Friday, April 11, 2008

Stephen Shore: Contemporary Artist Series + Stephen Shore: A Road Trip Journal

If one were to name a few photographers whose work is felt so heavily as an influence on the current generation of photographers going through various MFA programs then Stephen Shore would certainly be on the list. His decision, along with a few other photographers in the 1970s to choose color negative film and a large format camera was at that time groundbreaking whereas today it seems more the standard than the anomaly. After all, in teaching, large format cameras are often than necessary tool to impart a discipline and a concern for all factors of picture making. Planting a tripod emphasizes the decision on where the photographer, or his camera surrogate, needs to be standing. The stillness of the tripod and the slowness needed to control framing draws an awareness of where the edges of the frame fall, thus more often than not, making the photographer concentrate on the entire image instead of just a subject. The view camera also demands attention to be paid in placing the zone of focus. All of these are factors as well as our choice of film, format, and processing are not arbitrary decisions and, for me, part of the joy of looking at a photographer’s work is in sensing their particularity.

Thankfully these are skills that are still relevant to some and represent the last hold outs to our current Flickr mentality of "all bets are off." If I can imagine far into the future, I would wager that we will still be looking at the work of Shore and others and for very good reason. Call me a dinosaur, but I'm a dinosaur who knows what major ambition looks like and rarely is it fashionable.

Phaidon has just published a survey of Stephen Shore's work as a part of their Contemporary Artists Series and surprisingly, for such an important artist in American photography, there has not been a book dedicated to Shore's oeuvre until now. Perhaps this is because Shore's career seems to have had a loud beginning in the 1970s (being the only living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- at 24 years of age to boot) and yet a consistent but vastly quieter shift in the 1980s and 90s. Maybe this was partly due to his immersion into academia but this decade has seen a vast renewal of interest in his current and previous work.

Much of the lore of Steven's career such as being a photographer in Warhol's factory, curating the All the Meat You Can Eat show of vernacular photography, his printing of postcards that he self distributed amongst the various postcard racks across the country, as well as his extensive road diaries are all collected here in print. Shore, because of his youthful success within the medium has always struck me as one of those rare instances of someone acting out their destiny. Beyond the show at the Metropolitan, Shore at 14 years old possessed the precociousness to ask Edward Steichen, then curator at the Museum of Modern Art, to look at his work. Steichen wound up purchasing three black and white photographs for the collection in 1962 (two years later John Szarkowski, Steichen's successor, would make the first purchase from Diane Arbus). It is also rumored that Shore's response to the question of "What is your philosophy?" that appeared on a questionnaire required of artists whose work was being bought by the museum was, "I am only 14 and I don't have a philosophy."

Christy Lange is the essayist responsible for guiding us through Steven's career and she does so with poignancy and an understanding necessary for the reader to absorb Shore's complex ideas of the medium. My favorite essay however is by the photographer Joel Sternfeld as he dissects Shore's image Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974. Sternfeld within 1800 words lays out one of the most complex readings of a single photograph and does so in a most pleasing and accessible manner. The book opens with an interview between Michael Fried and Shore and ends with a chapter of short essays that Shore has written over the years. One of the essays is a short extract from his wonderful book on perception that was reprinted by Phaidon last year The Nature of Photographs.

The contemporary artists series has always been an interesting and informative look at individual artists and its slight redesign has, in my mind, improved the quality of the presentation. Highly recommended for those both already familiar with Shore and for the uninitiated.

Phaidon later this year is also releasing the much anticipated Stephen Shore: A Road Trip Journal. The following is less a review, as I do not have the actual book yet, but more a preview of coming attractions.

A Road Trip Journal is a facsimile of the journal Shore kept while on a month-long trip across America in 1973 -- the trip on which he began his masterwork later published as Uncommon Places. It was also on this trip that Shore kept extensive notes and ephemera from every day's events recorded into an artist's sketchbook. July 06 1973 reads as follows:

Milage: 1424
Breakfast: Howard Johnson's, Lima, Ohio (Pancakes)
Lunch: Ponderosa Steak House, Battle Creek, Mich. (Steak)
Dinner: Howard Johnson's, Battle Creek, Mich. (Turkey Dinner)
Night At: Howard Johnson's, Battle Creek, Mich.
TV: CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, Room 222
Postcard Dist: 30 - Delphos, Ohio

10 Exposures Made:
Lima, Ohio
-Intersec.: Jameson + Richie
-Jameson Ave
Delphos, Ohio
-Intersec. 4th + Main
-Pitsenbarger Supply Co., 3rd + Main
-Intersec.: 2nd + Main
Battle Creek, Mich.
-Michigan Ave
-Couple, Michigan Ave
-Rm. 316 Howard Johnson's
-Toilet, As Above
-As Above

Glued to the pages beside this information are gas station charge slips (.45 cent gallons of gas!), postcards, parking tickets, Polaroid prints, receipts and other ephemera from a life on the road. A section towards the back of the book will show every image that Shore made along the way with his 8 by 10 view camera. An obsessive and Warholian undertaking, Shore achieves the creation of not only a great body of work during the journey but also this archive which gives evidence to the photographer as a collector of facts. Much of this at first glance reads with sly humor delivered with a straight face as can be expected when given such seemingly banal information -- that is until we get swamped with the flavor and tone of a country that makes this document the natural successor to Evans and Frank.

Stephen Shore: A Road Trip Journal is slated to be approximately 14 by 11 inches in trim size and over 250 pages in length. The production and printing is being overseen by Sue Medlicott, one of the best ink-on-paper specialists working today so the quality shouldn't be anything less than lavish. A Road Trip Journal is being published in a limited edition of 3300 signed and numbered copies.

Buy online at Phaidon

Book Available Here (Contemporary Artist Series Stephen Shore)

Book Available Here (A Road Trip Journal))