Although some of the very first photos of Stephen Shore, taken in his late teens, between 1965 and 1967, were by Andy, Edie, Gerard, Nico and Lou Reed at the Warhol Factory, his usual subject is not people. Shore is in fact best known for the color images of typically American places and objects: road junctions, provincial towns, cafés, a breakfast set on the table. His work has been included, along with that of Robert Adams, Nicholas Nixon and Lewis Baltz, in New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, the memorable 1975 exhibition that introduced an apparently naive, completely underestimated until then, way of portraying the world in which Americans lived.
The visual vocabulary of grandeur and splendor that Ansel Adams and Edward Weston had devised for their views of the western landscape could not be applied to shopping centers and terraced houses chosen by these young photographers as the subject of their images. A new, more direct language was needed, a language that had its roots in Walker Evans, in postcards and in amateur snapshots. Shore, who in 1971 had made a series of color postcards impossible to distinguish from those that could be found in a drugstore display, is an excellent example of this approach.
“[Untitled], 1979 “, by Stephen Shore. From the series “Transparencies 1971-1979”, © Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.
The image above is taken from a new book, of refined workmanship, of his first photographs, Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979, published by Mack. The contents are not exclusively American, but in any place in the world Shore is still strongly attracted by the everyday and the banal: parking lots, construction sites, shop windows, street signs, desks, a telephone booth, a television, a funeral. In the book’s concluding essay, Britt Salvesen focuses on the colloquial component of Shore’s work, an approach often described as “neutral” – direct, even abrupt, but never superficial. “If you eliminate as many photographic conventions as possible,” said Shore, “what you have left is you and the way you look.”
Even in these early works, Shore looks with unusual clarity, but rarely from a predictable point of view. His images often give the feeling of being curiously “off” – a little lopsided, or framed in a strange way. They have nothing superfluous, yet one wonders: what exactly was he looking at? In the portrait above, however, doubt does not arise at all. If in many of his street views Shore seems to be almost too far away, here he is almost annoyingly close. But the way his subject looks at him, with his shirt open and his hair unkempt naturally, is certainly more friendly than suspicious. Maybe because when the photograph was taken in 1979, he and Ginger (the name is mentioned in the thanks) were already living together and would get married the following year. In 2020 they celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, and Shore in a sense had already foreseen this happy anniversary when, on the last page of Transparencies, notes: “Our relationship has been the most significant of my life.”
Vince Aletti he is a photographic critic and curator. Lives and works in New York since 1967. Collaborator of “Aperture”, “Artforum”, “Apartamento” and “Photograph”, he was co-author of “Avedon Fashion 1944-2000”, published by Harry N. Abrams in 2009, and has signed “Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines”, published by Phaidon.
From Vogue Italia, n. 836, April 2020
Although some of Stephen Shore’s earliest photographs were of Andy, Edie, Gerard, Nico, and Lou Reed at Warhol’s Factory, made between 1965 and 1967, when he was in his late teens, people are not his usual subject. Shore is best known for his color pictures of American places and things: street corners, suburban towns, diners, breakfast on the table. His work was included, along with that of Robert Adams, Nicholas Nixon, and Lewis Baltz, in New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, the landmark 1975 exhibition that introduced a seemingly artless, radically understated way of picturing the world Americans were living in.
The visual vocabulary of magnificence and grandeur that Ansel Adams and Edward Weston devised for their views of the Western landscape didn’t apply to the strip malls and tract homes these young photographers had made their subjects. A new, more straightforward language was needed – one that derived from Walker Evans, the picture postcard, and the amateur snapshot. Shore, who produced a series of color postcards in 1971 that were indistinguishable from the ones you might find on a drugstore rack, exemplifies this approach.
The photograph here comes from a handsomely produced new book of his early color photographs, Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 (Mack). Its contents are not exclusively American, but no matter where in the world Shore is, he’s most absorbed by the daily and the mundane: parking lots, constructions sites, shop window displays, street signs, desktops, a pay phone, a TV set, funeral. In her closing essay here, Britt Salvesen focuses on the vernacular element in Shore’s work, an approach often described as “deadpan” – direct, even blunt, but never careless. “If you remove as much of the photographic convention as possible,” Shore said, “what you’d left with is yourself and how you see.”
Even in this early work, Shore sees with unusual clarity, though rarely from a predictable point of view. His pictures often feel curiously “off” – a bit askew or oddly framed. Nothing is superfluous, but you wonder: What exactly was he looking at? In the portrait above, there’s no question. If Shore seems to be standing too far back in many of his street views, here’s he’s almost uncomfortably close. But his subject, with her casually tousled hair and open blouse, gives him a look that’s more welcoming than wary. Maybe that’s because Ginger (named in the acknowledgments) and Shore were already living together in 1979, when the picture was taken, and they would marry the following year; 2020 is their 40th wedding anniversary. Shore anticipates that happy occasion on the last page of Transparencies, noting, “Our relationship has been the most significant one of my life.”