Stephen Shore speaks

Photographer Stephen Shore of upstate New York spoke at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston last night. As a teenager, he photographed Andy Warhol’s Factory. At age 24 in 1971, he became the first living photographer to have a solo show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then he became one of the pioneers of color art photography with his deadpan travel shots of America, which were included in the landmark 1975 exhibit “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape.” Below are some of the things he said last night. [Pictured above: Stephen Shore, "Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts," July 13, 1974.]

“For me photography is solving problems and facing challenges. It’s about exploring the world and exploring photography. It’s not about making beautiful pictures.” [Pictured above: Shore at MassArt, as photographed by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.]

“Whenever I found myself repeating myself, I would do something different.”

“I spent on and off three years at [Andy] Warhol’s studio, the Factory. That’s what I did instead of college. I met him in my senior year of high school. … I went there not to learn anything. I went there just because it was exciting. It was the first time I got to see on a daily basis an artist at work. … He’d come in in the afternoon and he had a 4×8 [foot] work table … and I’d see him making decisions.” [Pictured: Shore, "Warhol with 'Silver Clouds' in Factory," 1965-1967.]

On Warhol: “He had a kind of distanced delight in our culture. He took real pleasure in it, but didn’t buy into it. There was something in that that I connected with.”

“After leaving the Factory, I started experimenting with conceptually-based sequences.”

After Shore’s 1971 show at the Met, he pursued a new direction by photographing postcard-like images of Amarillo, Texas: “Some of them looked just like absolutely average postcards. The others were of quirky places that you wouldn’t see postcards of. … I was convinced the New York art world wanted postcards of Amarillo, Texas, more than anything. I printed 56,000 of them. … I still have boxes of them.” [Pictured: "Tall in Texas, Amarillo, USA," 1972.]

On his travel photo project “American Surfaces”: “I was essentially keeping a visual diary.” [Pictured: "New York City, New York," March-April 1973.]

“I had a structural question in mind: What does natural look like? How can I take a picture that contains less of the artifice of visual convention?”

“I’d take a screenshot of my field of vision at random moments in the day.”

Remembers Paul Strand politely said of this work: “Higher emotions couldn’t be communicated in color.”

“I remember thinking: ‘What would Kandinsky say about that?’”

On Strand: “This was not an uncommon reaction. Art photography just wasn’t in color. Everything else was in color. The only hold outs were newspapers—largely for financial reasons, rather than aesthetic reasons—and art photography.” [Pictured above: Stephen Shore, "Ginger Shore, Causeway Inn, Tampa, Florida," Nov. 17, 1977.]

“I think the time was just right for this to be explored.”

“I learned how to make color prints, but I never made them. I learned how to make them to give better instructions to a [photo] lab.”

Shore switched from a Rollei 35 to a 4×5 Crown Graphic camera as he began his “Uncommon Places” series: “I put it on a tripod and I found … I loved the process and I loved looking at the ground glass. … It made every decision stand out.” [Pictured: "Hamburger Steak Dinner, Redfield, SD," July 13, 1973.]

“I also found though that I could do something different. I could begin to rely on the camera’s descriptive ability. If I found something interesting, I didn’t have to walk up to it.”

Before one of his roadtrips, he shopped for clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch in New York: “I got myself a safari outfit, like a proper explorer. I saw myself exploring two things: North American culture … and I’m also exploring structure and form.”

“Using an 8×10 camera and seeing the kind of glow they [the prints] had … A large format simply has more color. They’re subtler. It had an amazing glow to it. I realized that 8×10 photography was the technical aspect of what the world looked like in a state of heightened attention.”

On his June 1975 photo of gas station at corner of Beverly and La Brea in Los Angeles (above): “I realized as I was taking it how classical this [compositional] organization was. … One inevitably has to impose an order and the order I was imposing was a classical one. And the one it called to my mind was Claude Lorrain, and this frustrated me. … I had to move away to a more uninflected way of seeing. So I went back to the same intersection the next day and took this picture [below]. … To come to terms with what the place looks like by almost doing nothing.” [Pictured above: "Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California," June 21, 1975. Pictured below: "Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California," June 22, 1975.]

“This idea of imposing an order is very interesting to me. Photography is in essence an analytic medium. … In photography, you start with the whole world and every decision you make imposes an order on it. The question is to what extent it’s an idealized order I’m imposing or is it an order that grows out of what the world looks like.”

“Structure is not art sauce poured on content. It’s a clarification of content.”

“In some ways, I’ve gone back almost full circle to work that was like ‘American Surfaces.’ … Can I use this 8×10, a camera that forces conscious decisions, to make a picture that looks as casual as a 35mm picture?” [Pictured: "Perrine, Florida," 11/11/77.]

“At the end of the ‘70s … I was beginning to repeat myself and I thought of Ansel Adams.” Remembers Adams telling him over dinner in New York in the ‘70s: “I had a creative hot streak in the ‘40s, and since then I’ve been potboiling.”

“I’d developed strategies for certain situations. … I needed to have this friction of discovery.”

In 1980s, moved to Montana. “There was one last formal question that was on my mind: How to create the illusion of three-dimensional space in a photograph.”

“I was looking for an open, treeless environment. And the one thing I added to it is trying to show the relationship of the earth to the sky in the picture. Not just a shift in color, but that there is almost a spatial difference between them.” [Pictured: "County of Sutherland, Scotland," 1988-2000.]

In 1991: “I decided for the next 10 years, I would work only in black and white.”

Beginning in 2001, he explores digital photographs and print-on-demand books: “Each book is made in one day and they’re made with the book in mind. … As I’m shooting the pictures, I’m thinking of how they’re going to relate to each other in a book.” [Pictured: "Flohmarkt," 2004.]

“After 20 years of only using 8×10, I decided to only use a camera that I could put in my breast pocket.”

“I have an analytical mind and I think it may have to do with being a Jew, and 1,500 years of people studying the Talmud. Analytical breeding.”[Pictured above: "Sugar Bowl Restaurant, Gaylord, Michigan," July 7, 1973.]

4 Responses to “Stephen Shore speaks”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sonia, MassArt. MassArt said: Check out a recap of Stephen Shore's lecture last night on the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. [...]

  2. [...] Cook has quips and quotes from a recent Stephen Shore [...]

  3. I feel a kinship to Stephen Shore. I too have been photographing since the mid 60′s I started as an art major went on as an army photographer using a 4×5 and moved on to news papers and a 35 mm shooting mostly black and white. I shot color for myself till it became affordable for newspapers to use. At the end of my newspaper career I was introduced to digital. Now I only use digital an also use a small pocket camera as well as a full size one have. Recently I have been using photo shop to explore the visual excitement on color I call my new style “Photo Painting” It is not subtle or simply enhancing the color,an It is full blown explosive and it is a fresh breeze for my work in an art that has dominated my life.

  4. [...] “This idea of imposing an order is very interesting to me. Photography is in essence an analytic medium. … In photography, you start with the whole world and every decision you make imposes an order on it. The question is to what extent it’s an idealized order I’m imposing or is it an order that grows out of what the world looks like.” – Stephen Shore [...]