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Stephen Shore at MoMA

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday November 16, 2017

Stephen Shore, the American photographer whose spare, elemental, constructed images have informed the work of so many who have followed, is the subject of a major retrospective opening this week at the Museum of Modern Art.  The expansive show, curated by Quentin Bajac, with Kristen Gaylord, occupies the entirety of the newly renovated third floor photography galleries, and presents a chronological view of this protean artist’s extraordinary career.  Above: © Stephen Shore. Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Thomas and Susan Dunn.

Starting with Shore’s early black-and-white photographs of people and events engaged with Andy Warhol and his Factory (1961-1967), it covers the major sequences and series of Shore’s career, along with previously unknown work and unpublished series. His embrace of ordinary subjects, from dusty Texas towns to shopping malls and gas stations, has created a misperception of what his work is about, and this exhibition has been organized with a view towards correcting this.

  


© Stephen Shore. New York, New York. 1964. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist.

 

The overall effect of his color photography has often been described as “detatched,” or “distanced,” words that fail to convey either Shore’s approach, his interests, or his achievements. In fact, what is made clear through the in-depth presentation of his most significant bodies of work is the conceptual basis of his work, and the extent to which he pushes the premise of a series on which he is involved—from drugstore snapshots (American Surfaces,1972-1973) to instant photography (print-on-demand books, 2003-2010 and Instagram (2014-present). In addition, the show explores his commissioned work, for advertising clients as well as for cultural programs and institutions.

In clarifying what makes him gravitate towards a subject or a locale, Shore has said, “Whenever I find myself copying myself—making pictures whose problems I’ve already solved—I give myself new issues to pursue.” For example, after spending more than a decade photographing in urban settings, he found himself in the Montana wilderness, in the early 1980s, saying to himself, “Oh gosh, isn’t this beautiful.” In an effort to avoid the picturesque, he avoided photographing there for two years until he was able to frame new issues foundational for the landscape photographs that followed. How to bring structure, perspective and depth, a frame, to what seemed, on the surface, a sea of undefined space, was the problem he then set out to solve.


© Stephen Shore. County of Sutherland, Scotland, 1988. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Susan and Arthur Fleischer, Jr. 

The conceptual nature of his practice, as a photographer and in his teaching at Bard College, where he has been director of the photography program since 1982, is rooted in language—as a device for establishing reason and as a way to define the subjects of his work. Like Robert Frank and Walker Evans before him, Shore hit the road as a young man to photograph the American scene; in the process, he revealed something of the national character as described in local identities and the landscape. During the weeks and months of his travels in the early 1970s, he has said, the Top 40 radio format became so tedious that he began to recite Shakespeare to relieve his boredom. At an event in conjunction with his 2007 ICP exhibition, he quoted a line from Hamlet. The actor's purpose in playing, said Hamlet, is "to show the very age in which we live, and the body of the time, its form and pressure; to delineate exactly the manners of the age and the particular humor of the day." The quote characterizes what Shore has accomplished, which is to make photographs that seem extremely casual to the point of artlessness, but actually delineate the way in which the scene photographed actually exists, in time and place.

 
© Stephen Shore. Isaak Bakmayev’s Medals, Berdichev, Zhytomyrska Province, Ukraine, July 29, 2012. 2012. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.

This is an enormous show, presented in groupings that offer self-contained segments of Shore’s long career. In a discretely contained section of two cube-like spaces, his work as an educator comes into focus through examples from his 1998 book, The Nature of Photographs. “The aim of the book,” he says, “is not to explore photographic content, but to describe the physical and formal attributes of a photographic print that forms the tools a photographer uses to define and interpret that content.” A number of images from the book, along with examples from his own work, are accompanied by Shore’s text, recorded as audio.

Another special exhibition area is a gallery in which a selection of his 83 print-on-demand books, suspended from wires, can be handled, and read, along with a bank of tablets on which to check his Instagram posts, which currently comprises the bulk of his personal work. Throughout the open spaces of the galleries, many of which are flooded with natural daylight, the presentation of newly, or recently printed chromogenic color images and gelatin silver black-and-whites is brilliantly paced. But plan to have plenty of time, or make several visits, to appreciate the intelligence, imagination, and integrity of Stephen Shore, an artist using a camera.

Stephen Shore opens to the public on Sunday, November 19 (opens for members today) at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, NY, NY Info

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