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.

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