Stephen Shore, Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover with tipped in image, 31×32 cm, 192 pages, with 136 color reproductions (with a few duplicates). Includes an essay by Britt Salvesen. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The newest photobook in the growing library documenting Stephen Shore’s long career in photography is essentially a gap filler. It gathers together a selection of 35mm color works made during the 1970s that have been largely overlooked by curators and scholars digging into the progression of Shore’s artistic arc. The reason for this omission is that the images were taken in parallel with a series of projects that were better defined and ultimately more important, leaving these pictures on the equivalent of the cutting room floor, that is until now.

Shore was artistically busy during the 1970s, so the span of time in Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 actually traverses multiple discrete projects, making the aggregation of the images into one book somewhat misleading. The first 10 images in the photobook come from 1971, the same year that Shore was working on his postcard series Greetings from Amarillo. In that project, Shore was exploring the aesthetics of bland post card views of American cities and towns, the kind that look straight down the street or feature mundane municipal buildings. The images here reflect that interest, only with a looser, more improvisational “snapshot” eye. The most structured of the compositions use the width of the frame to capture the flatness of Tom’s Diner and Ansley Cleaners, encouraging them to stretch horizontally. Others use the perspective lines of the road or the skew of the parking lot to arrange moving cars and the lettering of vernacular signage (Allen Carpet, Deli Land, Shoe Town), playing with angles and tilts.

In the next two years (1972-1973), Shore would go on to further explore the aesthetics of the vernacular, continuing to use a 35mm camera on a road trip across America, which would ultimately take artistic form as American Surfaces. These images were radical in their casualness, with previously overlooked subjects like diner meals, motel rooms, shop windows, painted murals, signage, and other everyday discoveries (largely indoor) given flash-lit attention. Shore then displayed the photographs not as fancy fine art objects but as 3×5 drugstore prints affixed directly to the wall in a huge grid (like an album) at Light Gallery. While this project was prominently featured in Shore’s 2017 MoMA retrospective (reviewed here), Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 jumps over this intense art-making period, before picking back up again in 1974.

After American Surfaces, Shore made an artistic transition, bringing larger format cameras (4×5, and then 8×10) into his toolbox. While his subject matter interests continued to be the rhythms of everyday America, those larger cameras inherently forced a change in the way he was seeing – the aspect ratio was different, the depth of field was larger, and setting them up on a tripod prevented more improvisational shots of people, flash-lit interiors, and found arrangements. He wanted to explore adding more detail and more layers of visual information into his picture making, and the result was a set of photographs that were slower, more formal and tonally neutral, and more often than not made outdoors. They were later gathered into Uncommon Places, and have become another touchstone of Shore’s career.

What isn’t widely known is that Shore continued to make photographs with his 35mm cameras in parallel with his movement to large format, and in large part, Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 reveals that overlooked backstory. And so we can see these images in a variety of ways: as an informal continuation of American Surfaces, as outtakes during Uncommon Places, as applying the right tools to the appropriate subject matter (i.e. generally shooting in large format, but bringing out the small format camera when the conditions required it), or as an ongoing back and forth study between different visual frameworks. Given that they didn’t coalesce into a discrete body of work, they were probably, at times, all of these things.

Working with a large format camera undeniably sharpened up Shore’s framing, and it follows that as he became more deliberate in his compositional choices, he likely became more aware of scenes and subjects that would naturally fit better in the wider space of 35mm. Many of the images in this photobook fit with that logic, in that they feel overtly controlled horizontally (or vertically if the camera was turned on its side.) A child’s playhouse with a bush of black eyed Susans, a white picket fence with roses, a gathering of parked cars along a chain link fence, a pair of pink doughnut trucks, an arrangement of flat highway overpasses over parked boats, and a hanging awning that cuts the passersby in half all function effectively because of their arrangement in the wider frame. The same can be said for most of Shore’s images taken out of the front window of his car, or that use the elongated front hood of parked vehicles as foreground contrast. And turned sideways, the small camera allowed Shore to highlight the length of tall evergreen trees flanking a house with a red door and to match his own shot to the vertical space inside a phone booth.

This photobook also contains plenty of small camera-only images that would not have looked out of place in the flow of American Surfaces, so it’s clear that Shore continued to be drawn to these kinds of subjects throughout the 1970s, whatever the prevailing art historical narrative tells us. Some of the images are details seen looking downward, often with an eye for color or found angles: a cowboy boot at a diner, a pair of leather shoes on a grubby yellow mat, a splash of yellow fur on a car dashboard, a pair of brown rubber boots, and wedding decorations on the hood of a red car. Others go inside and use flash to capture quirky interior details: a portrait of Jesus flanked by TRUTH in capital letters, a pair of Hawaiian women on a painted mural paired with a golden lion, a portrait of Mrs. Mary Noble offset by grey ductwork, and upward angled images of a TV atop a bureau and a formal portrait of a society woman. And of course, the large format camera would be of no use in documenting people in motion, so the small camera gave Shore the ability to catch a man with a movie camera, kids in tennis whites, an older woman in a flowered dress getting help boarding a train, and various other snippets of passing fashion, from a pink skirt and a purple dress at the train station to a women’s golf attire and a man’s oddball tie with an image of a tie. Even though we may not have seen these particular images by Shore before, they stand up well to others we already know of similar subject matter, thereby reinforcing the consistent clarity of his photographic eye.

The design of Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 is large and hefty, providing ample space for high quality reproductions. A short interlude of smaller edge to edge images gets the photobook started, alluding to the scale and arrangement of American Surfaces as a kind of lead in series. The images are then organized chronologically, allowing us to see the passing of time across the decade. Overall, it’s an impressive publication for a secondary body of work, its scale likely making it happier on a coffee table than on a bookshelf.

In many ways, this volume is aimed at the hardcore Stephen Shore fan, in the same way that the boxed sets of b-sides and rarities appeal to those who want to hear absolutely everything recorded by their favorite bands. And for that audience, there are plenty of overlooked and underknown treasures to be found and appreciated here. But for those just getting to know Shore and his photographic vision, this isn’t the place to start, as it isn’t edited tightly enough and doesn’t coalesce into clarity the way American Surfaces and Uncommon Places do. Slot this one in as a member of the valued supporting cast, rather than one of the lead actors.

Collector’s POV: Stephen Shore is represented by 303 Gallery in New York (here). Shore’s work (both vintage and later prints) is routinely available at auction, generally ranging in price between roughly $1000 and $45000.

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