Stephen Shore’s Retrospective at the MoMA is worth exploring for every photographer
A tangerine sunset casts a Texaco station in an eerie light in a middle-of-nowhere highway. Flashbulbs on a Rollei 35mm capture a grotesquely delicious image of an omelet, white toast, and a stark white glass of milk in what could be any diner in the United States. For the past five decades, Stephen Shore has captured an unflinching and unapologetic perspective of America. His work justified the mundane and changed the way the world saw photography. After his work hit the mainstream, the world suddenly saw that photographs of parking lots and the average citizen were not a waste of film, and they followed suite.
Stephen Shore was born in New York City in 1947, and began his life as a photographer very early, receiving his first Darkroom kit from an uncle at age 6. By 1958, he was given the book American Photographs by Walker Evans, and his life was forever changed. By the age of 14, Edward Steichen had purchased a handful of Shore’s prints, launching his prolific career. From 1965 – 1967, he joined Andy Warhol’s inner circle and spent the majority of his time documenting the unique group of artists. At age 24, Shore exhibited his first solo body of work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which just so happened to be the first solo exhibition of a living American photographer in history. The rest of Shore’s career was just as prolific as his beginnings, and he went on to create many masterful bodies of work.
To say Stephen Shore has had an influence on me would be an understatement. Seeing Stephen Shore’s work in one of my first photography classes encouraged me to follow my urge to carry my camera around with me wherever I went, and to take photos of what I wanted to take photos of, not what I thought I should. Studios and controlled lighting never interested me, even though I respected that craftsmanship. I always wanted to capture light, emotion, and memory. Capturing small moments of everyday life seemed like an exercise in working through my own experiences through emotional nostalgia. Much like a dream, my photographs created a scene that pulled imagery, color, and senses from my deep subconscious. I remember the first time I saw the image Horseshoe Bend Motel, Lovell, Wyoming, 1973 and feeling a rush of emotion, bringing tears to my eyes. Something about the combination of the subject matter and the mood of the image had brought a memory to the forefront of my consciousness.
An interesting part of this exhibition is the appearance of some of Shore’s earliest works, which sheds light on his influences and foundation. In 1965, when the photographer was 18 years old, he became the ‘staff photographer’ of Andy Warhol’s factory, which I believe gave him his affinity for American Pop Culture. In 1971, Shore curated a massive amount of found photography and objects in an exhibition called “All the Meat You Can Eat”, which was recreated in this retrospective. The walls were neatly lined with advertisements, postcards, snapshots, and even a few vintage dick pics. The makings of Shore’s vernacular were starting to become apparent in the soft pastel palettes of the idyllic postcards, the garish family snapshots, and the consumer advertisements. Soon after this work was first exhibited, the photographer left for a road trip in America in 1972 with nothing but a 35mm camera and a flash, to create the monumental work American Surfaces.
The exhibit is laid out in chronological order, starting from the black and white documentary work from his early teens to his current work that heavily involves digital circulation and Instagram. Each room of the exhibition space has been hung to most accurately represent the way the exhibitions were originally displayed. American Surfaces, Shore’s most pivotal work that launched him into fame as one of the first pioneering color photographers in the world, was displayed in its true form: small color prints produced from a 35mm Rollei. These photographs were taken across America during a solo road trip Shore went on in 1972, and the film was mailed to a Kodak lab along the way. The thousands of small prints were waiting for him upon his return and displayed in their original form, yet again in this exhibition.
His work will continue to influence many generations of photographers to come, just as it has influenced me. Stephen Shore has been translating his work into today’s language at a rapid rate, currently developing a growing Instagram account where he posts incredibly mundane images shot on his iPhone. Shore’s work is an inspiration to be present in your surroundings, no matter what they may be. He reminds us that light, color, and composition are everywhere, at all times, and a photographer can make meaning out of the most banal subjects. This is a language that can speak to anyone. It’s even more pertinent in our age of growing social media and mass digital production to remember to place meaning on what we take photographs of.
It’s hard to describe Shore’s most famous works as timeless since the subject matter often makes a bold statement of what time period the image was taken. Some of Shore’s work pushes an emotion so thoroughly that the subject matter falls away, making the photograph timeless. A perfect example of this is Shore’s famous photo “U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21st 1973”, taken with an 8×10” view camera as a part of the Uncommon Places work. The bright blue and cloudy sky could be any interstate in America, during any time. It displays the purest form of American idealism. What other country would have a billboard of a scenic mountain view in a place where, if you drove far enough, you could have a real mountain view in front of you? It’s a perfect example of the disconnect from reality that our current social media–drenched society has pushed even further. The billboard in this photograph becomes the screen you’re gazing into right now.
This exhibition is a true testament to Stephen Shore’s extensive and accomplished career. It proves to it’s viewers that his work is enduring, and will always speak to whoever views it uniquely, because his work speaks to the subconscious. The photographs displayed are echoes of memories and dreams, often full of emotion that can be felt strongly in each and every viewer. I highly recommend paying this exhibition a visit; it will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art through May 28th, 2018.
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