Working with Intention: Pioneer Stephen Shore on His Career and Staying Inquisitive
In the early 1950s, a five-year-old boy had a chemistry set that he loved. His uncle took note and gave him a darkroom set for his sixth birthday, and he relished his new responsibility as developer and printmaker of his family’s snapshots. Within a couple of years, he got his first 35mm camera. That seminal moment—putting a camera in the hands of this little explorer named Stephen Shore—was one the most prescient things his family could have done, though they could hardly have known all that would come to be.
Called “one of the most significant photographers of our time” by the Museum of Modern Art, which, in 2017, mounted a major retrospective of his work, Shore is best known for pioneering color photography in fine art and, as the exhibition text states, for capturing “the mundane aspects of American popular culture in straightforward, unglamorous images.”
But that’s just the truncated version. In a constant mode of exploration since his childhood, Shore has experimented with both subject matter and modus operandi. He’s photographed subjects ranging from everyday objects and small-town American landscapes to portraits of Andy Warhol and a body of work about Ukraine’s Holocaust survivors. He’s taken on commercial work in fashion, assignments for Fortune magazine and photographed on movie sets. And, all the while, he’s nurtured a strong passion for an aspect of his career he considers as important and as stimulating as making art: teaching.
There are many reasons why Shore has achieved a long and celebrated career, but at the tip of the iceberg is a meeting he scheduled in 1961, at age 14, with Edward Steichen, who was the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. “In those days, curators didn’t have that much to do,” Shore tells PDNedu, but that changed with John Szarkowski (Steichen’s successor). “By the end of the ’70s, there was so much demand on Szarkowski’s time, I think the idea that a photographer could call him up and make an appointment and show him work pretty much stopped. But we’re talking about the early ’60s, and I think Steichen had free time, and it was just the novelty of a 14-year-old saying, ‘Can I show you work?’” that compelled him to take the meeting. Steichen purchased three photographs, and Shore’s fine-art career was officially on the map.
Exploring the Language of Photography
At age 17, armed with a deep appreciation for Walker Evans’s American Photographs and no formal photography training, Shore began his first major project: black-and-white photographs of Andy Warhol. “I met Andy my senior year and dropped out of high school to hang out at the Factory…I have not regretted it,” he says, reflecting wistfully of that time. That project led to Shore’s exploration of conceptual photography—serial, analytical, systematic images aimed at removing some of the subjectivity of image-making. By age 24, Shore had achieved the dream: a solo show of these conceptual-based sequences at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Wanting to push the notion of making “less mediated photography,” as he expressed it in his interview with writer and curator David Campany in Stephen Shore: Survey, he embarked on a series of road trips, creating a sort of visual diary of what he saw. “As a mental experiment, I would try to take a mental snapshot of my field of vision,” he said. “’What does this look like now? How am I looking at something?’ I’d do this without a camera, but I would use this experience as a guide to structuring the pictures.” The creative quest resulted in American Surfaces, a series of 229 “drugstore prints” that documented mostly the things he encountered throughout his travels. In 1972, that body of work exhibited at Light Gallery in New York City to a mixed reception, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art ended up acquiring the entire series.
Finding Answers to Questions
Answering the questions Shore had as he explored the photographic medium and the world it depicted became a central mode of inspiration for him, and continues to be to this day. Following American Surfaces, he set out to solve pictorial challenges through perspective, composition and structure, resulting in his 1982 book, Uncommon Places (with further editions published in 2005 and 2015). That led to photographing landscapes in Montana (where he lived for some time), Mexico, Scotland and Texas, in an effort to answer formal questions about creating a credible illusion of three-dimensional space in pictures.
Then, in the 1990s, after working exclusively in color for nearly 20 years, he realized his photography had stopped leading to unanswered questions. “When I find myself repeating myself with work, I stop and do something different [because] questions are not always open-ended. Things get answered, and things can get mastered. And when that happens, it’s time to move on,” he says. “There are times when I don’t know how to move on. But I know that I have to, and so I will just do something different. It doesn’t have to be a problem that comes from deep within my soul.”
For example, in response to his years of color work, he gave himself the “problem” of photographing in black-and-white again. Later, in 2012, he would go on to make pictures of Holocaust survivors in Ukraine with his Nikon D3X and D800 DSLRs, hoping to solve the problem of framing the presence of emotion in a picture without it letting it dominate. That body of work was published as a monograph, Survivors in Ukraine, in 2015, and was personal to Shore’s own ancestry, as his grandfather had emigrated from Ukraine in the late 19th century.
Shore has also begun experimenting with print-on-demand books and Instagram in recent years, both directly influenced by his experiences as an educator. As the director of the photography program at Bard College since 1982, Shore says he must “think like each student” in order to guide them, which “exercises a kind of receptivity to see more photographic possibilities.” Both print-on-demand books and Instagram became the perfect outlet for exploring the more short-term visual ideas his students’ work provoked in him.
This article is an excerpt from “Embark on a Personal Quest: Photographer Stephen Shore on Staying Inquisitive” (PDNedu, Spring 2018). Click here to read the full article for free in the digital edition.