Stephen Shore @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 590 photographs, in black-and-white and color, exhibited on the third floor of the museum. Divided into 12 sections, the presentation is roughly chronological, from 1961 to the present. 258 of the prints are vintage, 332 are not. The photographic works made by others date from around 1885–1990. (Installation views below.)

The photographic breakdown of the exhibition is as follows:

  • 373 chromogenic color photographs
  • 206 gelatin silver prints
  • 5 inkjet prints (printed 2017)
  • 3 silver dye bleach and gelatin silver transparencies with colored gels
  • 1 albumen silver print
  • 1 platinum print
  • 1 gelatin silver printing-out-paper print
  • 10 offset lithographs

In addition to photographs, the exhibition also includes:

  • 1 16mm film (black and white, silent), transferred to video
  • 1 artist’s poster
  • 6 USAF posters
  • 123 pieces of anonymous printed or photographic material
  • 3 photocopies
  • 1 vitrine containing a 1973 road trip journal and additional ephemera
  • 1 vitrine containing books and periodicals
  • 20 print-on-demand books
  • 1 Instagram account
  • 1 digital slideshow
  • 1 timeline incorporating 22 pieces of ephemera, including photographs, invitations, posters, magazine and newspaper articles, books, cameras, and artist’s multiples
  • 3 stereo slide viewers, each containing 10 stereo slides

A companion catalog is published by the Museum of Modern Art (here, 336 pages, 450 color illustrations, roughly 11×9 inches.) Essay by Quentin Bajac with texts by Bajac, David Campany, Kristen Gaylord, and Martino Stierli. $75 hardcover.

Comments/Context: By the time he made his breakthrough color work of the 1970s, Stephen Shore had already had an impressive career. At age six, he received a darkroom setup from a relative and began developing negatives of pictures his parents took. At nine, he acquired a camera of his own, and at fourteen—influenced by his study of the work of Walker Evans and other pioneering documentary photographers—Shore was taking pictures on the streets of New York that were so accomplished the Museum of Modern Art bought three of them.

Before he was out of his teens, having by then dropped out of high school, Shore was frequenting Andy Warhol’s Factory. Between 1965 and 1967 he took candid photographs of the artist and his entourage, noting along the way Warhol’s fascination with the banal: “the comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles …,” as Warhol put it, “… all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.”

Selections from these two bodies of work—along with an early experimental film featuring jumpy images of an old-fashioned elevator—open this generous, hiccups-and-all survey curated by MoMA’s curator of photography Quentin Bajac. His pairing of Shore’s precisely composed pictures of gas stations, newsstands, and glass office towers with his fly-on-the-wall shots of the Factory’s denizens is an apt introduction to a photographer both indebted to past masters such as Evans, Eugène Atget, and Carleton Watkins, and alert to the advanced art of his time.

By the end of the 1960s, the black-and-white work of photographers such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank was beginning to be acknowledged as art. (Color was still considered the province of commercial and amateur photographers.) At the same time, photography was turning up in the silkscreen paintings of Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, in the documentation of performances by Vito Acconci and Carolee Schneeman, and in conceptual projects by, among others, Ed Ruscha, whose books of photographs of gas stations, parking lots, and buildings were an influence on Shore’s next endeavor—his serial works of 1969 and 1970. On view here are a number of these pieces, including a gang of 16 bleached-out pictures of every intersection on Sixth Avenue from Forty-Second Street to Central Park, and a sequence of photographs of Shore’s friend Michael Marsh taken every half hour for an entire day.

Shore’s black-and-white work won him a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971. But Shore had already moved on. That November, he presented an installation of largely found pictures at an alternative space in SoHo run by Holly Solomon and her husband. Titled All the Meat You Can Eat and shown here in its original arrangement, it was a compendium of different kinds of vernacular photography, including USAF posters of fighter jets, crime scene documentation, pornographic playing cards, publicity photos of film stars, formal portraits of men in suits, and postcards of puppies and hospitals, as well as color images of friends taken by Shore with a Mick-a-matic, a kid’s camera in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head.

In early 1972, Shore brought the aesthetics of non-art photography into his own work. Armed with a 35mm camera equipped with a flash and a stock of color film, he set off on a road trip across America, photographing as he went and mailing the exposed film back to Kodak to be developed. The result was American Surfaces (1972–73), a collection of uninflected, flash-lit photographs of diner breakfasts, motel room artwork, rest stop bathrooms, small-town streets, shop windows, lobby furniture, and strangers and fellow travelers (including photographer William Eggleston and curator and art historian Henry Geldzahler). Comprising more than 200 pictures, the installation is displayed here as it was at Light Gallery in 1973, in a grid of three-by-five-inch prints three rows high, wrapped around three walls of the gallery.

In American Surfaces, presentation is a recurring theme. Shore turns his camera on a club sandwich on a plate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a salesclerk standing before a cigarette display in Meridian, Mississippi. Representation is another, in images of amateur paintings from Durango, Colorado, to Palm Beach, Florida and a cardboard television, its screen filled edge-to-edge with a photograph of food, in a window in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Although few saw it at the time, American Surfaces is now considered a radically innovative work, and rightfully so, incorporating into fine art photography Pop’s aesthetic, Minimalism’s de-skilling, and Conceptualism’s seriality. At the same time, despite their apparent casualness, these are great photographs: each is a small miracle of composition and found color, while taken together they conjure an exhausted white-bread America, then grappling with an unpopular war, and an economic recession.

In 1973, Shore traded his 35mm for a viewfinder camera and embarked on a ten-year photographic project that would become the book Uncommon Places. More imposing than his earlier pictures (even when portraying such modest subjects as a box of live lobsters or a shop window), the images in this series have greater depth of field, meaning that the objects closest to the camera and those farthest away are equally in focus. This produces strangely flattened views, in spite of a leitmotif of roads, paths, and highways. (If Eggleston is the virtuoso of objects in space, Shore is the master of the painterly composition.) In Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue (1975), for instance, a thoroughfare studded with light poles runs toward the Hollywood Hills in the distance; yet the road never quite recedes, instead remaining locked into the picture’s complex geometries.

The chilly neutrality of Uncommon Places put Shore squarely at the center of the New Topographics movement while, along with the work of Eggleston and a handful of others, it helped established the legitimacy of color in fine art photography. Widely exhibited at the time, it was also an acknowledged influence on younger photographers. Merced River (1979), for example, a panoramic view of a riverbank with a scattering of bathers, has a clear relationship to the images of Düsseldorf photographers such as Andreas Gursky, who encountered Shore’s work while in school.

One of the joys of this exhibition, which is sometimes more than the sum of its parts, is how it unifies the disparate aspects of Shore’s life and work into an absorbing whole. One gallery is devoted to Shore’s pedagogical activities—he has headed Bard’s department of photography since 1982—complete with examples by a host of 20th-century photographers and readings from his 1998 book, The Nature of Photographs. Another room is given over to Shore’s commercial assignments for a variety of magazines, depicting decaying steel towns, vernacular architecture, and baseball players. It also, delightfully, provides a viewing setup for a 1974 series of stereoscopic images not seen since a show at Light Gallery in 1975.

The show takes up the thread once more with large-format landscapes (taken in Scotland, Montana, Texas, Mexico, and New York’s Hudson Valley) that occupied Shore for much of the 1980s. For the most part, they are not terribly engaging. Equally bland are Shore’s depopulated pictures of Israel, taken between 2009 and 2011. In them, his famed detachment deepens into something like catatonia. A later series, however—taken in Ukraine in 2012 and 2013 of ageing Holocaust survivors—evinces an unusual degree of engagement with individual lives.  One portrait of an elderly woman is accompanied by images of her immaculate home, the small stock of provisions in her refrigerator, and—in one achingly tender photograph—a tidy kitchen table with a cup, plate, spoon, and knife laid out for the next solitary meal. Still lifes of a row of photographs on a shelf, a squash stored carefully on a newspaper next to an oriental carpet, and garlic drying in a cardboard box, seem metaphors for a vanishing population’s careful husbanding of both their resources and their memories.

From 2003 to 2010 Shore devoted his energies to print-on-demand books produced from digital photographs. The best of them document his daily activities, as does the Instagram feed that has occupied him since 2014; you can access it on iPads set up in one gallery. Like “American Surfaces” and “Uncommon Places,” these projects, while ostensibly autobiographical, are less about Shore’s life than about his eye. For almost 60 years he has found in ordinary objects, places, and people subjects worthy of his sustained attention, and through his understated artistry, continued to make them worthy of ours.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Stephen Shore is represented by 303 Gallery in New York (here), which will open a show of his recent work on January 11 that runs through February 17. Shore’s color work (both vintage and later prints) is routinely available at auction, generally ranging in price between roughly $1000 and $44000.

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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