JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the back project room. All of the works are dye sublimation prints on aluminum, made between 2016 and 2020 and printed in 2020. Each is sized 6×6 inches and unique. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Back in the early 1970s, Stephen Shore made a series of now-famous color photographs of a road trip he took across America. Gathered together under the title American Surfaces, they documented the seemingly mundane details of his roaming life, from motel rooms and diner meals to storefronts and parked cars, in a manner that felt like ordinary snapshots. At the time, his attention to these details felt radical and unexpected, as these were neither the typical subjects nor the typical aesthetics of art photography.
In the many years since, the world has been catching up with Shore’s visual insights, and now every amateur with a smartphone is documenting the surfaces of his or her own everyday life and sharing them on the Internet, particularly on Instagram. What was once an innovative and original trickle is now a torrential flood of pictures, the found oddities and attentive observations of countless photographers piling up, day after day after day.
But the deeply ingrained habits of photographic seeing, or better yet photographic living, don’t just evaporate over time. And so Shore, in recent years, has adapted to the changing dynamics of the contemporary photographic world and started to post his own discoveries on Instagram just like everyone else.
One challenge that many photographers now face is how to monetize this ongoing stream of imagery. Sell prints directly off Instagram? Direct viewers back to personal websites? In Shore’s case, he’s got the power of a major gallery behind him, resulting in a small project room show of an edited selection of his recent Instagram images. The square format prints are relatively small and framed in unassuming minimal white frames, replicating the Instagram aesthetic as closely as possible in physical form. The show is an opportunity to take stock of Shore’s eye, and to assess how it stands up to the onslaught of imagery now being made in this mode – after all, it’s not the smartphone camera or the delivery app that matters, it’s the artistic vision that leverages those available tools.
Several of Shore’s strongest photographs here employ a sense of echo or refrain, where the composition is essentially constructed using repetition of form or color as an organizing theme, often with a wry tinge of cleverness. The undulations of a cowboy hat (seen from behind and above) echo the mountains in the background. Three cowboys standing against a metal fence offer three versions of standing, the amount of bent leg increasing from left to right. Pops of red animate an image of a man walking past a museum billboard. And a landscape seen from a deck with two chairs becomes a symphony of light brown tones and stacked layers.
A second group of photographs uses the mechanism of seeing through as an organizing principle, the flattening eye of the camera forcing front and back into angled or veiled interaction. Most of these have an animal subject in one way or another: a white horse seen through a stand of trees, a swan blow up pool floatie seen through a window, a bunch of fluffy dogs perched on a windowsill with pedestrians passing in the background, and a particularly spooky cat seen behind a row of candles at night. Probably the most conceptually nested image in the show shows a hand holding up a bunch of pushpins, with Shore’s own photograph of the Merced River in Yosemite in the background – he’s smartly interrupting himself, and playing with the physical duality of the print (and the print of the print).
Most of the other photographs on view offer a tightly cropped view of an isolated object, and these images, while quietly surreal in their own way, can less obviously be identified as being made by Shore. Gnarled new growth on a potato, yellow stars scattered on a rock, a bright green frog toy in the blue water of a pool, and the distorted swirls of ironwork shadows all pass the test of being momentarily surprising, but are less than entirely unique in their conception – they’re attentive, but we might find variations of these shots in any number of photobooks filled with overlooked but well-seen visual eccentricities.
What these photographs tell us is that Shore hasn’t slowed down and is continuing to make himself part of the contemporary photography conversation. As a group, these pictures don’t add up to an important statement or a memorable body of work, but instead, they reassert Shore’s ongoing presence in the discussion. Few photographers of his age and stature have waded into the sprawling multiplicity of Instagram with much success, but the best of these photographs can certainly hold their own and begin to separate themselves aesthetically from the turbulent mass. Instagram plays a game that Shore arguably invented, so it’s no wonder he’s willing to jump into the sandbox with confidence. Selecting, editing, and sequencing these individual Instagram points into a coherent whole that tells us something about our current moment offers the next hurdle. Let’s hope that’s where this leads.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $5000 each. Shore’s work (both vintage and later prints) is routinely available at auction, generally ranging in price between roughly $1000 and $45000.