Thursday, March 26, 2020

Shore's Transparencies

It may be hard now to imagine a time when people didn’t routinely shoot photos of meals. But until just a few decades ago the practice was rare. Stephen Shore was perhaps the first major photographer to go there. Beginning in the early 1970s, while on various photographic road trips, he seldom left a restaurant table unphotographed. Food was just one small component in his daily captures, along with motel rooms, dirty clothes, parking lots, toilets, ceilings, shops, nightstands, appliances, and all the other artifacts of his domestic explorations. Everything was fair game, his appetite for material seemingly insatiable. 

So it’s fitting that a dinner photo introduces the hefty new Shore book Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 (Mack, 2020). It may be the only such one in the book, but it sets the tone for what’s to come. By showing an ordinary fast-food Mexican taco/enchilada combo, split by beans and rice, harshly flashed, and, well, downright ugly despite the nicely choreographed blue napkin and green tabletop, Shore establishes his credentials. “I’m not picky,” he seems to be saying, “It’s open season on any subject.”

Of course other photographers had taken aim at the quotidian before Shore. But their efforts were typically highbrow. Think of Weston’s Pepper No. 30 or Siskind’s Gloucester glove, for example, both the product of men seeking grandeur in the mundane. Shore’s aesthetic, which would eventually come to dominate fine art photography, was a deliberate effort to avoid these modernist trappings. Instead he looked to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan factuality for guidance. As Britt Salvesen explains in the book’s afterword, Shore mined the vernacular for material. Inspired by postcards, commercial signage, and snapshots, he developed a direct, non-fussy style which stripped away any highbrow pretentions to framing, lighting, or the picturesque. “Some photographers go out and want to make beautiful photographs," Shore once told Gil Blank. "I think that puts the cart before the horse. Good photographs are the by-product of some other exploration, or some other intention." 

Shore’s approach proved prescient, and we’re still dealing with the aftermath. The idea that image is secondary to intention is now the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, Shore is busy mining his early archives. Transparencies is the merely latest in a recent slew of books to explore them. A new edition of American Surfaces is due soon. I’m guessing other books may follow. The more the better, as far as I’m concerned. It’s rather amazing to look back and realize that none of these early photos were published as books contemporaneously. The first edition of American Surfaces didn’t arrive until 1999, and it wasn’t until 2005 that a more comprehensive edit came along. So if a book world recounting is overdue, I say bring it on.

Transparencies focuses on the mid-seventies, the period just on the heels of American Surfaces and when Shore was transitioning to the view camera. That larger format work would eventually produce the project for which he is still best known, Uncommon Places. But even while consumed by that project, he hadn’t quite given up on 35 mm. True, he’d ditched his trusty snapshooting Rollei 35. But in its place: a Leica M2, a handheld workhorse. It went everywhere with him, stocked with Kodachrome. It’s fun to browse through Uncommon Places now realizing this duality. Shore probably had a Leica on his shoulder as he made that famous photo, and this one, and so on. 

How did that Leica see differently? The book shows a sampling of what Shore found, 112 photographs, generously sized, without captions, preceded by a miniature prologue of highlights (leading with the Mexican dinner photo). Transparencies compares with Uncommon Places in the ways one might expect. Beginning with a shaky series of indistinct road shots, the photos exude the loose energy of 35 mm. Some frames are cockeyed, or seen through a windshield, or suffer from camera shake, or are helped by it. There are generally more pedestrians caught in Transparencies than in Uncommon Places, though that might be a function of editing as much as format. And whereas Shore using a tripod could stop down his aperture to get entire scenes in focus, his 35 mm depth of field was often restrained by slow film and unreliable lighting. 

Even though the work was shot concurrently, there’s seemingly only one scene shot by both cameras. That’s a boat harbor in Miami in 1975, huddled under a massive highway interchange. Britt Salvesen’s afterword offers an instructive comparison of the two photos —one photo is flat, the other deep— but leaves the reader wanting more. Can that be the only pairing? It’s hard to believe there aren’t others. A moot point in any case, since they don’t appear here. 

With no other direct comparisons, the reader looks to the work for hints of Shore’s thinking. Transparencies is sequenced chronologically, and as we move through the seventies some familiar themes arise. One change which becomes immediately apparent is the transition to outdoors. Whereas most of American Surfaces featured indoor snapshots, Shore’s Leica found much of its material in public settings, presumably lured there alongside his view camera. The change in backdrop seems to echo a broader switch in Shore’s approach, from internalized snapshots of a very personal nature toward the dispassionate open landscapes typical of New Topographics. Whether the Leica work was “a parallel iteration of an iconic vision… like a piece of music played in a new key,” as Mack describes it, or simply the waning efforts of a photographer whose style had already moved on, the results are fascinating.

The formalism of Uncommon Places manifests more and more as the reader wades deeper into Transparencies. The opening photos are blurred and dreamy, but they quickly firm up. Soon we see storefronts shot head on, alleys opening into distant vistas, delicately composed parking lots, an affinity for cars, pavement, signs and vernacular material. There’s even a brief taste of Europe before the book returns stateside. By the time late in the book when the reader encounters a street corner fronted by plywood walls, angled just so, the world has shifted convincingly toward Uncommon Places. 

Regardless of camera, whatever Shore photographed in the 1970s was with an intense visual hunger. It’s the same motivation fueling all great photographers and all lasting works, that restless need to swallow the world with a lens. “I wanted to be visually aware as I sent through the day,” he is quoted in American Surfaces. “I started photographing everyone I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked on, the towns I visited. Then, when the trip was over, I just continued it.” With Transparencies, we finally have sense of where that continuance led: not very far from the present.

Note: This is the full "Director's Cut" of this piece, initially published here in abridged form.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

My first pandemic

“Hmm,” observed my mom in a recent email, “Never been in a global pandemic before.” 

This is my first global pandemic too and, based on my experience so far, I hope it’s the last. Pandemics are no fun at all. There are roughly 7.8 billion people out there who'd probably share the same sentiment.

With almost surgical precision, and in a span of just a few weeks, the Covid-19 virus has sucked the joy from public society. No gatherings, no travel, no YMCA basketball. No concerts, no dinner parties, no hugs. Ugh. No eating out, no March Madness buzzer beaters, no random conversations with strangers. No high fives, no indoor ventures, no touching any surfaces. Fuck me.

I realize these might all be considered small pleasures in comparison to the big thing: staying alive. But still, ugh. It’s the minor comforts which are the spice of life. And right now they're all missing.

Friday I biked into town with my cameras to get a lay of the land. I’ve been mostly housebound this week —Governor’s orders!— and this was my first visit to Eugene’s city core in a few days. Most stores were closed and the general activity level was subdued, more like a sleepy Sunday morning than a Friday afternoon. Some people were out and about, but they kept to themselves.  Since I was on my bike, social distancing came naturally. I talked to no one. Once in a while I’d hop off my seat to take a photo, but I was mostly observing. More than ever I realize that a central requirement for seeing and making good photos —perhaps the only one, aside from good walking shoes— is a sense of optimism. And I haven't felt very optimistic lately. Every time I touch my phone or look at the news it's another visit to Debbie Downer. It's injected bad juju into the pit of my stomach. It’s there when I wake up and it stays with me most of the time until sleep. So I haven't made many photo outings lately.

Nosiree, pandemics are no fun at all.

My main question: where does this all end? It's very hard to know at this point. We're experiencing a watershed event on the scale of 9/11 or WWII, but it's taking place in real time over the course of weeks, with the situation in flux, changing daily. Gradually the noose tightens on public interactions, with this new restriction or that one, each one unimaginable just a few weeks earlier. I can't keep track of what's ok or not, so I'm mostly staying home. 

The old Fear Of Music lyrics ring true: "I haven't got the faintest ideaaaa...everything seems to be...up in the a-ir..." The only certainty is that however we make it through this pandemic —and I assume we will, although individual survival is not guaranteed for any of us— what’s on the other side is going to look very different physically, culturally, and economically. I keep hearing rumors through the grapevine of this local business or that business in trouble, friends out of work. Maybe they can hold on for a few weeks or months, but not indefinitely. Yesterday came the rather unsettling news that Powell’s Books was in trouble. If they go under, boom! That would leave a gaping cultural crater in the Portland landscape, bigger than Mt. Hood. In Eugene I have to assume many stores will not survive. Downtown is already sketchy, and the vacancies will spread. Incomes with languish. Foreclosures > unemployment > decay, etc. Not good. More of the culture will move online, which is perhaps just an acceleration of an inevitable trend. But the physical world will look quite different.

There will probably be some lingering effects too on interpersonal behavior. Social distancing may become more customary. Will handshakes and hugs become bygones? Will we think twice before approaching a stranger for directions? Will Eugene's vaunted friendly vibe fade away? Paranoia off and running.

I can't help thinking of cancer as a metaphor. A common treatment is chemotherapy. This basically poisons the cancer, but it's also poison to the body. Social distancing seems like the same sort of treatment. Kill the virus, sure. But you'll kill a lot of the culture in the process. Kill the restaurants and theatres. Maybe kill the economy too? Kill the health care system? Kill all social norms?

Sign on the door of my local camera shop Dot Dotson's

One saving grace amid the turmoil is that Spring is here finally. The past week in Eugene has been just fucking gorgeous, each day with blue skies and moderate temperatures. My family has been taking walks each day, and yesterday afternoon we even ducked into a park to meet some friends for a beer and frisbee. We kept six feet away from one another but it still felt a bit like cheating. Please don't judge me. We're all just trying to maintain some sanity. Considering the rain is in the forecast and that clampdowns on social gatherings are likely to tighten soon, I've got to take what I can get. Up yours, Coronavirus.

We've been watching some good films at night —The Swimmer, The Landlord, Headhunters, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and others from Leo's DVD collection. They're entertaining and weird and satisfying. But, regardless of when or who they were made, all feel like another era. There are so many scenes of humans in close proximity, and touching one another casually, and sitting in restaurants or dancing. I'm sure no one thought anything of it at the time. But to watch those scenes now...well, perhaps nostalgia applies? Or some other emotion? Exoticism? Jealousy? I can't quite tell.  

As has been my habit since childhood I've been plowing through one book after another. The past few nights it's been The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown. A fantastic book, which, um, happens to be about the Donner Party trapped in the Sierras. I know, I know, grim. But it's extremely well written. I have the general outline of what happened in my mind, so it's not suspenseful in that regard. But still it's a bit eerie to sit above them as Brown narrates their daily routines, and their slow plunge into catastrophe. They did the best they could. They were reasonably happy, for a time. No one could guess what the future held, not then or now.

If this post isn't too depressing and you want another dose of pandemic reaction, I'm playing a Coronavirus-inspired set of music tonight, 8-10 PM (Pacific Time) on KWVA, 88.1 FM in Eugene, or streaming online at kwvaradio.org. This is my second show inspired by the pandemic. The first was a few weeks back and more light-hearted. Tonight's will be more somber, possibly soul-crushing. Listeners may want to get set first with a big shot of whiskey before tuning in. Stay strong and healthy. This too shall pass...