Exhibition Review

Stephen Shore

IN HIS REVIEW of All the Meat You Can Eat, the 1971 exhibition of snapshots and found images by the American photographer Stephen Shore, the critic Gene Thornton acutely noted that the selection on view was ‘a healthy, if possibly somewhat unwelcome, reminder of the part that photography really plays in the world’.1 Indeed, this enduring affection for the vernacular is present throughout the sweeping retrospective of Shore’s work currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (to 28th May), from the photographs he took in the mid-1960s of daily life in Andy Warhol’s Factory to his recent embrace of Instagram as a tool for making art.2 In much of his work Shore pays homage to photography’s ability to elevate the ordinary and commonplace.

Originally exhibited at the 98 Greene Street Loft in SoHo, All the Meat You Can Eat (1971; cat. pp.15–17), is presented in the retrospective as a kind of reference manual for reading Shore’s work. The installation, partially recreated here (Fig.23), featured dissonant arrangements of found and mass-media images – from police crime scene photos to advertising images and travel postcards – alongside colour snapshots taken by Shore. Several of these snapshots served as the basis for his first project in colour, Greetings from Amarillo, ‘Tall in Texas’ (Fig.22), a pivotal work from 1971 that could easily be overlooked here due to the choice of presentation. The work consists of ten deadpan images of the city of Amarillo’s unremarkable architectural landscape printed as postcards. Shore commissioned the country’s largest postcard printer, Dexter Press, to make 5,600 postcards of each image, printed with the heightened blue skies and saturated colours common to these idealised images of holiday destinations. Shore then slipped the postcards into shop racks as he travelled around the country in 1972–73. Tourists who encountered them would be deliberately confused, as Shore omitted the name of the town depicted, and only included street addresses. In the exhibition, however, the postcards are framed as a group with the image side visible, subverting the importance of their original function and Shore’s intention. Nevertheless, the project suggests a critical inquiry that quietly lingers through much of his work: what kinds of images can best capture a landscape that is increasingly anonymous, interchangeable and yet distinctively American? The retrospective contextualises this question within Shore’s continual desire to reinvent his photographic process. This approach also serves as a – perhaps stubborn – reminder of the enduring power of the groundbreaking work he did in the early 1970s documenting America’s small towns and urban sprawl.

Shore, a native New Yorker born in 1947, was introduced to photography at an early age and wasted no time entering the art world. When he was just fourteen, he sold three prints to the Museum of Modern Art after boldly introducing himself to Edward Steichen, then head of the Department of Photography. In 1965 Shore dropped out of high school and became a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory, informally photographing the artist and his circle over a two-year period. In 1969, influenced by artists such as Ed Ruscha, Shore created several photobased series, captured in black-and-white, of seemingly ordinary scenes that were in fact performances ordered by a set of predetermined rules (cat. pp.79–83). Several of these projects were featured in a 1971 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, making Shore the second living photographer ever to have a solo exhibition there. In the current exhibition, this early work is presented as preparatory studies that map the traces of Pop art and Conceptual art practices that remained in Shore’s work.

Shore’s fascination with vernacular photography is epitomised by American Surfaces (pp.23–27), which he began in 1972 while still distributing postcards from Greetings from Amarillo. The project is a diaristic document of his many road trips across the United States presented as an inventory of things encountered – diner breakfasts, dingy motel rooms, gas stations, friends and acquaintances – captured using a Rollei 35-mm camera equipped with a mounted flash. Shore’s dispassionate compositions and saturated colours were a homage to the snapshot, further underscored by his decision to exhibit these images as 3 by 5½ inch Kodacolor prints with white borders. Nearly two hundred such prints from the series were first shown at Light Gallery in New York in 1972, mounted directly on the wall in a grid of three rows – an installation that is delightfully recreated here for the first time. This presentation underscores the unpredictable nature of personal snapshots. Shore’s images break the rules regarding the kinds of subjects and compositions that then defined a ‘good’ snapshot and instead exemplify a search for aesthetic position through repetition.

In 1973, when Shore began work on Uncommon Places (1973–82; cat. pp.252–73), he switched to a large-format view camera but kept the same subjects. His compositions became more exacting and rectilinear, he abandoned the flash in favour of natural light and long exposures and began to experiment with print sizes that revealed exceptional details: If American Surfaces was diaristic, Uncommon Places was formally analytical. This break from the seemingly spontaneous style of American Surfaces is underscored in the exhibition through the inclusion of four prints of Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts printed at different sizes (p.261; Fig.24). Although the point made here is about Shore’s experimentation with various formats, the perhaps unintended effect of the repetition is to underscore his powerful use of colour and precise rectilinear compositions – the exaggerated blue skies and one-point perspectives of Greetings from Amarillo remain, but are now presented as exquisite 16 by 20 inch fine art prints.

Through Uncommon Places and a series of commissions and editorial work Shore became a prominent member of a generation of artists focused on banal, yet distinctively American, post-war architecture. These artists came to attention on the heels of the 1972 publication of the landmark study Learning from Las Vegas, written by the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in collaboration with Steven Izenour. The book made the case for addressing ‘ugly and ordinary’ structures, and advocated the development of connoisseurship regarding vernacular forms of architecture. This search for a language to describe and elevate the ordinary was at the heart of the book, and indeed remains at the heart of Shore’s work. It is further reinforced by the exhibition’s emphasis on the porous boundary between Uncommon Places and commissioned projects from the same period, pointing to the dialogue between mass-media visual techniques and high art photography.

Shore depicts the recurring motifs of billboards, gasoline stations and squat concrete structures from an indifferent, deadpan perspective as visual problems to be solved, rather than critical documents. Just as Learning from Las Vegas encouraged an embrace of vernacular architecture supposedly without moral or aesthetic judgment, Shore’s at times contradictory approach to the American landscape – capturing both its beauty and brutality – is indicative of his desire to continue studying the landscape as it changes and evolves. But the link between the photographs of built environments to those documenting natural landscape is somewhat undermined by the placement of a gallery devoted to Shore’s writing on photography, which creates a physical boundary and thus implies a conceptual division between the work he made before and after 1979.

Beginning in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Shore turned his attention to natural landscapes nearly devoid of human presence. Rather than appearing as a rebuttal of the urban and suburban structures he photographed a decade earlier, these images read as new ‘problems’ to be solved. In the years that followed, Shore took photographs in places such as Mexico, Israel, the West Bank and Ukraine. In the images he created there, as well as those created for Instagram and his print-on-demand books, Shore appears to be searching for a visual language and embracing vernacular photographic trends, conceivably in the same spirit that fuelled his decision to pin Kodacolor prints to the wall in a commercial photography gallery in 1972. While the stated aim of the current retrospective is to highlight the diverse and experimental nature of Shore’s work, the exhibition reveals that the language he developed in the 1970s was key to the arc of his career, and remains his most resonant, perhaps because his articulation of the sublime complexity of the seemingly ordinary landscape captured and affirmed a distinctly American moment.

1 G. Thornton: ‘From fine art to plain junk’, The New York Times (14th November 1971), p.38.

2 Catalogue: Stephen Shore. By Quention Bajac, with contributions by David Campany, Kristen Gaylord and Martino Stierli. 336 pp. incl. 450 col. + b. & w. ills. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017), $75. ISBN 978–1–63345–048–6.