Tuesday, January 9, 2018


The current Stephen Shore retrospective at MoMA looks great, but unfortunately it's 3,000 miles away. So I've been making due with the show catalog, which is great. I can't think of too many other monographs organized alphabetically like an encyclopedia. Factory, Fashion, Food, Gallatin County, Montana...The topics come in a sort of ordered shuffle, perfect for a scrambled Gen Xer like myself. It's the same reason I alphabetize my socks. It rejuvenates a body of work which might feel too familiar if ordered chronologically.

Forget it.

Browsing the book sent me down a new rabbithole of Streetview sleuthing. As longtime readers know I went through a heavy period of Shore rephotography about ten years back before finally kicking the habit. Somehow this image escaped my re-photographic impulse during the first wave. 

El Paso St. is a great photo and one of Shore's streetiest images. In the new MoMA book a few important pictures are singled out for a lengthy critique by David Campany, and this is one of them: "A photograph that has been structured to feel like a world unto itself is, in a way, a negation of the cutting that is a fundamental aspect of the medium. Or, more accurately, it is a disavowal of it..." 

The review went on but I couldn't understand it. Something about cutting corners or disavowing that act. Who knows. I was curious how this corner is cut now so I tracked it down. The title gives away the street name and Mills St. is visible in the right side of the frame. Thus finding the intersection in Streetview was straightforward. Here's how it looks today from roughly the same vantage point.

Streetview can't visit the exact location, which is just behind the frame to the left. But this is approximate enough to get the general gist. If this view is any indication, El Paso is now far more boring and ugly than it was in 1975. But of course photos can lie, even when they have no author. Maybe especially then.

Depending on which version you have, there are only one to three Uncommon Places photos from my home state of Oregon. Shore shot them on consecutive days, July 20th and 21st, 1973, while traveling south on US 97 down the state's bulging gut. The best known is US 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

For the non-Oregonians the mountain depicted is Mt. Hood, Oregon's tallest point and one of the more iconic peaks in the west. But where exactly is that wasteland behind it? The photo's title US 97 offers a clue, but that's a long piece of highway. There's no exact address in the caption, not many features in the background, and a lot of central Oregon looks pretty similar. All of which I'd found daunting during my first rephotography plunge. But the new Shore book had given me a second wind. Streetview, start your engine.

The shading on the billboard scaffolding indicates that the photo looks north. This is odd since Shore was traveling south at the time. He must've pulled a Frances McDormand U-Turn at the weird sign. In any case the shadows eliminated half my search, since I didn't need to look south. Aiming north I started at the stateline and Streetviewed my way up 97 one mouseclick at a time until I found the spot. Bingo! It was about 10 miles up, halfway between California and Klamath Falls.

The billboard is long gone but the gate, fencing, and telephone poles are the same, as is the distant horizon. Looking at this photo I'm glad we have Shore's photo to enjoy instead of Streetview. The lighting and framing here leave a lot to be desired. But of course authored photos sometimes lie worse than the others.

Two up, two down. Next up was the most problematic image yet, Shore's Merced River, Yosemite Valley, August 13, 1979. 

I've written about this photo a few times on B, once using it as an example to test online color variation, and once about the print at my friend Bruce's home (he's since moved, nearly to El Paso, before settling in Mexico). Not only is it one of my favorite Shore photos it's one of my favorites by anyone. The view is ambiguous. It's hard to pick out any landmarks or direction. Unlike many Yosemite photos there's no drama, no magic. It's just a lonely beach somewhere in the valley. Maybe that equals magic. Or drama. Or maybe it just equals sunbathing. 

Fortunately Christian Storm had already done some of the Streetview legwork. His Virtually Common Tumblr showed Shore's scene in 2014, shot from a bridge over the Merced. This was helpful but still didn't pin down the view.

David Campany's analysis proved to be a red herring: "On the hazy horizon, he included Half Dome, perhaps as a nod to Adams, but to integrate the mountain into his own picture, Shore mirrored its distinctive profile with that of a tree at the extreme right of the frame." 

Hmmm. Anyone who spends a few seconds with this photo will see that Half Dome isn't in it. But I'm slow and it took me a while to conclude this. I thought at first that Half Dome might be hidden or faint, or strangely angled or obscured by clouds. The only way to view the Half Dome from the valley floor is from the west, but the shadows in the photo bent toward Shore. Odd. Who swims mountain streams in the morning? Once again Campany was no help: "Casting shadows like sundials," he wrote, "each person appears suspended in time." Fine, but what did those sundials say? 

It didn't add up, at least not until I widened my search process up to other valley landmarks. Within a few jpgs I knew exactly what I was looking at. This wasn't Half Dome. It was Cathedral Rocks viewed downriver from the east. Cathedral Rocks —Damn, I should know that cliff. I climbed the east buttress of Middle Cathedral in 1998. But alas that was an earlier version of me, a version so unrecognizable he'd never turn up now on Streetview. Campany: "Behind the boy in the water, up on the rocks, is a man." Um, not quite.

To be fair Campany got it half right. Shore's photo pays homage to Adams. But not to Monolith or any other famous Half Dome image. Instead it's this Adams photo: Cathedral Spires and Rocks, 1949

This is the unmistakable formation on the far right skyline of Shore's photo. Instead of relegating it to the horizon it's been singled out for a glorious sun bath, as was Adams' wont.

If Adams tended to romanticize Yosemite he couldn't help it. In fact he was continuing the tradition of those before him. Here's Alvin Langdon Coburn's photo of Cathedral Rocks from 1911: 

Here's how Edweard Muybridge shot them in 1872:

And Carleton Watkins before that in 1861: 

Yes, Cathedral Rocks have a place in photo history. These older views tend to isolate and lift the formation to lord over mundane surroundings. Not Shore. He vacuumed up the whole valley in one scene, rocks, people, beach, river, trees,...a goddamn stroller for crisake. It was the shuffle approach, then in its infancy but about to be ushered into vogue with Shore's help. 

Shore's intent with Merced River went beyond shuffle, and beyond mere documentation. Ever the true photo nerd, he was paying tribute to predecessors, four at once! Of this Campany caught a whiff but not the full story. 

There are few other photos in Uncommon Places (perhaps none?) which rephotograph famous vistas. This one holds a special place. It may be the centerpiece of the entire series, a tangent to the flyfishing quote. This scene is irresistible. I want to shuffle into the frame, strip off my clothes, and sunbathe on the shore, 3,000 miles from any worry.


Unknown said...

He says in an interview (maybe it was in the coffee table retrospective book) that he saw the billboard in the rearview mirror and turned around.

Blake said...

Nice. Do you have a link to the interview?

Unknown said...

I have read so many Shore interviews that I accidentally mixed two together. He actually mentions it in the interview at the end of Uncommon Places:

"Lynne Tillman: The photograph of a field with a shockingly blue sky and incredible cumulus clouds - dead center is a billboard [...] How did that come about?

Stephen Shore: I was heading south on a highway toward Mt. Shasta and looked in my rearview mirror. There was this billboard - and the sky. The sky is more amazing than the painted sky."

There is another interview at https://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/interview-stephen-shore-the-apparent-is-the-bridge-to-the-real-2007.html where he also mentions it.

"SS: Some of my images are more difficult to make than others. For someone who knows photography, they know that some of my images are not simple and easy to take. For someone who doesn’t know photography, maybe they don’t get it.

RJ: Of course. But some people think that photos have to be visually striking.

SS: I see what you are saying. One of the things that interest me is to communicate what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness. I know that there is a part of me which thinks that can be best communicated in the most ordinary scene. For example, like my image of the painting of mountains on the billboard. I think it’s a wonderful picture. But there is something in me that says it’s easy. That didn’t take a great insight to see it. I would have to think that anyone who drove down that road that day would have to notice it.

RJ: You noticed it through your rear window and the clouds were magnificent and surreal.

SS: So maybe I am underestimating myself. Maybe other people didn’t notice it that day. For me, that is an easier picture than my picture of a lamp in a motel room, which seems a much harder picture, because it’s so ordinary. It’s a kind of the thing where the clouds and the painting were so dramatic that anyone would notice it. The lamp was so ordinary that you would have to really be paying attention to the world around you to notice it."

Julia Bradshaw said...

Your blog is absorbing and the sleuthing amazing. How you found that billboard location is beyond me.

Federico Rubio said...

Fantastic post, and comments.

Almasy said...

the stereographic photos are the most unique and beautiful work in the show, and the most unique and beautiful work he ever did. You cant see them in full effect but at the show, and i cant recommend them enough. They should be considered his landmark work, but you just cant reproduce them in any other format, so few people have seen them in their full effect. Rare and beautiful, Shores work is often too cerebral, too clever, and over explained, but that work is visceral, and, strangely, pure “street,” as if the built in gimmick of the stereographic camera freed him for a moment from all of his gimmicks.