Cultural Dimensions

Cultural Dimensions

A major retrospective offers audiences an unprecedented understanding of an artist whose vision has been shaped by contemporary, accelerating worlds.

At the age of six, American photographer Stephen Shore (b. 1947) started developing his parents’ negatives. He was given a camera at nine, and by the time he was 14 he was on the phone to MoMA’s Director of the Department of Photography, Edward Steichen, proposing his work for the collection. Steichen bought three images. However, it didn’t end there: a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory by the age of 17, Shore documented the various characters who frequented the studio, quickly setting himself up as one of the most infamous young photographers working in New York City. This early success could have left him in a precarious situation, but the magic of his practice lies in the continual quest to interrogate new ways of looking.

This desire to personally and professionally evolve provides the basis for the most comprehensive exhibition to date. Curated by Quentin Bajac and Kristen Gaylord, the show spans everything from the early Americana, right through to print-on-demand books, and finally, to an engagement with the latest social media platforms. It’s also not a coincidence that Bajac is part of this unique and awe-inspiring show, having been appointed The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in January 2013, after spending nine years at the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, where he curated numerous shows on modern and contemporary photography.

Bajac is unequivocally an avid believer in the place of the image as a method for renewal, for expansion, and for regeneration, something held at the core of this mammoth retrospective: “Shore keeps re-inventing himself. He’s always been intrigued by new, popular, democratic ways of producing images. In the past this meant working with snapshots, but today, this includes engaging with Instagram. I’m especially interested in this; he never tries to stick to one style. Given all the artists of his generation, this is the reason he is one of the most interesting.”

Such thirst for innovation can be seen across the entirety of his oeuvre. Shore revolutionised many things, but it is for using colour photography at a time when no-one else was that he is best known. Black and white was de rigeur in the 1970s, because at the time using full colour was viewed as vulgar and commonplace. Shore, revelling in modernity, adopted the new genre as his own, using it in all its vivacious capabilities. His endeavours were recognised by academia at the time, with a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1971. This exhibition was far from a resounding critical success, but it did set the stage for further explorations into the medium; he set off on a cross-country trip across the USA the next year. The resulting snapshots of a glass of milk alongside a plate of pancakes and bacon seen in Grand Canyon, New Mexico, (1972) reframed the landscape famously presented through the eyes of Walker Evans and Paul Strand, artists that Shore both identifies with and is inspired by.

It’s important to note that even in these groundbreaking works – which have often been deemed timeless for their tonal and compositional complexities – offer a lens into the world as it was then. Similarly, devoid of a juxtaposition between idealisation and reality, the images captured streets  and sidewalks through maintaining an unbiased stance, instead preferring the subjectivity of the flâneur. This insight into the quotidian continues through to the iconic Uncommon Places (1982), a series which looks at geography as a hinge point for human interaction. Bajac states: “Uncommon Places is about urban landscapes; the representation of architecture expresses certain forces – political, social and aesthetic – those that are at play within our culture.”

It’s easy to see how this series developed into widespread iconography. For example, Aperture Foundation recently republished a number of them in Stephen Shore: Selected Works 1973-1981, calling upon introductions from a variety of well-known cultural figures including Wes Anderson and David Campany. However, images from this era are often viewed with a sense of nostalgia (as opposed to innovation), a term that the curation is keen to reflect. “I didn’t want the exhibition to only focus on the 1970s – though there will be a major part of the show that will be devoted to that era – but I also wanted to show some recent works. There are approximately 50 pieces from Uncommon Places, but it was also my goal to include series that are indirectly connected to it. For example, I’m showing some telescopic pieces from 1974 and 1975. I’m also introducing some editorial and commissions that Shore did at the same time that also relate to the vernacular sense of America.”

Bajac, as both a curator and avid aficionado, clearly resists a simplified and perhaps unfair reading purely regarding sentimentality and a longing to glamourise the past. This becomes clear in the choices made to display lesser-known compositions, as well as offering a large space to new pieces posted publicly through Instagram. Whilst recognising the merit in earlier photographs, the exhibition includes a sense of urgency to be responsive to audiences, and to engage in the practice as an ever-changing format: “New generations give you new readings, illuminating things that you have not found. You must be open to these. Shore is not all nostalgic.”

However, whilst the emergence of touch screens, “liking” cultures and immediate gratification are elements that are wholly embraced in this retrospective, the images taken from the artist’s main page (@stephen.shore) shouldn’t be disregarded, or even seen to be separate from the 20th century series, where empty streets, suburban houses and classic cars surface. Even though the lens may have changed, the theme and subject matter are similar. Bajac expands: “If you have a look at his account, I think the posts are quite consistent with what he used to do. They deal with architecture – close-ups of structures – and it’s true that they still have the distance that you can feel right from the start of the 1960s and 1970s. In a way, they have the indirect, autobiographical aspect that his work carries.”

What’s evident in the curation is an interest in the same everyday phenomena, but a recognition that the places in which we live out our daily existence are in a state of flux. Shop windows from the 1970s are no longer representative of today’s America. Nor are analogue cameras. As an individual, a traveller and a documenter, the artist is wholly intrigued by contemporary lands, and all that they encompass. His desire to see, to observe, to experiment and to capture has not changed, but the ways in which we process information – through spontaneous screens and virtual realities – have. So what does this mean for the future? Bajac offers: “What I think is different with Instagram is the international scope – Shore can post and have this dialogue with people. There’s a possibility of disseminating images immediately, and he can have new followers and be able to establish a visual dialogue as an exchange with his audiences. It’s really more like a visual language, one that is also real with written communication. This is something that we both find fascinating, and indeed refreshing.”

Whilst this will undeniably be a blockbuster event, MoMA has created the perfect arena to reflect upon the work as it was intended, considering the temporal nature of topographies in a completely radical way. Taking a chronological journey from gelatin silver prints to the rise of large-scale digital compositions, and then, finally, to a room of screens, the gallery presents the opportunity to experience an uncompromising pursuit of photography’s possibilities – both conceptually and physically. Audiences are taken from the white-walled houses in Backyard off U.S. 98, Apalachicola, Florida, (1976) right up to unforeseen, unnamed captions on apps. Ending with the opportunity to swipe, scroll, like and comment, individuals are essentially looking into a mirror, responding to the current climate, and engaging with the present.

It is, of course, only fitting that the Instagram feed be displayed through its virtual dimension. As Bajac asserts: “I didn’t want to print them. They are meant to be seen on an iPhone, or on a screen, so they will be shown that way.” And indeed, why shouldn’t they? The way that humanity processes information has now changed, and the iconography that fills the gallery’s walls has only come to fruition through trying out new methods, and by treading new ground. There is something to be respected in this, and also a fundamental lesson about contemporary art within the wider historical and cultural sphere. Memory is not something that Shore ultimately avoids, but moves past in search of invention. Bajac notes: “I think if I could define his approach, I would use the term ‘anthropologist.’ In an interview in 2005, he was asked the question: ‘what would you do if you weren’t a photographer?’ And he answered: ‘archaeology.’ It’s true that his images have this dimension; they’re about traces of the everyday, and about the archaeology of the contemporary in the making.”

MoMA has touched on something truly special here, and asks poignant questions about why visionaries like Shore resonate in our minds as original, acclaimed, and to be “followed.” He is a keen observer of the contemporary condition, one that recognises his place within the “now”, and one that is simultaneously detached. Through inserting the camera as a barrier between the frame and reality, whether that’s looking out at vast forestry in Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979 or to recognisable streets in Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975, he offers a plane of existence and remembrance that only artists can do. Bajac’s closing words linger in the mind: “Shore is always passing through countries, not as an insider or indeed an outsider – a tourist. He is a traveller within his own country, and in others.” Much like the floods of people entering the gallery, we, as consumers, editors and digital natives, are glancing through the aperture – one narrative at a time – to reach an understanding of the world around us, one that is currently playing out before our eyes.

Niamh Coghlan and Kate Simpson

Stephen Shore, until 28 May. MoMA, New York.