Stephen Shore’s photographs disclose a rich topography of common incident in uncommon reverie. From his earliest work photographing New York street scenes, through his epoch-defining photographs of the American landscape at large, and up to his present interest in the daily notational platform of Instagram, Shore has continually evolved his notion of the artist’s inherent formal voice being shaped and toned in relation to the flux of the everyday.
On the occasion of his current retrospective at MoMA, and a show of his most recent photographs at 303 Gallery, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Stephen at the gallery to discuss both of these events in the context of his broader photographic project.
Tom McGlynn (Rail): I’d like to open our discussion with a statement from your essay “Form and Pressure,” in which you preface the scene from Hamlet directing the actors he brought to Elsinore for a play,
At first Hamlet defines the relationship of form to content. Form, structure, is not an aesthetic nicety applied to content. It is not art sauce poured on top of content. It’s an expression of understanding. But, Hamlet reminds us, ‘o’erstep not the modesty of nature.’ This is a plea for transparency, for the structure not to call attention to itself, but to be seen through, to be transparent.
Can I ask you to elaborate a bit further on this point with regards to your newest work?
Stephen Shore: I’m not sure I know how it applies to the newest work. I think there are a number of things that are different about the new work. For one thing the old pictures are horizontal, and a horizontal picture can reference scene, and it references landscape. By common parlance now it’s called “landscape mode.” A vertical picture can cut across the grain of a scene—and sometimes disrupt it—so I’m not sure how it relates to the idea of transparency.
Rail: It does seem to, in the sense that your newest photographs (shown at 303 Gallery), as you say, distribute their focus in a different way, vertically, cutting across the visual plane, yet they literally depict a ground plane. So there is not a direct, mimetic correlation between form and content. The tension in these images is formed in a more transparent way: not drawing attention to formal intentionality, but letting “the modesty of nature” reveal itself, albeit through formal means. Perhaps by way of comparison in a form/content dynamic, we could talk to the content matter of an earlier work, for instance the Ford Maverick that’s in your frequently reproduced U.S. 10, Post Falls, Idaho, August 25, 1974. In this photograph it’s the active insertion of the contemporary model, in this case the car, into the scene that determines the formal tension and a certain kind of conceptual objectivity. Would you say that this is an accurate reading of the picture and perhaps your method at large, one that consciously references the past as might Walker Evans while documenting the obdurate present?
Shore: I’m glad you referenced Walker Evans because one of the things I learned from him was his use of automobiles as time-markers. Even though he slyly, occasionally put in an old car—a car that was old in 1936—but I understood when I was taking the pictures that a building doesn’t date a picture because a building could be a hundred years old, or a renovation of a building, we could go out on Tenth Avenue now and see renovations that took place in the ’50s or ’60s, but they don’t date a picture. But a line of cars, knowing that some still could be old, do date a picture in a certain way. As a picture ages it often can begin to accrue nostalgia, and I think that one of my favorite pictures of mine is a lamp on a desk in a motel with a television behind in Canada. I understand that now it begins to look like retro, 1970s decor, yet when I first showed the picture in 1974 people looked at it and thought, “Why would anyone take a photo of this?” It’s simply what the modern world looks like. So I guess I’m saying two things: one, that there was occasional nostalgia in the pictures but not a lot—I was interested in the taste of the modern time—and two, I understood that I could put markers in it to date the picture.
Rail: I can recall that in the ’70s there was an efflorescence of American scene-type imagery, which roughly correlated with the 1976 Bicentennial aura that enveloped the US at the time. Images by yourself and “Photo-Realist” painters such as Ralph Goings and Robert Bechtle tended to subjectify the American car as cultural signifier, of commodity, of mobility, in relative sculptural ensembles, et cetera, that inserted themselves into both the objective landscape and the subjective imagination of the country. In some ways this was anticipated much earlier by American cinema. Newer aspects of a specific type of American road picturesque were codified by William Jenkins and his famous exhibition, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man–Altered Landscape (1975-76) at the George Eastman House. What was your own identification with, or separation from, this ostensible movement at the time? In his introduction to the catalogue Jenkins defines the common denominator of that show as problem of style and stylistic anonymity—an alleged “absence of style.” Did you agree with his sentiment at the time about the anonymity of style? And what do you think about it now?
Shore: I think when Jenkins talks about “styleless-ness” it’s what I’m referring to as “transparency,” but do I really believe it’s styleless: No. And what I mean is this: I think there could be two kinds of style in a picture: one that feels imposed on a picture—maybe we’ll call it stylized—and the other is an expression of an artist’s temperament. Nicholas Nixon and I can take pictures that seem style-less but no one would have any problem telling them apart, because in fact they have a style. What they have is the voice of the artist. But it doesn’t feel stylized, it doesn’t feel like the subject matter has been shoved into a stylistic box. Regarding your previous reference to the concurrence of similar imagery in photorealist painting at the time, I think I was less influenced by them than we both had similar roots. For example, Walker Evans—I forget if it was Ralph Goings or Richard Estes who, I read an interview long ago, talked about the major influences on himself, and it was Walker Evans—and I would say Evans was the major influence on me too.
Rail: When you took your first road trips to the West—when you went to Amarillo—you weren’t driving then, right?
Shore: It was in 1972, during the shooting of American Surfaces, that was the first road trip that I drove. When I first went to Amarillo in ’69, ’70—no, I wasn’t driving.
Rail: I find it an interesting detail, because you’ve discussed elsewhere about initially coming from New York City into the greater American landscape as the experiencing of a foreign landscape. You coming upon it almost like Robert Frank who emigrated from Switzerland and wound up taking what might be considered some of the most iconic images of America, in his groundbreaking bookThe Americans of (1958). So getting back to this idea of American-ness, what about this idea of the prepackaged rhetorical landscape of American-ness as it relates to the previous question about the country as subject? Was it a ready-made index to riff upon or is that index something you felt you were in the conscious process of assembling?
Shore: I had a show over a decade ago at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. I did an interview with a local critic, and he talked about all my pictures of diners and gas stations, so I said, “Let’s go through the show. Show me all these pictures of diners and gas stations.” Out of seventy pictures in the show there is one picture of a gas station, Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975, and there’s not a single picture of a diner. But this is his idea of an Americana index. And if you said “How many pictures of ordinary houses or main streets, or intersections...,” then that would be a different story.
Rail: Right, obviously he wasn’t really thinking very deeply, he wasn’t actually looking.
Shore: He wasn’t looking at the pictures. He had this idea of Americana, and the filter he understood it through was so thick.
Rail: I wanted to get through the whole American-ness thing because I think sometimes it’s foisted upon your work superficially just like that critic was doing. But to reach down a little bit deeper, what happens when the rhetoric of a specific type of enculturation—say the inheritance of Walker Evans’s use of the documentary style as signifier—skews the feedback loop between the place the photographer actually encounters and his preconceived subjectivity? In other words, your awareness of Walker Evans’s use of the documentary style as signifier, does that create a kind of slingshot effect or dynamic intensifier on what you bring subjectively to the scene? This might come under the heading of the anxiety of influence. In Harold Bloom’s narrative, the anxiety of influence is only a problem if the influence isn’t boldly assimilated. And I guess what I’m talking about, does the rhetorical landscape at a certain point become a compound rhetoric with this layering- to then become a kind of cultural object?
Shore: My relationship to influence is this: influence is most useful when it’s conscious, and it never particularly bothered me if my pictures showed the influence of someone else. In photography the main one is Evans, but for a long time I was just hungry for experience and I was listening to a lot of classical music. Bach is almost as much of an influence in understanding structure, and not just understanding structure but where all of it can lead psychologically. I was looking at a lot of paintings, and then I’d just go out and work. But when I’m working I’m not particularly thinking about any of that. And it doesn’t bother me if a work shows the stamp of influence. I think that for me if I put it out of my mind and just pursue what I’m after, I’m going to express that influence. And occasionally things come across that are maybe free of it.
Rail: So what you’re talking about is assimilating those influences, but not reproducing them as a pre-determined style?
Rail: I recently read Brian O’Doherty’s description of Edward Hopper disdaining regionalist “American Scene” painting such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, but at the same time making what have become these iconic American scenarios like Early Sunday Morning (1930). 1
Shore: I think Hopper’s work is popular because of the implied narrative aspects of it, but what I find particularly interesting was how Hopper understood the way light defines space and objects in pictures. He did a number of series across rooftops in Brooklyn and in Mexico that I learned a lot from, in just the way he structurally tried to take in the world. And I also see him pushing against a pictorial structure that he himself had come to define.
Rail: I’d like to return to the New Topographics exhibit and the idea of the generic or the anonymous voice. That show included the relatively unknown duo at the time of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their presentation strategy and conceptual approach promoted a specific topology of generic European types, as in their water tower series. They subsequently brought catalogs from the show back to Germany where, as teachers at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf they would influence a whole new generation of photographers, for example their former students Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky. These two would make a certain generic subject and stylistic anonymity their guiding aesthetic. You stated that elsewhere, however, that it is the “quality of attention” that makes such subjects uncommon.
Shore: The idea of attention is very important to me. In fact, in the first edition of my Uncommon Places—the 1982 edition—the one quote I used is from Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats, and it’s his paragraph on attention, which is a bit different for me than the artist’s voice. Photography seems to be very receptive to someone working in a state of heightened attention. I mean, that quality of vividness that we experience when we’re in a state of heightened awareness seems to be able to be communicated in a photograph.
Rail: There’s a certain paradox that arises that is not necessarily problematic, but it’s the idea that the photographer is himself becoming “transparent” by paying attention. Becoming an Emersonian transparent eyeball seems to conflict with the idea of subjective attention.
Shore: Actually, I think they go hand in hand. And to go back to the first discussion of style versus stylized—in stylized work it’s harder for the maker’s attention to be communicated because the vision is weighed down by the position of the stylization. It’s when photographers are speaking with their own voices, trusting their own voices, that the quality of attention can come through.
Rail: And yet there are certain scenarios that sometimes seem to pre-determine one’s attention. I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant on Grand St. in New York recently, both a week before and after taking in your current retrospective at MoMA, in which one of your early photographs of the Warhol milieu, 1:35 AM in a Chinatown Restaurant, New York, New York, 1965 – 67 was featured. I was struck in both the museum and the restaurant by the metaphysical continuity between the scene you depicted and my experience of the same space—as if the specificities of these coexistent moments in time (your photograph and my experience) constituted a topology of matter all its own, one that transcends both the sentimentality of nostalgia and the staid formulization of the picturesque.This seems to me to be a key realization of the arc of your work: keeping the doors of perception open, as it were, between the prosaic and the transcendent. And there’s a fluidity between the typology of the mental model you bring to the scene and how you bring experience and attention to the present, which transforms and elaborates that model. There seems to be a sweet spot where the model of genre, in this case, say, the Chinese restaurant, perfectly contains a moment of the transformative real. There’s a kind of transcendent timelessness to sitting in a Chinese restaurant, and I was struck by your ability to capture that, even though you have this famous personage (Warhol) in the picture. What seems more significant than Warhol as subject is that your photograph combines an objective, rhetorical model (if you think of the Chinese restaurant as a rhetorically over-determined container) with a subjectively determined reality.
Shore: I guess this is a simple mental association because you twice used the word “transcendent”—it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. The one time I heard Walker Evans speak was in 1971 at the time of his big retrospective at MoMA. He talked about his work as being “transcendent documents.” I don’t remember exactly what he said but I felt I understood what he was talking about, and then just recently, in the past month, someone sent me a book about Evans called Walker Evans Incognito that Eakins Press published a few years ago, which includes an interview with him. In the interview Evans begins talking about that this is what he’s after, that he’s using the document and documentary style as a container that allows for the communication of something that he feels is transcendent, and that’s what he’s really looking for in his pictures.
Rail: Do you think it is a certain transparency of this process that allows your photographs to speak for themselves? Or in other words, how might they be using you as their instrument?
Shore: Well photography more than other media can be dependent on something outside of the photographer. You know a writer could conceivably write concrete poetry, which still has reference to something outside of herself or himself, a painter could—your work for example—doesn’t necessarily reference things in the world other than abstraction of the painting. But photographers, with a few exceptions, have to really try hard not to reference things in the world. So there’s this funny balance that develops—a number of photographers, and I think actually in some of the text at the beginning of New Topographics catalogue talk about “the world is more interesting than I am” or than my opinions are. And I think that’s a stance more than a reality. If we were more interesting we would just look at the world. We have to think that what we’re doing, that we’re providing perception that is somehow opening the door.
Shore: And it may still be necessary to open that door to have that stance. And so there’s a kind of respect for the world, and as you described it just now, a morphing of our mental model.
Rail: The model gets bent.
Shore: Right. When the picture is transparent, the model can be conscious but is completely malleable. There’s this idea in photography that stems back to Edward Weston, the idea of pre-visioning, and Ansel Adams wrote a lot about it. But sometimes it makes it sound like it’s a dead process, like it’s lifeless. You have this image of a picture in your mind and that’s it.
Rail: Like a platonic model: an a priori assumption.
Shore: But, see, I don’t think it is, or at least it doesn’t have to be. What I’m suggesting—and this really goes back to how I understand Edward Weston—is that what he’s saying is simply being conscious of the mental image that you have as you’re working, and that that image is responsive to changes in the environment or what you encounter. If it isn’t, then it becomes constrained. The 8×10 camera is unique among all cameras in that the photographer never sees the whole image. With a 4×5, or any smaller camera, the camera is on a tripod and you go under a dark cloth and your arms are long enough to hold that dark cloth out and take in the whole frame. So that when I make a small adjustment, I see the effect of that adjustment throughout the whole image. But the 8×10 is too big to even take it in with your peripheral vision.
Rail: So your field of vision is kind of circumscribed a little bit so that you’re not seeing the whole frame
Shore: Correct, and so if I raise the lens to look at the space the way I want it here, I literally can’t see at that instant simultaneously what’s happening here on the ground glass. And so it makes me have a conscious mental model of the picture or else I wouldn’t be able to organize the space.
Rail: So you have a formal model that is kind of necessary in a pragmatic way?
Shore: Exactly. And I’m not sure that 8×10 photographers are always aware that they’re doing this, but thinking retrospectively on the 8×10 tradition, it’s not surprising that Weston, an 8×10 photographer, would get this idea of pre-visualization, because essentially it’s what you have to do for the apparatus. I see three possibilities or outcomes of this fact. One is that you made a decision that looks right there but you’re not aware of how that decision looks elsewhere, and that you may make another framing decision elsewhere and not be aware of what it does, and so it can be three different decisions bouncing in the same picture space.
Rail: And so you lose the feeling of composing the gestalt?
Shore: Right. So then let’s say you become aware of that, you think, ok I don’t want this, I want to have coherence in the picture. I can gain coherence by imposing a rigid structure to it: Stylization. So this is a structure imposed from the outside of the scene, onto the scene, to hold the picture together. And then there’s another outcome or possibility, which is that the photographer relies on a kind of coherence or unity in themselves and trusts their mental model to hold their picture together, and that’s the transparent picture.
Rail: Getting back to your MoMA retrospective, I found the re-staging of your 1971 exhibition All the Meat You Can Eat to constitute a visual glossary of photographic genres (and gestures) that you would eventually subsume into a synthetic style of your own. Here were: found photographs as abject as police documents of crime scenes, amateur pornography, and sensationalist tabloid imagery as well as very banal stock photos of American military aircraft flying in formation over national monuments like the Hoover Dam. The exhibition acts almost as a glossary of formal tropes and gestures that you would employ in different ensembles throughout your career. These map almost exactly onto Beaumont Newhall’s categorical definition of recent trends in photography2, which encompassed the document, the straight photograph, the formalist photograph, and the equivalent. This last category is a reference to a coinage of Stieglitz, of course. How do you think that you have combined these discreet categories in varying ratios throughout your career? And where does the emphasis lie in any one of these approaches in any of your stylistic shifts in relation to your concept of the photographer’s attention?
Shore: Ok. First, a digression. At the opening of the show at MoMA, someone came up to me and asked how I took those pictures of jets, which I took to mean they walked through the room and thought I took all those pictures. That I took the pornography, and the mass grave at Belsen, and the jets and the studio portrait of Abbott and Costello—they thought I took all the pictures! [Laughter]
Rail: [Laughter] That’s kind of wonderful!
Shore: What could this person be thinking? [Laughs] 19th century tourist pictures, I took the glass plates! I took the Muybridge picture of the general Sherman tree! We talked earlier about Walker Evans, and I think he’s the example for me to answer the Beaumont Newhall question. Especially when Evans himself talks about the transcendent document, and the way I understand what Newhall is saying is that there are some pictures, documents, that point to something in the world to say, “This is interesting, this is worthy of your attention.” Then there’s the straight photograph, which is saying, “Here is a work of art I’ve created, and this image is worthy of your attention.” Then there are some photographs that experiment with the formal nature of photography and the structural qualities of the image. So far, Evans has checked all these three boxes. And then some photographs are equivalents, and this is what Evans means when he says “transcendent document.” So to me a good Evans picture encompasses what Newhall is presenting as four distinct categories. They are not necessarily distinct, and if a picture is only a document and nothing else, in my mind it’s an illustration. And the combination of these categories in a good Evans adds something else that you allude to which he called “documentary style,” which is an almost post-modern understanding of style as a signifier.
Rail: It was fascinating to me in All the Meat You Can Eat that it did all that in a kind of analogical way. Like, here’s Stephen Shore’s brain [laughs]. Here’s the original laboratory where the basic elements from which your entire career are distilled, which has also been involved with breaking down Beaumont Newhall’s categorical distinctions.
Shore: [laughs] Well right, it was something I was kind of aware of when I first read Beaumont Newhall. I felt immediately that these were not separate categories.
Rail: And maybe that’s something that Jenkins was referring to in The New Topographics, the idea of anonymity. Maybe the anonymity for him was not so much literal but about breaking down categorical distinctions? Breaking down the distinctions between these styles that we might be familiar with so it feels anonymous but it’s actually not. And this may be a perfect segue for speaking about your daily Instagram postings. How many photographs do you post in general a day?
Shore: One a day. Occasionally I’ll miss a day, but my life is actually fairly boring. I live in upstate New York, and I teach, and I keep house and garden and walk my dogs. A lot of my pictures are taken while I’m walking my dogs. But one day is often not very different from the next! So sometimes there isn’t something interesting to post. But almost every day I post a picture.I’ve been thinking a lot about Instagram lately, because in two weeks I begin teaching a class on Instagram at Bard. I have a number of thoughts. One is that I’ve found at various times certain processes or certain cameras lend themselves to a kind of notational imagery. I found it with—and I think this is one of the things I was after in presenting my shots as snapshots—with the Mick-A-Matics and American Surfaces—and in the presentation emphasized them as snapshots. This is what was attractive in the mid ’70s for many people in the SX-70 camera. There were pictures you could take with the SX-70 that you couldn’t take with any other camera.
Rail: The immediacy of the Polaroid.
Shore: Right. And Evans, who had been very dismissive of color, ended up using an SX-70.
Rail: Right, I love those pictures. They’re amazing.
Shore: And he could find just a marking on the ground, an arrow on the pavement, and make a picture. If he made that with his 8×10 it just wouldn’t be enough for a picture. Which doesn’t mean that the notational picture wasn’t profound in its way. I think there may be an analogy to poetry. There’s a hashtag on twitter #haiku, and there are on average fifty to one hundred #haikus posted in an hour. Some are very derivative and try to sound Eastern, some are not very interesting at all, but some, every hour, are in fact wonderful. There are people all over the world thinking, “Okay I have 140 characters—in fact I can usually get away with a half or a third of that—and we’re going to stick within this form and post to a community of people who are going to enjoy what they’re doing.” Someone writing #haiku knows that they’re not writing Leaves of Grass or The Waste Land. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t profundity to a good #haiku. It just can’t have the complexity of Leaves of Grass because of the length. And I think there’s an analogy with photography. There’s a kind of photograph that is notation that works well with an SX-70, that wouldn’t work as an 8×10.
Rail: Elsewhere you have used the term “stand-alone photograph.” Do you make a distinction between the slipstream of the Instagram feed and the “stand-alone”?
Shore: I’m not sure it’s the stand-alone quality, and I’m not sure what it is about—let’s say about the SX-70—that allows for this. The SX-70 can stand alone. But it still encourages this notational quality.
Rail: And it encourages a kind of play, that it could be taken not seriously but then allows for a kind of transparency.
Shore: It allows for a visual one-liner. Just as a haiku often is based on a single friction, I think there’s something for me that is attractive in that, and I went away from it when I spent thirty years working with an 8×10. But what attracted me to, for instance, the print-on-demand books is that they indicated that. The picture that’s “stand-alone” was not the work, in this case it’s the book.
Rail: The Apple “print-on-demand” books hanging in the MoMA retrospective?
Shore: Yes. And there were two things in particular that attracted me to them. One was that it allowed for this kind of notational picture. Although you can do a complex picture if you want. At the same time, I have been teaching for a long time, and my goal as a teacher has been to lead students to find their voice. And a lot of times that means in a class I’m never trying to impose my thinking on them, but get into their skin to understand their thinking. After years of doing this I found more possibilities in the world, after exercising that faculty to think like these ten different people. The books allowed me to put these ideas into play that I want to spend a day doing but I wouldn’t want to spend a year doing.
Rail: Do you think that the advent of the display screen on the back of most point-and-shoot digital cameras has lent amateur photography a greater sensitivity to framing and formal composition as opposed to looking through the relatively small opening of a viewfinder? Does this potential for the greater democratization of formal means, arrangement of the image, tend to disempower the idea of the picturesque masterpiece and therefore change the aesthetic expectations of contemporary audiences towards the discreet, unique photographic voice? If so, is this visual commons a good or a bad thing in your opinion?
Shore: I find it fascinating that people are looking at screens. It’s not like looking at an 8×10 because you do see the whole frame, but it is like using a view camera because it’s not an extension of your eye, you’re not looking through the camera. And when I see people using their iPhones and iPads to take pictures, it really struck me how they would hold it up, and the original iPad screen is almost as large as an 8×10 ground glass. And I think people were having this experience of the camera as a tool rather than as an extension of the eye, and—like you’re saying—seeing the picture plane represented on the glass and seeing the frame. I’m not sure it always leads to a structural awareness, because I’ve seen lots of pictures posted that to my mind don’t show much structural awareness at all. But there’s something else, which is a kind of photographic self-consciousness. I look at Instagram and see pictures—I see this picture [sound of iPhone camera shutter]. This would be considered a mistake ten years ago.
Rail: Right like that you just took of a piece of cake in your hand, or a picture of your feet kind of taken accidentally.
Shore: [snaps again] Or if I go to photograph this, but my finger happens to be here [snaps again].
Rail: You’re simply photographing that electrical outlet together with your feet, yet with your finger in the way. So it becomes more complex?
Shore: It communicates a self-awareness that this is not the photograph as a representation of that object, but a photograph as representation of my vision, my seeing that object.
Rail: Michael Fried actually said something about the “to-be-seen.” He was speaking in honor of John Szarkowski on the occasion of a College Art Association award ceremony. He deployed air-quotes, theatrically demonstrating what he meant by, “to be seen-ness,” which I supposed was an art historical segue to his “presentness is grace”4. His notion of the “to-be-seen” seems somewhat similar to what you’re implying: that there’s this newer kind of consciousness, one which you could equate with a kind of post-modern over-self-conscious. Is that what you’re saying? Or do you think it’s simply a higher coefficient of amateur awareness?
Shore: I think it’s a step toward a different kind of awareness, because I’m not talking about photographers doing it, I’m talking about average snap-shooters. I’ll go through a lot of the feeds—sometimes I’m up in the middle of the night and I just start wandering. There’s the housewife from Ohio and she’s taking these pictures that to my mind show a different kind of self-awareness than a snapshot of twenty years ago. How that’s assimilated by an artist is a different story, but I see it as a step in a visual evolution. The picture is not identified solely with the subject.
Rail: I’d like to talk a little more about your recent show at 303 Gallery in which you exhibited nine large-scale prints focusing on abject subjects as a discarded Dunkin Donuts bag and cigarette butts corralled on a rainy New York street. These were all taken with a handheld Hasselblad X1-D, which has the capacity to capture detail that a traditional view camera might miss. In your career you’ve gone from handheld cameras like the Rollei 35 used as the primary tool for the American Surfaces series, which adopted the look of the amateur snapshot to the larger 8×10 view camera that requires a tripod and became the primary means for your subsequent Uncommon Spaces series—does the X1-D combine the handheld spontaneity with the focal depth of the view camera for you?
Shore: Yes. Simple answer. I’d done that first with a high-end Nikon digital camera, which is what I used for, say, the Ukraine pictures. I felt at the time that this was the camera in a way I’d been looking for when I finished with American Surfaces, because I wanted higher resolution with spontaneity, and this produced it. But I’ve always been interested in the aesthetic door that’s opened by a new technology. So, going from the Rollei 35 to the view camera, even though it was the oldest photographic technology, was new for me and could do things that Rollei simply couldn’t do. I wanted to explore that new territory. Then less than a year ago the Hasselblad came out, and what I found were a number of things I like about it; first that it’s just beautiful. It’s a beautiful piece of machinery that feels great in the hand. It is a touchscreen camera and is operated like the phone in many ways. For me it feels like the first 21st century camera. My wonderful high-end digital Nikon SLR now seems like an analog body with digital technology in it, with lots of buttons and dials, where this is so simple. And I feel like these pictures here are very similar in many ways to my work on Instagram. So I can take these pictures of just anything on the street, but the resolution on the camera really exceeds an 8×10 view camera. And so I wanted to play with what that could do, and what happens when things are blown up much larger than they are in real life, and what does that opening up of detail and texture look like in the picture.
Rail: One of the things I noticed in your retrospective at MoMA that’s related to your 303 pictures was that in later landscapes of the Scottish, Texan, and even the Israeli countryside, there’s a tendency to privilege the ground over the figure or to distribute the focal depth in a way that creates a spreading effect that mimics, say, the high visual acuity of a hawk—an awareness of slight variations in the field of vision. There’s a similar thing going on in the 303 pictures where the grounds are pushed up against the picture plane, equalizing somewhat the hierarchy of focal depth, by spreading its influence laterally in granular detail. Would it be accurate to say that this is the next formal shift in your aesthetic, toward what would be considered a more abstract space in terms of its graphic spread?
Shore: I don’t know what comes next. But I think this newer work is a shift. I learned a lot from Instagram and playing with the square, taking simple things and in an almost musical way playing within the space of the square, then thinking how I could do this, how to play in the same way, but knowing that the picture’s going to be much larger. And as I’m taking the picture I know what my intended result will be. I’m not just blowing up a picture I happen to take. So it’s this funny combination of a kind of playfulness within the rectangle and what the change in scale does. About a year ago as the MoMA show was approaching, I started getting this sinking feeling. I knew this was going to be quite a large show—here is my life at MoMA—and I didn’t want it to be a post-mortem. As I started getting this feeling I thought, okay, if a student came to me and said, “what advice would you give?” My advice would be to start a new body of work. And at that same time, I came upon this camera that, as I described a few minutes ago, opened a technological door, which opened a new aesthetic door, allowing me to take a picture that I literally couldn’t have made a year ago. I’m not interested in the newness of that. I’m interested in what I can do as an artist with that. So these two things came together as new possibilities, and a realization that I’d better get on it, to have something else cooking before the MoMA show even opens.
Rail: That makes total sense. As an artist I understand that.
Shore: Yes, when I said, “I had this sinking feeling,” I saw you smile [laughs].
- Brian O’ Doherty, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth, Universe Publishing ,NY 1988. (first published in 1975)
- Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present, published by The Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1982 (original edition published 1937)
- For these photographs, Shore used a then- commercially available “Mick –A-Matic” camera, which is shaped like Mikey Mouse’s face.
- Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998 and Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Yale University Press 2008.