An Uncommon Interview with Stephen Shore (2007)

“There is a marginal point where I can stand here and it’s one picture or I can stand there and it’s a different picture. And this decision, of what is the meaning of what’s in the rectangle is entirely my decision.”

By Ben Sloat

Big, RED & Shiny, April 8, 2007

Stephen Shore is a prominent photographer and photographic educator. A pioneer in the field of color photography, Shore has published numerous books of photography, included his seminal book, Uncommon Places, published in 1982 (reissued in 2004). He has also been director of the photography program at Bard College since that same year.

On occasion of the recent printing of a second edition of The Nature of Photographs, published by Phaidon Press, is Stephen Shore’s primer on the understanding of the photographic object. Big Red writer Ben R. Sloat interviewed the noted photographer before his lecture at Boston University on the 5th of April.

BRS: In an early article by Walker Evans, published in Hound and Horn in 1931, of the work of Eugene Atget, Evans writes: “it is not the poetry of the streets’ or the ‘poetry of Paris,’ but the projection of Atget’s person.” If that is the case, I wonder if that is something that can be taught, or expressed in a book?

SS: I think so. My book does not deal with the content of the pictures, it deals with what might be called the visual grammar of photography. That is not separate from what you’re asking, the projection of personality. I think personality expresses itself in these choices that a photographer makes, because of the choices the tools present. But a photographer’s vision is expressed though these tools, as well as through the choice of subject matter.

BRS: Do you assume the audience for this book to be photographers, those involved in the art world, or simply the ones interested in the medium who may not be artists?

SS: I think it’s both. The book grew out of two things, one is course I’ve taught out of Bard College for many years called Photographic Seeing, the other that stimulated me to write it is an experience with a friend of mine, a neighbor, who was a potter, very talented and smart woman, very cultured. In one point in our discussion, she said to me: ”I just don’t get photography, I just don’t know where to begin to look, I don’t know how to begin to look at a photograph. I don’t get what you’re doing.” I thought, here’s this person, who in other media, is very sophisticated, but there’s something different about photography that she’s not relating to. When she goes beyond the subject matter, she said “I don’t know what the photographer is thinking about”. That was the other audience, like this person, who is so cultured, yet photography is somehow foreign.

 

8.13.79_MercedRiver_Yosemite-National-Park-CA
Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979

“There’s no right distance, a distance that’s the correct one, it’s interesting for me to be conscious of that. But being conscious of it doesn’t determine if it’s correct, it becomes something internal and personal: this feels right.”

 

BRS: Yet one would imagine that the average person in this country might be bombarded with five hundred, a thousand photographs a day. So this same person is seeing photographs plentifully and responding to them, but is it that she’s unaware of her own cultural and artistic response to these images or that she doesn’t have an engagement in this process?

SS: There just isn’t an engagement, or if there is, only a superficial one. She might see a picture in a newspaper and recognize the content, she sees an ad… but she knows that there’s something else that the artists are thinking about, but she just doesn’t know what that is.

BRS: In your early work, you describe your process of making the work as being responsive to a “wordless thought” in terms of photography. Later you talk about becoming a teacher and having to concretely verbalize ideas to students. It seems that photography is somewhere in the middle, you can’t really stab at it through the center but you sort of embrace it on the sides.

SS: That’s a great way of putting it. I went through a big learning process when I started teaching, as you said, all those years before, my decision-making and thinking was visual thinking and that it was wordless, and that was perfectly fine. I could happily and consciously make images, but I didn’t ever have to formulate it in a formal way. Having to teach, I’m no use to the students unless I can stand up there and say something, so I went through a learning process of trying to figure out concretely what went into my visual thinking, and can it be put into words. If it can, how can I explain it, and can I explain it clearly.

 

“My hero, Walker Evans, he cropped all the time, so it’s not a moral stance, it’s a strategic one.”

 

BRS: Is having a verbal explanation necessary for the understanding of photography?

SS: No. I think a person can understand photography in a non-verbal way, but I can’t write a non-verbal book… but there are not a lot of words in the book, so I’m getting close to it! What I was able to do in this edition, was with each idea, there’s a portfolio, and the portfolio isn’t an illustration of the text, it’s carrying it forward, exactly the way you’re suggesting. Though the text is setting it up, the portfolio continues the dialogue in a non-verbal way. So there are some ideas I’m putting in the book that are expressed just in terms of photographs, and are not expressed in words. I thought that if I didn’t use the words, it wouldn’t concentrate the reader’s mind towards a particular aspect.

BRS: Yet the photographs are presented in a way where they can communicate with each other.

SS: Yes, that’s the idea.

BRS: One thing I did notice about the photographs in the book that there aren’t any pictures which are composites, or adjusted digitally.

SS: I’m not dealing with that here. In the introduction, I say that I’m dealing with the straight photograph, taken with a camera and printed from a negative or a digital file. And it’s not since Photoshop that we have composite imagery, we have collages and other composites since the nineteenth century. It raises lots of other questions, here I’m setting limited parameters for myself. I’m trying to figure out the way a camera works, or the way film works, or a sensor that translates the world – how do you take the world that flows in time, and turn it into another object? Taking on something like collage opens another door that I just wasn’t ready to deal with.

BRS: In your own work, you’ve set certain rules such as not cropping the image, is that something you only impose only upon yourself, or do you expect that from your students as well?

SS: I don’t want my students to crop, it’s for a simple reason. I want to put as much pressure on myself, and on them, so that they don’t feel that the decision is a soft one. I do some commercial work, and I’ve learned that to sound like a pro, when the art director says “well, what about that one,” I’ll say, “don’t worry, we’ll take care of it in post.” You get used to saying it, you see something you don’t want in the picture, but it doesn’t matter, “we’ll take care of it in post.” But that’s a kind of fuzzy thinking, and it’s fine to meet the requirements of the commercial job. But in the game that I set for myself, I want to be able to make a decision on the spot, and I want my students to. My hero, Walker Evans, he cropped all the time, so it’s not a moral stance, it’s a strategic one.

BRS: Of your audience for the book, in dealing with your students, what are some things you are unable to teach about photography?

SS: I think there’s a lot. Years ago I did a radio interview of a show of my pictures, and I figured out right away, it was not possible to describe this picture…to do a radio interview about photography’s a pretty tricky business. And I realized, as I was talking to him, that no matter what I said, what made the picture interesting was one step beyond my grasp.

BRS: Time is a factor when looking at photographs, not just capturing the world in time, but also how the work may change meaning over time. On top of this is the compression of looking at a series of historical images in a book. Is seeing a photograph in a book enough?

SS: Yes, in more recent work {printed directly into digital iBooks}, often I use cameras that make files that are so small I couldn’t really make a print out of it, it’s not big enough. The object is seen differently in different times, the issues I address in this particular book don’t change over time, the illustrations I use may change (from the first edition), I have a different pool to choose from, but the basic issues haven’t. So how my pictures are seen now, as opposed to the early 70s, I see a tremendous difference. People say my pictures are nostalgic, my pictures aren’t nostalgic, they’re nostalgic! My pictures are just pictures. When they were shown in the early seventies in New York, there was no hint of nostalgia. Some people who didn’t get them said, well, it’s just like looking at the world, why would anyone want to show me this? There was no distance from it, now there’s a distance of time.

 

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BRS: In this digital age, can photography ever become an additive process? Like the photographer would become more like a painter?

SS: A couple thoughts in regard to that. One is that there is something arbitrary about the decision making that a photographer engages in. What I mean by that is this: I can get out of the car and stand by the edge of the highway and take a picture that looks like a totally natural landscape, untouched by the hand of man. I could move back six inches and include the guardrail in the picture and the meaning of the picture changes dramatically. There is a marginal point where I can stand here and it’s one picture or I can stand there and it’s a different picture. And this decision, of what is the meaning of what’s in the rectangle is entirely my decision. It sounds wrong, because I didn’t create the landscape, but that decision so drastically alters the meaning that the weight of the decision becomes very interesting.

 

5319518440_104562af8a_b
Ginger Shore, Causeway Inn, Tampa, Florida, Nov. 17, 1977

“As I’m looking at you, facial expressions are passing by in the time that we’re sitting here, I know that I can take a picture now, or a second later, a half second earlier, and have a different meaning.”

 

The same thing with portraits, facial expressions flow in time, the picture takes the face out of the flow of time. As I’m looking at you, facial expressions are passing by in the time that we’re sitting here, I know that I can take a picture now, or a second later, a half second earlier, and have a different meaning. People could make different judgments, even though those judgments are really not about you, they’re about this image of you. If this is true, I don’t see it as a huge leap to go to photograph that’s been set up, say, by Jeff Wall. If I see a picture and I think, there needs to be a car in it, I’ll get in my car and drive it in there. If it’s too close to the edge, then I’ll back it up a foot. In that sense, I see the setup or performative picture as a different branch in the continuum.

BRS: But what makes it correct that the car is two inches from the border instead of right on the border?

SS: {laughs} That’s where my personality projects itself on the picture…There’s no right distance, a distance that’s the correct one, it’s interesting for me to be conscious of that. But being conscious of it doesn’t determine if it’s correct, it becomes something internal and personal: this feels right.

BRS: Is there a universal quality of what’s correct?

SS: I don’t believe there is, it’s a personal thing.

BRS: Do the photographs in this book represent some sort of canon of what photographs people should know?

SS: Not really, they’re examples. There are some that are anonymous pictures, publicity stills, anonymous pictures, pictures that I wouldn’t expect anyone to know, and there are some great, great photographers who aren’t in the book. I’m not trying to present a canon, I’m finding examples for the ideas.

BRS: You made an earlier analogy (in the statement for Shore’s seminal book, Uncommon Places) of the art of photography with that of fishing: the preparation, the technical ability, the patience, the instant capture. Do you then see photography as more of a catch-and-release phenomenon or more of a mounted-on-the-wall type of thing?

SS: That’s a great question and I don’t know the answer, but I’m a catch-and-release type of fisherman.

 

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