Bringing together a selection of ‘curated’ out-takes from his celebrated series Uncommon Places, the 2017 publication of Stephen Shore’s Selected Works 1973 – 1981 was another high-point in a bumper year for the artist, just in advance of a career-spanning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, complete with its own substantial catalogue.[i] Indeed, the question this book might well provoke is whether or not it was even necessary, given the amount of exposure Shore has received to date, and the plaudits he has already garnered, in the course of a long and profoundly influential working-life. We hardly need still more proof of how a handful of largely old, largely white men – along with a very few women – dominate the institutional narratives around photography, and so, the ways in which its history is understood. In light of that, and also of the fact that Shore’s Uncommon Places has already occasioned at least two books and been included in an untold number of compilations, what might there be left to say about the work? Of course, there is no doubt now about its status; Shore’s influence can be felt everywhere in contemporary photography, if only expressed as a preference for certain subjects and photographic methodologies. In fact, the series has become a kind of ‘Rosetta Stone,’ making comprehensible so much of what followed in its wake. There is also, inevitably, if perhaps unfairly, a suspicion of barrel-scraping about such collections drawing on otherwise familiar work.
And yet, somewhat against expectations, the publication of Selected Works can itself be taken to suggest that our current view of Shore’s output during this period is actually a rather limited one, giving rise to questions that, if sufficiently answered, would allow us to reassess his achievements, as well as his influence. Indeed, the most obvious indication of this is the fact that almost all of the material featured in the book is previously unseen. No reason is given for the exclusion of these pictures from the earlier versions of the project or the several publications dedicated to it, except perhaps for Shore’s own changing perceptions of what exactly that ‘project’ consists of. Their organisation here offers little clue to his rationale, not least because they haven’t been selected by Shore himself, or even by a single editor, but, in a rather gimmicky twist, by a whole host of cultural figures, including curators, film directors, writers and other photographers. Naturally enough, the selections are inflected according to the different criteria used for each, and even by the personality of the selector. Sometimes the effect of the two combine, as in the case of Wes Anderson, whose selection has the character of stills taken from some as yet unseen film by him. Similarly, the selection made by a photographer like Thomas Struth, who offers no insight into the reasoning behind his choices, inevitably draws us to make comparisons to Struth’s own work, which do in fact seem to be borne out, perhaps a testament to the spread of Shore’s influence in Germany, via the teaching of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
While this selection process might well have resulted in a kind of patchwork quality, the effect is actually quite unified. It is entirely possible to engage with the book by simply ignoring the different selections and treating the material as a single collection, which of course in many respects it is. At the same time, it certainly doesn’t detract from the work to see it framed by the various selectors, and in some cases their choices are quite shrewd, highlighting facets of Shore’s practice that might well have gone unnoticed. But this apparent consistency, across the selections, is significant in itself. As is the commonality in terms of subject-matter and style with the work that has already been published, not least because it raises the question of why this newly revealed material might have been excluded in the first place. The brief introduction to the sequence of images selected by David Campany quotes his own interview with Shore (itself a rich document) to the effect that although he’s not sure how many pictures he made in the course of pursuing this work, the total of those that he finds “interesting” comes to something like 700.[ii] This is substantially more than the number included in the Selected Works publication (150, according to the publisher), the original Aperture edition, or the expanded, supposedly complete edition from Thames & Hudson. There are, of course, many reasons why a work might not be shown in its entirety. In this case the sheer scale of the project mitigates against it all being made available, but even that need not be a deterrent, given how, by way of comparison, the box-set of William Eggleston’s project The Democratic Forest contains a whopping 1010 images, in 10 volumes. Now, the argument might be made that this is as much a failure of editing as it is a bold venture in presenting an entire work, but nonetheless the example remains as a possibility, and one that is perhaps even more justified by Shore’s output.
At the very least it would give us the chance to study the internal development of the project, something that has remained relatively obscure so far, concealed by the different ways in which the work has been framed. It’s not impossible to imagine a collection bringing together all of Shore’s ‘interesting’ pictures, perhaps even shown chronologically, to make visible how he explored the parameters of the medium. Given his famously meticulous approach, structuring our imaginary collection in the order that the work was made doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. Of particular interest would be seeing the evolution of the various strategies that Shore used to organise the space within the frame. This is likely to prove a key issue, especially since he has so often spoken about his photography in terms of visual problem-solving. As it stands though, the available publications seem to be, at best, a partial view of the work, each involving a number of more or less significant compromises stemming either from the limitations imposed by what was financially, as well as technically, feasible to include – a situation that applies most notably to the original 1982 publication – or the constraints that periodically arose from Shore’s own changing conception of the work. Even the expanded Thames & Hudson edition of Uncommon Places, itself slightly updated from an earlier version by the same publisher and disingenuously billed as the ‘complete’ work, shows only a selection that was judged as representative by Shore at the time it was released.
Some of the images in Selected Works intriguingly suggest a wider visual palette than we have previously been aware of, however; the photographer Takashi Homma’s selection in particular contains several images that help to broaden our understanding of Shore’s project. Homma himself describes this selection as “photos taken with a large camera as though using a point and shoot,” with, he says, “an intense power of attraction due specifically to their slight awkwardness.”[iii] There is indeed something remarkably casual and off-hand about some of these images, given the sort of camera they were made with; the space within them is not clearly unified or ‘composed’ as with his more familiar works. One of the most interesting – New York, New York, January 17, 1975 – highlights an unsuspected chancy element in Shore’s picture-making, so often associated with a sense of visual and spatial rectitude. Unusually too, the plane of focus is constricted in this photograph to a narrow strip in the foreground, which falls across the black and white traffic barrier and the right foot of the woman in the fur coat, though she herself is blurred, partly by movement. The most crisply rendered figure here is actually the older woman in a yellow hat and plaid scarf to the left of the frame, a somewhat lonely, but dignified presence in this small crowd. She is off-centre, almost hidden, but still in many ways the whole point of the composition. In fact, the immediacy of this picture, the way that it embodies a singular moment of attention, places us right there on the street.
Shore obviously set up his camera at the intersection and, with a mental image of the space that he had framed, waited until the elements of the scene coalesced into a picture he wanted to make. Described in this way, of course, it seems no different than any other photograph, which it perhaps isn’t, except to the extent that the process was a less spontaneous – and perhaps more conscious – one than if he actually had used the point-and-shoot camera that Homma mentions. The main issue, though, is that these pictorial characteristics – along with the visual experience they help to articulate – are in some respects markedly different than the Shore we think we know. The quality of that visual experience, of the seeing ‘seen’ here, is more provisional, more charged with a sense of the difficulties inherent in describing one person’s affective and experiential relationship to the world around them than the more stately – if by no means less effective – compositions for which he is famous. Another of Homma’s selections – Pleasant Street and North Main Street, Concord, New Hampshire, July 16, 1974 – uses a similar formula, except in reverse. It is another a view across an intersection, but wider this time and with deeper focus, encompassing all the buildings on the opposite side of the street, so that the woman in the foreground, along with the line of cones and what is perhaps a fire hose fall out of focus. Taken together, these pictures stress the quality of attention as something both embodied and relational, describing an almost free-form sense of visual density than isn’t generally associated with Shore.
An equally suggestive selection – again, by a photographer – raises the issue of subject-matter. In much the same way as with his compositional strategies, the range of published and exhibited images from the work has necessarily shaped our understanding of what constitutes a ‘typical’ subject for Shore. An-My Lê based her selection on images of women in Shore’s work, largely, she says, because of her admiration for one well-known photograph of his wife Ginger, featured in the original Uncommon Places book. The result, it has to be said, is a fairly mixed group of pictures, with only Lê’s basic criterion to unify them, but even in this respect they astutely point beyond the account of Shore’s interests that is most commonly given, helping to confirm the suspicion that the bulk of this unseen material from the project has the potential to offer new routes of engagement. Just as Lê highlights – though due to the premise of the book can’t really explicate – the nuanced portraits of women that run through Shore’s output, the equally fraught and often overlapping markers of race and class embedded in the whole work would undoubtedly reward further scrutiny. Rather than just showing ‘views’ of particular landscapes or scenes, then, their character now increasingly clouded with nostalgia for this apparently simpler time, an enlarged consideration of his subject-matter would surely offer an insight into the broader social attitudes of the time and place that he is describing.
Examining the publication history of Uncommon Places also helps to shed some light on how our view of the work has been formed, and on why so much of this newly revealed material might have been excluded to begin with. Although the first edition appeared in 1982, its genesis seems to have been as early as 1976. Changes in personnel at Aperture and the necessity of fund-raising for what was at that time the first colour publication they had ever produced, meant that the project was delayed, and that the decisions about the content of the book had been made long before it actually appeared. These decisions also included the title, which was applied to the book first and only later to the work as a whole. It does seem to have influenced the selection of images, the majority of them being the ‘places’ indicated by the title. The thematic framework that this imposed is largely what gave rise to the persistent notion that Shore is essentially a chronicler of the American vernacular. However, there are other subjects as well, including a portrait of his wife, Ginger, and a table-top still-life of pancakes, harking back to American Surfaces. Shore has said that he fought to have these included, though admits in retrospect this might have been a mistake, because of how they occasioned some confusion about his intentions for the book, especially when seen against the majority of pictures. Their inclusion was almost certainly an attempt to represent the diversity of the project, but there is no doubt now that the overview of the work that this initial publication provides is an inadequate one, as Shore’s own account of it confirms.[iv]
Another generally overlooked aspect of Shore’s work from this period is the fact that much of it was made while on commission, sometimes resulting in images that were included in the project and have since become quite well-known, like those he produced for the architects Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi in 1975. This was an ideal match in many ways, given their shared interest in how the built environment could be seen as an expression of deeper cultural forces. Their commission funded all of Shore’s photographic explorations in that year, including, no doubt, pictures made with his own project in mind. There are others that have been rarely seen, however, such as a commission to photograph courthouses in 1976, one of which actually seems to be included in the Selected Works publication, as well as series of pictures made in several steel-producing towns for Fortune magazine.[v] This diversity in how different strands of the project originated and the compromises that shaped its initial release have strongly influenced both the subsequent reception of the work by its various audiences, and perhaps Shore’s own changing perception of it as well, right back to the apparently simple decision of titling the first book. These influences continue to be felt in how we view the work today, but their complexities have never been fully explored or even always acknowledged, precisely because of those dominant critical readings that are themselves based on how the work was framed by its original and subsequent publications.
It might be argued of course that any selection by Shore himself is a de facto representative one; if anybody knows which images best demonstrate the concerns driving this work it’s him. And the expanded Thames & Hudson publication, though by no means ‘complete’ as billed, is a satisfying, well-considered encapsulation of those concerns, illustrating them fully enough for most viewers. It has to be admitted as well that the material contained in Selected Works doesn’t by itself radically alter, in style or in subject-matter, many of the accepted narratives around Uncommon Places. What it hints at, however – and what a genuinely complete overview would surely reveal – is the whole scope of those concerns, along with crucial insights into how they developed and when. The two paradigmatic views of Shore’s work from this period see him as either “capturing the mundane aspects of American popular culture in straightforward, unglamorous images” or undertaking a “restless interrogation of image making.”[vi] But both of these views are based, as we now see, on a rather limited account of the project as a whole. They have been determined, furthermore, by the demands of its presentation in various formats, as well as by institutional biases, and even by practical factors. The aim here is not to arrive at some definitive or ‘objectively’ correct analysis, but simply to enable and to deepen the scholarship around this key work in the history of the medium. David Campany’s comparison of Uncommon Places to a sprawling 19th Century novel is an apt one, and seeing these new images is very much like discovering new chapters in an apparently long-familiar – and thoroughly interpreted – text, but they still need to be placed back into some kind of meaningful relationship to the overall work.[vii]
So, in that respect, the notion of accessing Shore’s self-described ‘interesting’ pictures isn’t nearly as quixotic or as indulgent as it might seem, whatever can be said for the commercial viability of such a project. And there are other considerations at stake, beyond the already substantial benefit of actually being able to examine the development of Shore’s concerns and the ways he found to articulate them visually. Rightfully cited as a landmark in the history of contemporary photography and exerting a considerable pull on those artists that followed in its wake, Uncommon Places has all too often been treated as the almost inevitable result of a tendency in the progression of American photography, realising a particular conception of the medium. This stems in large part from the implicitly modernist critical framework used to describe it, a situation not always helped by how Shore himself has been so consistent in speaking about the project in formalistic terms. What is needed, and again, what a genuine overview of the whole work would facilitate, is an effort toward reframing Shore’s practice in the actual context of its production, the whole background of influences and shared ideas from which it emerged, as well as the specific historical moment that the work itself helps to visualise. Without this context, Shore’s pictures are in danger of being treated as autonomous objects of visual – as well as increasingly nostalgic – significance. But they are, and can still be, so much more.
[i] Stephen Shore, Selected Works 1973 – 1981, Aperture, 2017.
[ii] Selected Works, pg. 45. The interview referred to here can be found in David Campany, So present, so invisible: Conversations on photography, Contrasto, 2018, pgs 211-263. While we should perhaps be wary of taking an artist’s statements about their work at face value, the insight provided into Shore’s own thinking, along with contextual information about the work’s production, makes this interview an invaluable resource. It can also be found at: https://issuu.com/bintphotobooks/docs/campany
[iii] Selected Works, pg. 99.
[iv] This description of the book’s development is drawn from Shore’s own account, see Campany, pgs. 231-232.
[v] See Campany, pgs. 235-239.
[vii] Selected Works, pg. 45.