Stephen Shore: From Galilee to the Negev

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Phaidon Press (here). Hardcover (11 3/8 x 9 7/8 inches), 216 pages, with 35 black and white and 264 color photographic reproductions. Includes essays by Yossi Klein Halevi, Jane Kramer, Jodi Magness, Yotam Ottolenghi, Ali Qleibo, Steve Sabella, and Eyal Weizman. $100. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Before thinking of Israel as a nation-state, a Middle East flash point, the Zionist homeland, the Palestinian occupier, or a cynosure for Biblical pilgrimages, Stephen Shore wants us to see the country as a landscape—as a hard place, both to inhabit and to photograph.

Wherever his camera looks, stones litter the ground, many of them ancient, some sacred, none exhibiting the sublimity of America’s mountains and deserts. The places where people live are hard, too: apartments constructed mainly in gray concrete, stacked, cramped, lacking privacy or generous vistas. Looking at his pictures, one is asked to wonder why anyone would make a home in such a barren patch of earth, much less spill blood to conquer or defend it from others for millennia.

As Shore and Israel are famous for being tough-minded Realists, they are a good match. He is not one to emphasize the picturesque in any country, so he was not about to portray the coastal areas as a Jewish version of the Greek islands, as some have tried to do. Nor is he the type to perpetuate self-congratulatory nationalist myths. Indeed, the edit goes out of its way to exclude anything that might be construed as a “Miracle in the Desert” cliché. Images of leafy woods or fresh water are noticably missing from these pages.

The result of five trips to Israel over seventeen years (1994, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011), the book makes no attempt to present a chronology of changes Shore might have observed over those successive visits. As a photographer and a thinker, he is in pursuit of la longue durée. Only a few examples—a close-up of a rusty bullet clip on the ground; a street scene with a sauntering soldier viewed from the back; a mural of Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas and a cause of the Gaza invasion in 2008—allude to the nation’s perpetual readiness for war.

The book is divided into nine regions or cities, with chapters on Ashqelon, Galilee, Tal Hazor, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Jerusalem (given the most extensive treatment here), Ramallah, Hebron, and the Negev. Anything explicitly having to do with antiquity (the first and last chapters depict excavated sites) is in black-and-white; contemporary life is rendered in color.

Shore doesn’t feign being a native in any of these locales. His outlook is confined mainly to exteriors. To avoid tedious repetition, he must be inventive. White limestone outcroppings on a hill south of Zelat (2008) are depicted as if they were tufts of cloud. Two views of the forbidding desert landscape around Nabi Musa (2010) appear on facing pages: the one on the right looks like an Yves Tanguy, extra-terrestrial, devoid of life (it isn’t: the stones on closer look seems to be grave markers); while the landscape on the left is crowded with dozing sheep and one curious donkey. Shore’s unspoken message seems to be: I don’t know how anything survives here, yet life has gone on for centuries.

When venturing indoors, he arranges the results in a grid, along the equalizing lines of American Surfaces (1972-73.) In a sequence called “Gila’s Things” (2009), he documents the humble contents of her Tel Aviv apartment: shells on a tray; pine cones in a bowl; a Byzantine icon on the wall; a can of Pringles next to a pair of TV remotes; a Blackberry; board games piled on a shelf; books; an umbrella stand. The belongings of the “Hebron Sports Club” (2008)—plaques, a hookah, artificial flowers, a portrait of Arafat—are likewise small-time and mundane.

Shore employs this same technique even when he goes into archaeological sites: if he photographs in a space that centuries ago was an interior, however ruined and open to the sky it may be now, he arranges prints on the page like bricks in a wall.

There isn’t a lot of shade in these photographs. The sun is a constant.  I kept flipping through the pages in search of a rest area, an oasis. But Shore seldom gives the eye or body a place to relax. In 300 or so images, I counted only six chairs; none of them looked comfortable. The only person sitting down in the entire book, a woman in a bathing suit, does so on a pitted rock in Elat.

Urban and town architecture has long been a specialty of Shore. The lines of Israeli apartment complexes in Haifa or Nazareth are more jagged and discordant than ones in  Euston, Pennsylvania or Charleston, South Carolina. But by now, wherever he goes, he could probably be blindfolded and make a taut picture out of a road, cars, dwellings, windows, rooftops, and sky, with or without signage. Walker Evans’s American Photographs was the first book to intrigue him as a teenage boy, and he continues to draw from its ascetic aesthetic. Whether photographing in the grassy hills of Montana or the scrub of the Big Bend in Texas in the 1980s, he enjoys the challenge of framing a scene out of only a few unpromising elements—a scene that yields meaning only after a second or third look and in context with a series.

In contrast with Josef Koudelka’s The Wall, Shore’s book features human beings and not just indirect evidence of them. His portraits of  Orthodox Jews and the more secular young in Jerusalem acknowledge differences while the similar  framing around each suggests they walk on common ground.

Shore’s perspective on Israel, while less obviously formalist than Koudelka’s, is just as reliant on metaphor as an organizing point. The Czech-French photographer used the wall and its knife-like slicing up of the landscape as a reflection of what he believes the snaking structure is doing socially to the country and, by extension, to any chance for peace with the displaced Palestinians. The American lets patches of dry vegetation and concrete homes clinging to rocky hillsides serve as his symbols for the tenacity of a people.

One can sense Shore’s respect for the Israelis. That they have thrived in a desert climate among hostile neighbors is worthy of anyone’s admiration. Not that politics, religion, history, economic might, or military strategy are what interest Shore (or Koudelka). Those are abstract subjects beyond the power of a lens to describe with any accuracy.

Shore has accumulated over 50 years an almost unrivaled knowledge of what a photograph of a landscape says about those who live or work there. It’s that wisdom, along with his awareness of the camera’s limitations—not to mention his reluctance to generalize and see his own culture reflected in theirs, a temptation that often befalls foreigners when they invade the Middle East—that makes this book of hot, dusty pictures so thirst-quenching.

Collector’s POV: Stephen Shore is represented in New York by 303 Gallery (here). His color work (vintage and later prints) is consistently available at auction, generally ranging in price between $1000 and $35000.

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