Stephen Shore with Noah Sheldon & Roger White
Currently on view at P.S.1, Stephen Shore: American Surfaces is an exhibition that represents the photographer’s 1972–73 collection of small-format travel pictures. Since garnering acclaim—and some criticism—for his pioneering color photography in the early 70s, Shore has continued to deepen his engagement with the culture and techniques of photography, influencing generations of fellow practitioners through his work and teaching. We spoke to Shore in his New York apartment about his early photographic collections Uncommon Places and American Surfaces, his fine art and commercial work since then, and his series of brilliant self-produced books made using Apple’s iPhoto software, as well as the art of teaching photography, the issue of conventions, and the challenge of depicting the style of everyday life.
Rail (Noah Sheldon & Roger White): I heard a lecture once where you said that when you teach, you try to think about how you felt when you were the student’s age.
Stephen Shore: Or at that place. I see myself in the role of a guide. I remember when Ginger and I first moved to California we took a pack trip in the Sierras. And we hired a guide. It wasn’t that he was a better person than we were, but he had been up the trail before, and so we didn’t get lost. So I see myself in that kind of role. There are some things I know I can make easier for them. I can keep them from getting lost. But it’s not just that, it’s also giving them direction. Some teachers are maybe more passive than I am, and just encouraging. But I wouldn’t hesitate to give someone a specific direction to go in. But then, there are other things I know that they need to discover for themselves, and that if I said, “This is a dead end,” they wouldn’t believe it. But that in two weeks they’d understand it.
Rail: What I remember most from the semester I studied with you was your interest in perception, and the thought that goes along with the picture, the pre-visualization.
Shore: I think people have an image in their head when they see a picture. And they can use the camera as the tool to fill that image. It makes a difference if you are aware that you have an image in your head. I guess it’s pre-visualization, but I kind of avoid that term, because there are too many associations with Ansel Adams. And I don’t mean it the way he does, or I want to avoid those associations. I think this goes on all the time. I think we have the mental image of what we’re photographing, but we have more control over it by simply being aware that it’s a mental image.
Rail: Right. And there were some other things about perception—I remember you showing us some of your pictures of the horizon. Photographs of a hill and the sky, in Texas, or Scotland. And you were really interested in the optical reaction in our eyes.
Shore: Just as I was talking about having a mental image when you’re looking at the world, when you look at a photograph, you also have a mental image. Because that’s all we can see, that’s all we have. There’s an illusion that there are these little guys in our heads who are looking out these windows, but that’s not how it works at all. Our eyes are very much like a digital camera. There’s an array, a sensory array that converts the light to an electrical signal. And in our brain, our mind creates a mental image. Some photographs can give signals to the mind about how to create that image. And some can tell the mind to give a more convincing illusion of three-dimensional space than others. Some can be very flat and the mental image is right on the picture plane, and others can be very deep or have a tension—you know those gestalt diagrams that you can read one way or the other way. Your mind can see it as flat and three-dimensional at the same time. If a photograph is convincingly telling your mind to create a three-dimensional image, there’s a sensation as you’re looking at it of your eyes re-focusing, as though they were actually looking at something further away.
Rail: Even though you’re looking at a flat object.
Shore: Right. And this is an illusion, because the muscles in your eyes that control the lens aren’t changing, because you’re looking at something flat.
Rail: And that’s what those pictures were about?
Shore: Yeah, I wanted to figure out how to create that. How do you go about creating a picture that does that?
Rail: When were those pictures taken?
Shore: In the 80s. I’m always interested in how space is seen in a picture. In the 70s, I approached it more in formal terms, using one point perspective or diagonal lines receding to a horizon, or diagonals coming into the corner of the frame, or little things jutting in from the side of the frame. Little formal devices. In the 80s I became interested in something else: what if I was photographing the desert? I wouldn’t have streets and telephone poles and sidewalks, just this flat piece of land, but could I still depict space? And the answer is yes, I could. But I don’t know if I would have been able to learn how to do that if I hadn’t gone through eight years of trying to figure these things out formally. That work gave me the tools that I could rely on to do this in a different situation.
Rail: So if you realize you have an image in your head before you go to take a picture, the picture is going to be more considered. As you take more pictures does your way of formulating mental images change?
Shore: Yes. It can even change on the spot. This gets to something that may actually relate more to what we can call pre-visualization. If you go back in photographic literature past Ansel Adams and Minor White to Edward Weston, who gave them those terms, what he describes is something very similar to what in sports coaching is called "imaging". And the idea behind it is: I’m a basketball player, and can spend hours a day practicing free-throws, and at some point my muscles develop a kind of intelligence. They know the feel of the ball. But there’s so many muscles from my feet to the tips of my fingers involved in shooting a free-throw, if I tried to consciously control each of those muscles I couldn’t do it. But if I’d spent hours every day practicing so that I’d developed a kind of muscular knowledge, then if I had an image in my mind of the ball going through the hoop, that image will be a coordinating factor—it will coordinate all the muscular decisions. So in photography there’s a kind of visual education that’s gone on for years, seeing the world and taking a picture as a result. And doing this in different situations over and over again. Your visual muscles become educated and then the mental image you have of the picture will control your formal decisions, and that will create the result.
For example look at me now, and try to be aware of the space that exists between us. And that I’m not quite as close as you may have thought I was. You can see your perceptions shift. Your sense of space shifts. And if you were to take a picture at that point, that picture might be slightly different. The framing might be slightly different. You might move back a bit. Or you might not even move back, you might move to the side. Who knows what it is, but you might do something slightly different that will reflect the difference in your mental image. So this is where the awareness of that mental image comes in. Just then you are aware of your mental image, so that you can see the difference in your perception as you became aware of space in a different way.
Rail: When I was teaching, I was always interested in how two people could use the same film and the same camera and their colors would be so different. Do you have any thoughts about that in terms of how it relates to the way people think?
Shore: I do. I think it’s similar to why some people’s pictures seem clearer than others. Take two people using an 8×10 camera shooting color film. You have to make a distinction between clarity and sharpness—sharpness is a technical thing. If it’s in focus, and you have a good lens, it’s sharp. But in two sharp pictures, one can have a sense of clarity that the other one doesn’t have. And it actually will look more vivid. This is simply an extension of what I was saying about space. If you become aware of the sounds in the room and the person walking on the floor above us, the other little electrical buzzes, your sense of space changes, and again you take a picture and it will feel different. I’m not saying that anyone looking at a picture will hear any of the sounds, but because your perception changes, your awareness can come through in the photograph. Now what if there was something different, and it wasn’t spatial? What if it was one of those days when your mind is particularly still and textures are more palpable and colors are more vivid, and the experience itself feels more vivid? The photograph will also reflect that. You will take pictures differently.
Rail: Do you find that with people who are starting out taking pictures, they encounter the same kinds of conceptual difficulties? Whenever I take a picture I go right for the central object and it ends up looking bad.
Shore: I guess that’s a very common thing. I make a distinction between pointing and framing. So the picture can still have a central image, but you can be aware of the framing of it. But that is still different from the non-central picture, which is about allowing you to wander. But I could take a 35mm and take a picture of this microphone, and for me the most natural way of photographing it is to put it in the center. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of the framing. But I think what you’re talking about is actually one of the bigger problems of people starting photography, which is that they’re thinking of photography as pointing and not framing so they’re looking at an object and their field of perception kind of dissipates as it gets to the edge, like the way a rock song fades out [laughter]. It’s avoiding the decisiveness of saying, “Here’s the last note.” In a photograph, there is always a last note.
Rail: Right, you’re going to have to come to the edge.
Shore: There’s an interesting piece on this written by John Szarkowski in one of the four volumes he did on Atget—I think it’s in the first one—where he talks about photography as being an art of pointing. He says, what if you had a guide through the world, silently pointing at things. You can imagine some people pointing with keener observation and greater wit than others. Then after going through all these descriptions, he says photography isn’t really pointing, it’s framing. There’s something about it that’s like pointing, but it’s pointing with a frame.
One image I have in my mind is, what if I was to go into a blackened room, no lights on, with a flashlight that projected a rectangular beam. Everything in that beam is equally illuminated, so I’m pointing with it and exploring with it, but it’s not the flashlight where there’s a hot spot in the center and then it peters out, it’s this rectangle of light, all equally illuminated.
Rail: That makes me think of your iPhoto book of the Merced river. On the cover is a really famous image of yours from Uncommon Places, of the river, and as you leaf through the book it’s all composed of crops. And each image is amazing on it’s own. There’s this beautiful image of reflections that ripple on water in this river, there’s this beautiful picture of shoes on the beach, a mother and child wading in the water, and it’s these relations—I don’t know if you could do that with a smaller format picture from American Surfaces. I thought that was really amazing. There are a million great pictures in that one photograph. I’m thinking about the way Ken Burns treats pictures, he shows archival stills where they’re moving across the screen slowly, yours could create a whole movie, a whole feature film from these pictures. [Laughter.] All of your work seems to be sharp—there’s no shallow depth of field.
Shore: There are a couple of pictures, but not many. There’s one in Uncommon Places of a silver mailbox in Florida and the background is out of focus—still readable but slightly out of focus—and then a few years earlier there’s the green car in upstate New York, and again the background is this funky town out of focus. As far as I recall in the book those are the only two. That goes back to the beginning and what you were saying about a picture being read, and having a picture with a great depth of field and lots of points of interest. My tendency is, if I see something interesting, to not take a picture of it, but to take a picture of something else and have that in it so that you can move your attention around, like this is a little world that you can examine, and for those kinds of pictures it simply makes more sense for everything to be sharp.
Rail: You talked in an interview in Seesaw magazine about the way an image or an artifact ages. You said that you were aware of how the photo would look after a certain period of time, given the changes in the landscape. The first time I saw your iPhoto books I thought about that, about how contemporary they are in design, and the decision on your part to embrace that. Then I thought of looking at them in 20 years. How do you think they’ll be different?
Shore: With some of them I’m actually thinking explicitly about that. One series of books I started a couple of months ago. I think of them as time capsules, and I do them on days when the New York Times has deemed it worthy to have an eight-column headline. You can go a year and not have one, or you can have two in a couple of months. So last week it was when Scooter Libby was indicted, and the last time was when the levy broke in New Orleans. And so on those days, I start with a picture of the front page of the New York Times, with the headline, and then I go around and take pictures of what’s going on that day. Suddenly I’m thinking about style, and what clothes look like, or cars, or the prices of things. But I’m also interested in what ordinary life is on that day.
In the 60s I was spending a lot of time in Europe, and I was in Europe in '68, when "a lot of shit was going down", as they say in the States. I remember reading the Herald Tribune every day, and it just seemed that the country was falling apart. But a year or so later I was in Europe again, and it didn’t seem like there was anything as dramatic going on, but again I had the feeling of things falling apart. And I realized that it was because all I was getting was the news. And the news wasn’t reporting that bees were pollinating flowers in Dutchess County today, and the sun rose at 6:51 just as predicted, and that the law of gravity held today as one would hope. If all you’re getting are these points of news, you’re missing the fact that the world’s not falling apart. It’s the real stuff, the stable stuff, that doesn’t get reported. And so the books—my time capsules—have some of that in them too. So there are things that are very specific to a period in time, what movies are playing, but also just what ordinary things look like.
Rail: People are looking at your work from the 70s today more than they were then. I was recently looking through some un-published stuff from Las Vegas, in '73 or '74, and it’s incredible. Las Vegas was tiny! To me it was incredible to look at this place that I know well. I think photography generally gets better with time—what do you think about that?
Shore: I was to some extent aware of that. I remember thinking that it’s important to put cars in photographs because they are like time seeds. And I learned this from looking at Walker Evans. I can go to New York and find a building that was built a hundred years ago. I can take a black and white picture of that building and it would be hard to know when it was taken. But you put a modern car in front of it and it dates it. That’s what I saw in Evans’s work, though Evans would sometimes put an old car in the picture. I’m interested in that dating, like styles of renovation in buildings. I was thinking about that then.
But I guess you’re asking why is there a resurgence of interest in my work? [Laughter.] I think there are certain questions that are more right for you as a critic to answer than for me to answer. But I’ll give you mine, which is not meant to be exhaustive, but maybe somewhat cynical and humorous. I like to think there is something intrinsically strong about the pictures and that’s why they survive, but on top of that I’ll tell you that the interest began in the 90s when people saw a connection between my work and the Becher students. They started working backward and looking at my work again, which had not been looked at for a few years.
But I think there’s something else that is more related to what you’ve been asking about, and it’s this. I was interested, particularly in the series American Surfaces, in taking pictures that felt natural, so they didn’t look art-ified. It looked like looking at something. I was interested in what the world looked like. There’s a phrase in Shakespeare that meant a lot to me. Hamlet is telling the meaning of acting and ends by saying it’s “to show the very age and body of the time its form and pressure.” And that was a phrase that was in my mind when I was doing some of this work. And the work was shown a lot, so I’m not saying it wasn’t popular or well received in the 70s. There was a lot of negative stuff being written about it, but it was being shown. But something else happens when time passes. If I’m being successful at showing what the modern age is, people may not have enough distance from it to appreciate it.
Shore: You know? Its like “This is just what life is!” Why photograph it, if this is just what life is? And then maybe 30 years later they can talk about, “Oh it looks like the 70s,” but I’m sure this is what today looks like.
Rail: I thought it was really wonderful at the show at 303 Gallery recently to see the work from the 70s along with the books from the past few years. It brought up the big artistic problem of the invisibility of the present, of the style of the present. Which is, “I don’t notice how my jeans look right now because they just look…normal.” But in 10 years, you notice. [Laughter.]
Shore: And that was sort of the trick of the work. Trying to look at the present world with a bit of distance so that there’s an amazement at, you know, this is how our jeans look.
Rail: I’d be interested to hear you talk about your commercial work from the past few years, and just how different it is to work in that situation, with a client and an art director and all that. Is it that different?
Shore: The one big campaign I did was that different. The art director was in London. He’s sitting in an office in London with a drawing of an airport, what he wants the picture to look like, and it’s not based on anything but his imagination. And then we get location scouts and find some place where that can be made and go ahead and make it. And it’s a kind of visual problem solving that’s fascinating, but very different than my going out with a camera to take pictures. It’s like here’s what we want it to look like and then we go out and do it, but the whole thing is fun and you have a producer and the assistants are incredible and it’s just a lot of fun to do. And I’m being hired for my ability to visually organize space. We had to find an airport that would fit with the art director’s drawing and we had scouts in about six or seven cities in the United States and a couple of places in Europe to find an airport where we could do this one particular shot. I actually picked an airport, but they didn’t like it. I said I knew that I could make it look like the picture. We actually went to the airport and they thought this isn’t quite right—and I said this is going to be right because I could understand how the camera was going to see it. They could see it with their eyes, but they couldn’t understand how it was going be transformed into a picture.
Rail: Has the commercial work impacted your other work?
Shore: I haven’t seen an impact. One thing that was interesting doing the commercial stuff is that you go in knowing what can be done in post-production, and you just take that into account.
Rail: With the iPhoto books, do you think of those images strictly in a book form?
Shore: After the fact I’ve thought that I could do something else with some of them. With a lot of them I’m using tiny little cameras that you can’t make a big enough print from to do anything with. But really the answer to the question is while I’m shooting, I’m only thinking about it as a book. They’re all done in one day and so it’s all meant to be one work that I’m thinking about during the day. I’m thinking about how they’re going to relate to each other in a book. It’s not like at the end of the day I collect my pictures and make a book—the idea for the book is happening as the pictures are being made.
Rail: In a lot of your work there’s this layer of humor, which is very important. There’s one iPhoto book that kind of looks like the Italian Riviera.
Shore: The French Riviera.
Rail: There are these two great pictures where Ginger’s lying down sunning, with basically identical framing. Ginger’s face on the bottom and then there’s a beach scene. In one picture there’s a young, very beautiful woman in a bathing suit walking by, and then you turn the page and there’s an older guy in the same exact place, and the picture is the same. [Laughter.] Brilliant! There’s a lot of slapstick. It seems like the book format lends itself to game playing on some level.
Shore: That’s exactly right. And I feel like it’s open to playing with all those opportunities. And so I’m not even thinking about how the different books look with each other, really. I can see someone coming in and thinking that it’s the work of six different people. It could be a class assignment—and that kind of interests me. I could have an idea that I want to pursue for a day, but I’m not interested in beating it to death and doing the same thing over and over again for a year.
Rail: So over your career we have your mental evolution, your development as someone who takes pictures. But I was also thinking about our collective evolution, as people who look at pictures. It must be different for us now to look at photographs from the 70s because our culture of looking has changed.
Shore: Well, I’ll pick two specific things particularly related to American Surfaces. I got a good bit of recognition in the 70s for Uncommon Places. Not for American Surfaces. No one liked American Surfaces, except for two people: the gallery director who put it on and Weston Naef, who is now the head of photography at the Getty. But at that time he was at the Met, and he bought the entire show, which is now in the collection of the Met. Years later I ran into Nan Goldin, who told me that she liked the show a lot. But no one else has ever said a kind thing about it! [Laughter.].
I think first of all it was about color. People just weren’t accepting color then. Again, I’m not talking about general ways that human perception has changed over 30 years. I’m talking about something very specific—the attitude towards color has completely changed. The other thing was that American Surfaces was presented as a grid. I don’t think people could look at grids then. My sense was that it was viewed as a kind of wallpaper, as a bunch of color around a room, and it was very hard for people to focus on the pictures, and think about the relationship of the pictures, and penetrate it.
The reason I’m thinking this is that there were a few people who worked at the gallery—the show was up for about three months—who after a month or so said, “You know, it kind of grows on you.” This is something that was on my mind doing the current hanging, which I wanted to make reminiscent of the original hanging. The original prints were un-matted and un-framed and closer together and I think by framing them and matting them individually it separates them, and makes it so you have the sense of the grid but also makes it easier for people to look at individual pictures. But I think also something else has simply changed: people are now used to seeing pictures presented in a grid. And simply the reaction to color is completely different—it’s just not an issue, but then it was absolutely an issue.
Rail: How did you imagine selling that work? Did you perceive selling it as one body of work?
Rail: Besides the curator at the Met, did anyone else bite?
Rail: There are some black-and-white pictures you did in the late 90s, the large inkjet prints of forests and trees. This was the first time you worked in black-and-white after your early work from the Factory. It was at a time when art photography was mostly in color, and I think some people couldn’t access the work because the black-and-white put them off.
Shore: I’m interested in conventions. Why are there certain conventions? What happens if you don’t follow a certain convention? Sometimes my reactions are not a radical departure, but a reactionary departure. So if everyone is doing color I think there’s nothing wrong with black-and-white, you know?
Rail: Could you talk about what you were interested in with the baseball photographs?
Shore: It could not be simpler. I love baseball. When Ginger and I were dating and first living together in '77 and '78 we were probably averaging 30 games a year, and in those years we went to every home game that Ron Guidry pitched. He was at the peak of his form and it was amazing to watch him. This was a large part of my life and some of those people were my absolute heroes. [The third baseman for the Yankees, Mickey Mantle, was one the most eloquent baseball players I’ve ever seen play]. It’s the simplest thing. I like posing problems for myself. The idea of photographing a sport with an 8×10 camera—it’s interesting.
Rail: The idea of finding those exposures—1/8th of a second, 1/15th of a second…
Shore: Some are faster, but part of it is that in a number of different motions there are often moments of rest, so if a batter is waiting for a pitch and is going like this [gestures] the moment that the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand he goes [make a gesture] but only for a fraction of a second before he starts to swing. But if my timing is right I get him like that. There’s all this kinetic energy, but he’s absolutely still. There’s this one point of balance or transition of energy that, if your timing is right, you can stop the action with a view camera.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of the black-and-white New York street pictures I’ve done. The idea of doing Winnogrand-esque street photography with an 8×10 camera—I thought, this would be interesting to do.
Rail: What year were you doing those?
Shore: 2000 to 2002. You may not have seen them, because the only place they were published was in Tate magazine. I was using a Deardorff 8×10. Deardorff made a wooden slide that popped into the back that covered up half the frame so you could do a 4×10 inch negative and then you can slide it and on the same sheet of film do another 4×10. These are long thin pictures that I’m making 40×100 inch inkjet prints from. My thought was that you could take a Leica around New York with you and wait to pounce on something, or you could set up a 4×10 on 57th Street and stand there and in a couple of minutes something is going to happen! What I found is that I’ve never been more invisible on a New York City street. The only time anyone ever said anything is when a woman told her young son, “That’s what old cameras used to look like.”
The only time someone really had a conversation with me about it was when a policeman came up to me on 57th Street between 5th and 6th. He told me he used a 4×5, so we started talking and at one point he asks my name, and I tell him, and he says, “I have your book. I show it to my family and they think your pictures are boring, but I tell them they don’t understand.” [Laughter.] So where I’m photographing the people walking by, there’s a car that’s double parked at a slight angle. While we’re talking the guy is about to get in the car and the policeman says, “Do you want me to stop him?” He’s not even thinking about ticketing the guy! He just knows the car fulfills a structural need in the frame!