In collaboration with Fundación MAPFRE, C/O Berlin’s current exhibition Stephen Shore: Retrospective signifies the most comprehensive overview of the American photographer’s enduring career.
Reviewed by Rachael Vance
Acknowledged as a figure who has shaped the culture of photography, Stephen Shore has produced a diverse oeuvre that, at its core, symbolises his desire to inquire, evolve and reinvent. Embodying a myriad of approaches, his work successfully challenges the idea of how photography mediates our perception of understanding what and how we see. A chameleon in the sphere of photography, Shore is best known for pioneering colour photography techniques and experimenting with format, conceptual narrative and documentary style. As the first living photographer to be given a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1971, he has engaged deeply with American culture, leaving a lasting impression on generations of photographers.
Shore’s photos convey a natural feeling that is, as the artist himself has stated, ‘like seeing’. Everyday situations, banal objects and anonymous places that are seemingly insignificant present simultaneously, something and nothing, defying categorisation. His aim is to try to look at the present world with distance, and with this distance, instil a sense of amazement. The camera is utilised as an instrument of perception, examining the self and the external world, and in doing so, giving visual expression to concepts of reality.
The strength of Shore’s body of work clearly emerges in this impressive retrospective that includes over 300 pictures dating from the late 1960s to the present. The photographs range from the very rare and never seen before, to some of Shore’s iconic series that adhere to specific self-imposed rules or constraints.
In the first room, audiences are immediately confronted with a black and white self portrait taken in 1964. Positioned off-centre, his face is unconventionally framed by the lens, presaging his unique later style as a photographer. Close by, viewers are given an insight into Shore’s time spent at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York. Between 1965 and 1967 Shore documented his ‘inside’ encounters during this period. Depicted in black and white, Warhol is presented in a combination of scenarios, both consciously staged and informal, such as a late-night dining experience in 1:35 am in Chinatown Restaurant.
Shortly after this period, Shore developed a preoccupation that would be revisited throughout his career: the documentation of everyday, ordinary consumer worlds in the United States, set against ambivalent backdrops. He became fascinated with capturing the urban environment combined with found visual material. New York streetscapes such as Avenue of the Americas (1969) portray the rush of human energy on street level, figures going about their daily business, caught in a decisive moment in time, mid-stride.
The show layout continues its chronological path, directing visitors to Shore’s conceptual period in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this time, he arranged his small-scale series in salon-style grids. His piece July 22nd, 1969 documents the life of one of his friends from 12:00 am, every thirty minutes for twenty-four hours, thus constituting a very early visual diary. The work satisfies the onlooker’s voyeuristic curiosity to see inside someone’s daily, personal sphere – in bed, driving a car, eating at a diner and returning to bed – and today, over thirty years later, represents a historical account of the subject’s life.
Exploring repetition and seriality, Shore’s iconic colour series American Surfaces (1972–73) and Uncommon Places (1973–81) are positioned in succession in the exhibition. The result of multiple road trips across America, these series present audiences with his interest in the camera’s formal qualities. American Surfaces details imagery, sometimes from the vantage point of a car window, such as traffic signposts and nameless landscapes, hotel bedroom and bathrooms interior shots, banal table settings, and people encountered along the way. The unspectacular. Shore’s urge to represent the modern age in a new light resurfaces in these works.
The now classic Uncommon Places follows a similar vein. The final product of hundreds of shots taken on road trips in North America, the series presents large-format colour photographs with a focus on the mundane. Seemingly abandoned and isolated buildings devoid of figures are exhibited side by side with images of deadpan parking lots interspersed with cars, oversized billboards and shopping centres. This series elevated awareness of Shore’s work within the international photographic community and played an important role in defining what is now considered ‘art photography’.
Shore’s most recent work is hung on darkly painted charcoal walls. His interest in revisiting past visual tropes becomes clear and ties in the thematic cycle of the exhibition. His landscape series made in the mid-to-late 1980s takes the natural environment as a point of departure for contemplation. These rich, large-scale coloured vistas unaffected by the hand of man, allow for an examination of discrete locations. Brewster County, Texas (1988) depicts a sparse desert-like terrain, while Orange County, New York (1985) offers a lush meadow. Here, Shore urges analysis of the mental model of landscape we internally hold, which informs how we experience and comprehend notions of place.
Essex County (1992–93) signals the beginning of a decade-long foray into black and white photography during the 1990s. In this series Shore focuses on themes of surfaces. The bark of trees and moss-covered rocks are monumentalised by close observation. New York City (2000–02), is the culmination of the artist’s creative exploration in shades of grey. Once again, he revisits the New York streetscape in Manhattan, with spectacular results. Capturing fleeting moments within crowds of people in impressively large-scale landscape pictures, he re-evaluates street-style photography.
Shore’s digital books, created via print-on-demand technology, provided another set of parameters for the artist. The project began in 2003 and at its completion resulted in over eighty books. Each book was produced within a twenty-four hour period, documenting Shore’s personal activities on one particular day. Acting as photographic essays, six of these books are fragmented re-readings of his various international travels and experiences.
Shore’s keen embrace of new technology is also cleverly displayed in the form of a projection of his live Instagram account stephen.shore. Via his profile, viewers are presented with his most recent work. His posts capture his arrival to Berlin in the days leading up to the exhibition opening. With in excess of 58,000 followers and counting, Shore deploys social media as another arm of his dynamic practice, positioned in the lived reality of the here and now, beyond the museum walls.
Stephen Shore. Retrospective, 06.02.16 - 22.05.16, C/O Berlin