Is Stephen Shore the Most Influential Photographer of the 20th Century?
Stephen Shore's triumphant MoMA retrospective surveys the work of a Warholian shutterbug whose lifelong embrace of the medium's vernacular forms has now earned him a healthy following on Instagram.
Sign of the times: Stephen Shore, U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973, 1973. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Photography Council Fund. © 2017 Stephen Shore
What’s true of McDonald’s is now also true of pictures: billions and billions are served every day on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and the rest. Everyone is not only a photographer, but also the publisher and star of their own digital broadsheet, so much so that great American photographer Lee Friedlander has publicly called for there to be no more pictures. So what does it mean to be a photographer today?
Stephen Shore might be considered something of a test case, at least to judge from his magnificent current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. He’s a pioneer of photography’s vernacular forms and practices, the informal snapshot, the postcard, and the print-on-demand book. And because his career arc spans the heyday of art photography in the 1960s and ’70s to today, moving through MoMA’s chronologically installed show felt a little like following the development of the medium itself over the past half-century. Now 70, Shore has over 103,000 Instagram followers, a number that at least feels comparable to the circulation of all the photography and art magazines in America.
Shore started taking pictures as a precocious New York teenager, and made his first sale to Edward Steichen, the then 83-year old curator of MoMA’s photography department. He soon found his way to Warhol’s Factory, the ground zero of a burgeoning cultural scene in which the commercial, the low, the silly, and even the seemingly insignificant were valued equally or above the expensive, the considered, and the refined.
This was a crucial insight for the young Shore, who adopted it as the foundation of his practice. In 1972, he set out on a cross-country road trip that would lead to his reputation-making series American Surfaces. This was a diaristic collection of images of daily life in which Shore sought to capture and document “every one I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked on, the towns I visited.” Taken with a Rollei 35, the photos were first exhibited in the fall of 1972 by New York’s Light Gallery as three-by-five Kodacolor prints. They were unframed and glued directly on the wall, breaking with the venerable tradition of carefully presented archival black-and-whites that had defined art photography from Walker Evans to Diane Arbus and beyond.
In pictures such as Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which depicts a Texaco gas station at an intersection, and a shot depicting the bare interior of a refrigerator in Pontiac, Michigan, Shore mines the views of a country—his own—that he was effectively discovering for the first time. Yet unlike Arbus, he didn’t seek out the strange and the unusual; unlike Friedlander, he never attempted to compose ‘telling’ juxtapositions. Instead, true to his Warholian roots, he seemed content to accept what he found in the fullness of its banality and garishness. The pictures were relaxed and inclusive. They skewed toward no particular theme except perhaps the happenstance of traveling through the southwestern US. Usefully, MoMA has mimicked the series’ original installation design, offering a glimpse into how Shore made use of art-world savvy to renew the American pictorial tradition.
Shore has since been recognized by many as a pioneer of color photography, and is associated with contemporaries like William Eggleston and Nan Goldin, in whose work the use of color aligns perfectly with a radically democratic ethos—the validity of all images and all experience. But Shore isn’t a colorist; he’s more profitably compared to conceptualists such as Ed Ruscha, whose venerated Every Building on the Sunset Strip from 1966 used serial photography to combine documentary and artistic forms in new ways. His work also speaks to German photographer Thomas Struth, whose grand compositions speak about the contemporary world through their meticulous attention to its surfaces.
Shore’s warm Kodak colors may evoke the America of the '70s, but their intent is never sentimentally nostalgic. As casual as his pictures may at first appear, they nonetheless betray a rigorous eye—and a certain cool. His images pose questions, propose ideas, or sometimes just make jokes, but—in contrast to a Friedlander or a Baltz—they feel chanced upon more than sought after. One picture shows a rabbi looking guilty after having bitten into an apple; in another, a Chicago shop sign reads “Morrow’s Nut Shop,” appearing to comment somehow on a nearby crowd waiting for a bus. Normal, Illinois, July 1972, shows a TV set on a stand in front of a wood-paneled wall, a baseboard heater running along its base. These are critical social documents, but also rather more than that. Shore’s eye is dispassionate, but you never get the feeling of an artist standing apart from or above his subjects.
This relaxed conceptualism is something of a paradox. Shore doesn’t adopt the studied sophistication of contemporaries like Jeff Wall and Thomas Struth, yet his work is far from naïve. In his recent documentary shots of Jewish communities in the Ukraine and Israel, for example, he undertakes a tightly focused exploration of the tension between the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. In Isaak Bakmayev’s Medals, Berdychiv, Zhytomyrska Province, Ukraine, July, 29, 2012, and the deceptively idyllic image of sunbathers on a lake, Bazalia, Khmelnitskiy Province, Ukraine, July 27, 2012, he explores how places remain burdened by history, in this case the Nazi atrocities of World War II. In Nabï Musa, West Bank, January 19, 2010, a picture taken in the West Bank, Shore animates the tension between competing collective memories and traditions.
MoMA’s retrospective clarifies the extent to which Shore’s Warholian detachment has enabled him to evolve with the times; he’s always been happy to play with the latest toys, in the same way he’s eager to snap the latest picture. The show highlights a series of 3D pictures he made in 1974, as well as dozens of print-on-demand books from 2003 to 2010, depicting visits to the dentist, walks through Central Park, a trip to a flea market, and so on. His embrace of the Instagram age is no surprise, for no matter the technology or the platform, successful photography demands an individual vision of the world. Paradoxically, Shore stays true to Warhol’s dictum, “I want to be a machine,” which enables him to see the world from the always shifting viewpoint of photography itself.
Stephen Shore is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through May 28, 2018.