in your iPhone lies in his remarkable history. Born in 1947, Shore took up photography at the age of six; by the time he was 14, Edward Steichen, then head of MoMA’s photo department, had purchased three of his prints. He quit high school in 1965 to spend time in Andy Warhol’s Factory and some of the earliest images in this show are intimate portraits of the celebrities and denizens of that time. Just as Warhol made extensive use of the Polaroid camera, Shore has explored in the course of his career everything an amateur might use from a Mick-O-Matic, a plastic child’s camera in the shape of Mickey Mouse, to the omnipresent iPhone. Shore also credits John Szarkowski, Steichen’s successor at MoMA, as a key mentor in his development. It should also be noted that the photographer is a leader in the field of photography education, having headed the program at Bard since 1982. In this capacity, he published the highly influential textbook, The Nature of Photographs, which lays out with remarkable clarity the ways in which photographs are capable of constructing meaning.
So, for all their superficial similarities to amateur photography, Stephen Shore’s pictures are not the result of happy accidents or random choices. They are the consequence of a lifetime of study of vernacular photography, starting with his experience in the Factory and his 1971 exhibition, All the Meat You Can Eat, a seemingly disorganized amalgam of photographs, ranging from pin-ups, postcards and snapshots, including some of Shore’s own work, displayed in almost random fashion. Seemingly a send-up of the kind of photography exhibition normally found in galleries at the time, All the Meat You Can Eat also is an uncanny summation of the themes that later surface in Shore’s oeuvre.
While “beauty” would be a misnomer for the most of the images in this exhibition, there is something undeniably striking about the best of Shore’s work, especially from the period of Uncommon Places, which he created between 1973 and 1982. In “West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, October 2, 1974,” the word “Sunset” blazes across the front of a drive-in movie theater, the turquoise blue lettering echoing the color of the sky. Or in “Lookout Hotel, Ogunquit, Maine, July 16, 1974,” the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle practically bounce off the bright yellow table cloth in the background. And few photographers can match the wit of “U.S. 93, Wikieup, Arizona, December 14, 1976 ,” in which a mammoth cactus tree competes with the signage of an incongruous auto repair shop in the desert.
But things drop off when Shore ventures outside of the United States, due in great part to his inability or unwillingness to engage with history or politics. In 2009 and 2011, he visited Israel and the West Bank numerous times, but the resulting pictures do not capture the fraught context of these hotly contested territories. Similarly, his images from the last remaining Jewish community in the Ukraine, taken in 2012 and 2013, require a greater capacity for pathos than Shore can deliver.
Since 2014, Shore has put most of his output on Instagram, shooting with his iPhone much as he had done at the beginning of his career with a camera. MoMA has installed a series of iPads for viewers to skim through his online output, offering up yet another way of looking at photographs in this exhibition which required an ambidextrous approach to seeing. Scanning Shore’s Instagram posts, I see at once what makes him different from many of my friends and student who post regularly. In Shore’s world, each image is a complete statement, fully resolved without retouching in Photoshop. Many of these have the tight composition of the works he produced with a view camera, a difficult achievement with an iPhone, which encourages the easy use of repetitive shots, rather than the carefully considered singular image.
Technical skill aside, Shore has another quality that differentiates him from your average Instagram purveyor of photographs: he distinctly self-effacing in his approach to photography, rarely allowing for narcissism or self-promotion. Perhaps it is not modesty, but a high level of self awareness, that allows him to differentiate between what he likes and what he sees. For most people on Instagram, the photograph is merely a servant to likability; it conveys what we like so that we will be liked in turn. For Stephen Shore, the photograph is anything but likable. It is a reminder that we should be conscious of the act of looking, to discern if what we see has meaning and if so, what is it. This is a far cry from the world of selfies, a big leap from a snapshot of sushi you take to make yourself look cool. In contrast, Shore makes us wonder why we are staring at one of his photographs while at the same time making us feel compelled to keep looking.