An Interview with Stephen Shore


Stephen Shore and Christopher Brayshaw corresponded via email throughout February 2006, in conjunction with Shore’s recent retrospective at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery.

CHRISTOPHER BRAYSHAW: The pictures collected in Uncommon Places, particularly those made with the large format camera, are enormously self-sufficient images. Seeing them gathered together was, at least for me, a bit overwhelming, because of the density of detail that the camera captures. It’s like peering down into a tide pool: a self-contained ecosystem that’s different every time you look, because new details are always emerging from way back inside the picture (I suppose I am thinking of West Fifteenth Street and Vine Street‘s multiple figures and endlessly receding commercial signage, or the way that each leaf on Forestville, Californias apple tree seems to spring out at the viewer).

These big, generous pictures don’t seem to need other images around them.

The iPhoto book images, on the other hand, are very involved with each other; they’re sequences, in which each photograph’s place is very important. Knowing what comes before and what comes after each picture is what makes the sequence “work” (I am thinking now of the pictures shot from an aircraft window, the plane’s moving shadow growing larger, more legible on the ground…)

I suppose these two extremes in your practice (self-sufficient tableau and photo-sequence) are best described as “styles,” a la Walker Evans’ “documentary style,” a set of choices that can be picked up or set down like a favorite shirt or camera. But I can’t help but wonder whether your recent decision to work, so far as I can tell, almost exclusively with iPhoto sequences, is motivated by a larger set of philosophical or “conceptual” concerns. And if so, what are they? I also wonder if, for you, the iPhoto books bear any resemblance to other kinds of art objects. With their flat colors, shiny paper, and monochrome boards, they feel a bit like Pop objects. Handmade multiples! Do you think of them similarly?

STEPHEN SHORE: I think your description of the inherent central difference between Uncommon Places and the iPhoto books is on the mark. You should know that I have been making some “stand alone” images lately with an 8×10. But, basically for the past two or three years, the books have been the focus of my attention. I’m attracted to them for a number of reasons.

I love books and I love looking at photographs in books. Photographic reproductions are closer to facsimiles of the original than reproductions of other media. Books, though, always raise the issue of sequence. When the sequence is short, perhaps lees than twenty images, it functions as a single, unified work. When this happens, the individual images take on a “lightness.” They are, as you observed, seen as parts of a whole, not stand alone pieces. This “lightness” can expand the range of photographic possibilities: images can be simply notations, quick observations, visual one-liners.

So, that is why I started making the books. I also like to play with the relationships created by the sequences. I can approach them in different ways. Some, such as the one you mentioned, are quite linear, others are not.

Finally, to answer your question about the books as objects: these are the modern, digital photo album. Even though I spent years working with an 8×10, still I’m fascinated by the everyday uses of the medium.

CB: Yes, encountering a photograph’s printed reproduction often evokes a sensation analogous to viewing the original work, whereas viewing a painting or sculpture’s reproduction can provoke all kinds of weird misinterpretations of the original. I still remember the physical shock of encountering Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis at NY MOMA as an undergraduate. One hundred and thirty-six square feet of cadmium red is very different from a 4″ x 7″ spot reproduction in a survey text, or the off-centered, washed-out transparency in the university slide library!

I agree that short sequences of images, or sequences of images of similar subjects (the Bechers’ MIT Press collections of blast furnaces or water towers, or your iBook plane shadow growing on the ground) subordinate the significance of each individual picture to the significance of the larger sequence. As you say, each image becomes “light,” unanchored from the aesthetic and cultural baggage we unconsciously bring to the solitary wall-mounted tableau. Possibilities that are “quick” or “visual one-liners” imply both a sense of humor and the ability to perceive things that are visually, and, perhaps, ideologically out-of-step with their surroundings. Eg., Flohmarkt‘s grinning, rosy-cheeked little cartoon hedgehog and his hauled-up trousers!

It strikes me that the aesthetic of the iBooks — “lightness”; multiplicity; stylistic promiscuity; the deliberate quotation of mass or popular formats of photographic presentation and display (the scrapbook, the photo album) — is deliberately out of step with much contemporary art photography. Artists like Gregory Crewdson or Andreas Gursky (or more accurately, the hordes of young MFAs behind them) seem to hanker after effects of scale and color that have typically been the province of painting. I recall my deep disappointment at Gursky’s SF MOMA retrospective; I was struck by the progressive flattening and simplification of the picture space that accompanied his photographs’ increasingly ramped-up scale.

I can’t help but wonder if your decision to work seriously with the iBook format was motivated, at least on some level, by an antipathy to super-size or wide-screen art photography? A second, related question is whether the iBooks offer you a space to work outside of the demands of the market — or at least a quiet place where the market’s demands are turned down to a dull roar. At Presentation House the iBooks were bolted down, implying some kind of exchange-value, but they also seem almost deliberately designed to look like one another, like eggs from a cardboard carton, and not a single golden egg.

The idea of scale in photography brings up some related questions, too. Quoting you:

Basically for the past two or three years, the books have been the focus of my attention. I’m attracted to them for a number of reasons. I love books and because I love looking at photographs in books.

So, are the iPhoto book pictures reproductions of pictures whose “originals” exist in some other format (eg., differently sized prints), or are they “originals” that only exist as printed, bound multiples? Or is this distinction even valid to you? For example, when I leaf through Uncommon Places, or one of your older catalogues, I understand that I am holding a book of reproductions of images whose originals exist in a different format from the one I am studying. (Which in turn generates its own comedy of scale; independently studying UP, a photographer friend and I persistently saw Jackson, Wyoming‘s blue jeans drying on a rock as a “blue tent” until confronted with the much larger original at Presentation House). The iBook images seem different — I sense that I am looking at pictures whose logical form is the book before me. I get much the same sense from Ed Ruscha’s photobooks, which perhaps explains my disappointment at Ruscha’s reprinting some of his photobook images as autonomous pictures, or portfolios of pictures. A matted and framed parking lot doesn’t seem nearly as funny as a printed parking lot, though I would be hard pressed to explain why.

SS: I don’t really think it was a reaction to the large-scale work. Or, for that matter, they are not trying to be outside the demands of the market. I show them at my gallery. But I’m not considering the demands of the market. I’m pursuing personal concerns. I like your notion of “stylistic promiscuity.” I have many photographic ideas, and the books allow me to put them into play. They are original multiples. Some day I may show some sequences of photographic prints. I won’t rule that out. But most are from files so small that I couldn’t make prints from them.

CB: When did you first become aware of the iBook format?

SS: About 3 years ago.

CB: It’s a pretty technically specific set of constraints (page count, image size, text position & etc.)

SS: The book size is a given (although now Apple offers smaller sizes), and there are several pre-determined layouts. However, I realized right away that I could lay the pages out in Photoshop and have the layout printed as full page bleeds. So, essentially, I could really make my own layouts. BUT, instead, I decided to simply adhere to their given form. I decided to make books in “iPhoto Book Form”.

CB: Had you wanted to make collections or sequences fulfilling an iBook-style format before learning of it (eg., did you edit or recompose preexisting bodies of work into iBooks?), or is all your iBook content made specifically for that format?

SS: It is all made with the books in mind.

CB: When did you first start working with a digital pocket camera?

SS: About a year before I started making the books.

CB: Do you find that your composition decisions, editing procedures, etc. are different with digital as opposed to traditional 35mm? If so, could you offer examples of how the digital format has altered your image making and editing process?

SS: There is one difference: most digital cameras afford a MUCH greater depth-of-field than a similarly sized film camera. There are instances where I take advantage of this.

CBNew Topographics arrived in the mail today from Los Angeles, along with a collection of Robert Adams’ California pictures. The color reproductions in NT really stand out in that sea of black and white; Gull Lake, Saskatchewan looks like the not-too-distant cousin of those Amarillo postcards.

How did you go about selecting your “uncommon places”? Grouped together by Aperture, certain themes recur: motels, road breakfasts, main streets & etc. But the collected pictures feel more like a symphony than a Becher-esque typology, which implies that you didn’t have a fixed list of subjects in mind when you first set off.

What qualities signaled to you that a picture might be implicit in the landscape? And, once you had physical evidence of what you were doing — contact sheets, or prints — in front of you, did the qualities or the subjects change?

SS: In the early ’70s I became friendly with Hilla Becher. She once advised me to photograph every main street I encountered. I remember realizing then that my intention was not to work from that type of formulated program. Even though I would come back to certain repeated situations, I was interested in finding the quintessential.

CB: Did you process your film on the road? Nowadays, it’s easy to check the digital screen’s playback feature to see what you have or haven’t done. But that wasn’t an option in 1973.

SS: I sent the film back to NYC.

CB: Why did you choose to travel through Canada in 1974? Were there
specific subjects you hoped to find in, say, Manitoba instead of

SS: I wanted to make a big loop. I went up to Maine, across the most northerly highway in New England, across Canada to Alberta, then back to the U.S. to a northerly route to the West Coast. I took the most westerly route down the coast and the most southerly route through the Southwest.

CB: Were the subjects of the portraits known to you in advance? Friends you
stayed with, or friends of friends? If not, what made you choose to make a portrait of a stranger?

SS: Some yes (Weston Naef, Michael & Sandy Marsh, Ginger) and some no. The photographing of strangers grew out of American Surfaces.

CBHoliday Inn, Miami, Florida is one of the gentlest photographs I know. It’s hard to depict subtle emotions in pictures! That sharply creased grey blanket makes me think you were thinking of, or know, Rembrandt’s great drawing of his wife Saskia asleep.

SS: I love Rembrandt’s drawings, but I honestly wasn’t thinking of that when I took the picture.

CB: Many texts in Uncommon Places – “Sunset,” “Sidney Lust,” “Payfair,”
the Chevron sign on Beverly Boulevard — were shot by you in such a way as to render them flush, or nearly flush, with the picture plane. Commercial words and symbols seem to float like “found words,” unanchored from their daily contexts. Did you select these sites deliberately, so as to purposely unhinge their texts? Or were they happy accidents, the result of initially focusing on some other aspect of the scenes they’re part of?

SS: This was something I was aware of when I was photographing.

CB: I wonder, too, if you would have known the color work of Walker Evans and William Christenberry, whose images of vernacular signage seem like kindred spirits of many of your uncommon places, in 1973/4/5.

SS: I hadn’t seen Evans’ color (but, of course, I knew his other work well). I had seen the work Christenbery had made by the early 70s (i.e. his Brownie pictures; he hadn’t started using a view camera yet).

CB: To my eye, “John F. Kennedy said…” seems to deliberately quote Evans’ “Art
School,” but that may just be projection on my part.

SS: I wasn’t thinking of “Art School”. The sign was so truly amazing, it didn’t need any further reference.

CB: “Space was on my mind the whole time…” This is a line that’s stuck with me from your lengthy interview with Lynne Tillman. Can you expand on your interest in creating a sense of deep, or complex space in your pictures? Frank Stella has written at length about how such complex spatial effects are achieved in, say, the paintings of Caravaggio, but picture space’s relationship to photography seems to me to be much less fully

SS: I was fascinated by the experience that some pictures produced of a convincing experience of three-dimensional space. I’ve written about this in my book, The Nature of Photographs. The landscapes I made in the 80s are an extension of this exploration. In the 70s, I played with formal elements to create the experience. In the landscapes, I chose open, almost uninflected scenes in which to experiment with space. To my mind my landscapes in Texas and Scotland (and the one in the show from Mexico) are the most successful.

CB: The Montana pictures are a logical extension of your spatial investigations; they are complex compositions and hyper-detailed, even though they at first appear quite simple, almost bland. Why did you decide to make pictures of these deceptively anonymous landscapes, and what qualities first drew you to them?

SS: See above. But also, I felt I had learned what I needed to learn for the time being in the “uncommon places” situation. I had moved to Montana, and after two years of living there and experiencing the land, began to make landscapes.

CB: Studying your images from Montana, Scotland, and Texas on the 303 Gallery website, one thing I immediately notice is the incredible amount of detail in the Texas pictures. A riot of conflicting textures! Alluvial fans, bumps, hillocks, and scabby brush over top of everything. It strikes me that on location, the human eye would pull particularly meaningful details from this field, perhaps focusing on only one or two things, while registering the rest as a kind of undifferentiated blur. But your large format camera registers everything with equal, democratic interest: everything is lingered over, resolved in equally sharp focus. So there is necessarily a disconnect between the amount of time the lens spends looking, and the amount of detail that process returns, and the amount of time the human eye would spend to register an equivalent amount of detail.

The Montana pictures’ compositions seem designed to accentuate the curving horizon lines where sky meets hillside. The Scottish and Texas pictures seem to find equal interest in everything in the camera’s field of view. Does this “democracy of attention” contribute to their success? Or are there other criteria you judge them by?

SS: Your description above is excellent. I couldn’t have said it better. I think that perception of time applies to Uncommon Places as well as the landscapes.

One thing that makes the later landscapes successful is, as I mentioned in a previous answer, is the illusion of depth. In these, I learned a new way of creating that illusion without relying on the spatially articulated structures found in a built environment.

CB: By mounting the landscapes on aluminum, instead of matting and framing
them, did you mean to de-emphasize the picture edge, thereby reinforcing
the idea that each image is an arbitrary “slice” from a larger whole?

SS: I didn’t mean anything by it.

CB: In a previous answer, you mentioned picking up the view camera again. What subjects are you photographing in large format, and does the return to large format signal your re-engagement with the kind of spatial issues you’ve cited with regard to the landscapes and uncommon places?

SS: I worked out those spatial issues in the 80s.

I picked up the 8×10 because it has been 15 years since I last shot 8×10 color. Both film and lenses have improved since then, and, needless to say, I’ve changed (if not improved) since then too. So, I simply wanted to see what I would do with it – really no other plan. I see the first test prints next week. I went to LA. I love the space and light and architecture and vegetation there.