Friday, October 12, 2012

Shore's Filthy Photographs

When I was a kid it struck me as odd that I didn't see people using the bathroom on TV shows. They showed many other domestic situations. Families in the living room, or at the dinner table, or at school or work or driving somewhere, or countless other normal situations. But bathroom events were never shown. I knew the characters on these TV shows must have basic biological functions, and the fact that I couldn't witness them seemed artificial, and potentially problematic. What about the aliens receiving our TV signals millions of miles away? How would they know that any of us ever took a shit?

OK, news flash. TV sitcoms are fake. I knew this even as a kid. But the lack of toilets was a sort of trophy for me. I was proud of noticing it. It confirmed my suspicions that the strange world of adults was filtered, a lesson which still pays dividends in my life as a photographer. 

I thought of this recently while thumbing through my recently purchased American Surfaces, the classic book by Stephen Shore which contains an astonishing number of toilet photos. In fact I can't think of any other photo book with more. They range from your normal everyday john like this one.
Farmington, NM, June 1972

To decrepit cesspools like the one below.
N.M. 44, June 1972

Is that Shore's crap? His coffee? Why would a photographer include such a scene in a photo project? I mean sure, he spent a lot of time in bathrooms on his road trip. We all do. But why show those places? What was Shore getting at?

"It was the first time I’d been on the road alone, and it was all new,'" said Shore in an interview with Gil Blank. "I’d open a door, and there would be this bed. I’d get up in the morning and open the bathroom door, and there would be this toilet. I’d go to the diner and there would be this food on this surface, on this table. And it became clear within two or three days that I had the idea of doing a journal. The journal had certain categories — every meal I ate, every person I met, every bed I slept in."

Some toilets he even wound up shooting twice, such as the one below, first flushing and then non-flushing. The guy was on a serious shooting kick. I know. I've been there.

On the one hand, shooting the banal is nothing new. There's a conceit among photographers that a good photographer can elevate the everyday into the picturesque through sheer force of will. Not only does a good photographer notice photos in scenes the rest of us overlook, but he or she can convert those visions into something special. Whether it's Weston's peppers or Groover's silverware, the everyday scenes of Backhaus and Kawauchi, or the popularity of Instagram, that idea has been been with us forever. In fact I'd argue that it's the dominant aesthetic in art photography today as measured by any number of juried exhibitions. 

But I don't think that's what Shore's toilet photos are about. American Surfaces might focus on the everyday but the photos make no attempt to elevate subjects into anything beautiful. You'd never see a photo like the one below in a book by Backhaus or Kawauchi, or few other modern books for that matter. (Perhaps Templeton? Or Moriyama?) 

Clinton, OK, July 1972
"Some photographers go out and want to make beautiful photographs," says Shore in the interview. "I think that puts the cart before the horse. Good photographs are the by-product of some other exploration, or some other intention.In other words there's banal and then there's banal. There's striving for beauty, then there's the grimy rest stop toilet, always the by-product of some other intention.

Shore's work at the time was heavily influenced by Ed Ruscha. If he didn't set out to shoot every toilet on the Sunset Strip his outlook was similar. Shoot everything you come across, comprehensively, as is, with no attempt to glorify, nothing picturesque. Shore notes that the urge to document systematically was "maybe that was a Conceptualist remnant." Even so, that didn't help them find much of an audience forty years ago, and even contemporary reconsiderations of American Surfaces, for example this one, have weeded out the toilets. 

Santa Rosa, NM, June 1972

Looking back at that era William Eggleston is the banal snapshooter we remember as groundbreaking, while Shore didn't achieve real fame before switching to large format. Eggleston has called his photographic approach Democratic, but compared to Shore it seems far less representative. If Eggleston is the 1970s TV sitcom with toilets tucked safely out of view, American Surfaces is Big Brother, the uncut version. This is what democracy looks like.

Shore quoted in the Gil Blank interview: "One of the thoughts behind the Conceptualist work was that there’s this world out there that we experience, and that making it into a photograph necessitates the mediation of an artist. Almost inevitably, visual conventions come into play, so that what I see in the photograph is tied as much to visual conventions as any opportunity to see the rest of the world...every now and then I would see a photograph that would have that quality of an unmediated experience."

New York City, September-October 1972

Forty years after it was shot, American Surfaces seems rather visionary. Surely it anticipated the Google Street View projects of Rickard, Henner, Rafman, Wolf, et al. Some of the street scenes in the book are indistinguishable from GSV. Or the recent rash of books curating non-picturesque found photographs. Or this wearable camera which will photograph your entire life democratically. What these projects have in common along with Shore is their rejection of the conceit I mentioned earlier. Instead of looking for the beautiful in the everyday, they're cutting out the middleman and just depicting the everyday. 

If any direction in photography still holds promise, perhaps it's that one. I don't mean mindless automation. I mean that often the least manipulated reality is the most beautiful. Wasn't that Duchamp's lesson? Was photography paying attention? Sure we use urinals every day but have we really stopped to consider how they look?

Washington, DC, November 1972

I may embrace their mechanical nature but that's not what I love best about Shore's toilet photos. I cherish their filth. These aren't sanitized photos and that wasn't a sanitized world. Not only would it be hard to find such photographs on a gallery wall today, it would be hard to find these toilets in real life, at least in the Western world. In an increasingly clean, bright culture --an increasingly "mediated culture" to use Shore's phrase-- these seem a tonic, a reminder of a world with rough edges. Maybe I'm biased. After all my family toilet growing up was a piece of wood mounted over an open pit. But I like to think that world can appeal also to a broader demographic.

I know this world still exists out there somewhere, maybe in "undeveloped" countries. Or in some forgotten corners of the US. But it doesn't appear very often in the fine art photo world. Contemporary curations such as this one or this one exemplify the state of affairs, collectively depicting a world almost completely devoid of grime. To me they seem as filtered as sitcoms. 

Perhaps it's time to reconsider American Surfaces. Instead of being dismissed as a dead-end precursor to Shore's important work, I think these pictures of filthy crapholes were in fact ahead of their time. Hopefully they can assume their rightful place on art photography's throne

1 comment:

MJ Rice said...

Great commentary on Shore's American Surfaces. We do live in an increasingly sanitized and homogenized world. His images are also a reminder that our collective nostalgia for our (the US's) recent past is often seen through rose-colored glasses.

I'm glad he had the courage to simply show "what is," with as little intervention by the photographer as possible.