Amarillo, Texas, August, 1973
The Apparent Is the Bridge to the Real
By Rong Jiang, ICP, New York, June 4, 2007
RJ: You said before that photography is basically about making decisions. If that is true, why did you decide to use color when you set out to Amarillo, Texas to do your photo project “American Surfaces”?
SS: Actually, I started to use color a year before, in 1971, with two projects: the Mick-O-Matics, which were color snapshots, and the Amarillo postcards. I think it was simply the time was right for color photography. It was about the same time that William Eggleston, Luigi Ghirri, and Joel Meyerowitz began to use color. All snapshots were in color. Movies as well as magazines, television and postcards were in color. The only things that were in black and white in those days were newspapers, which I think, was more for economic reason than aesthetic, and art photography.
I had been looking at a lot of postcards. I found them a fascinating visual source material. Because I did these two projects related with vernacular use of photography, they needed to be in color. For those reasons, I began using color.
And there was another factor. I met a young man at around this time. He asked whether he could see some of my works. He was interested in art, but didn’t have much knowledge of photography. And after I opened the box, his first reaction was “Oh, they are black and white.”
RJ: Even though they were color photos?
SS: No, these were black and white photos. They were my earlier works. I was struck by his reaction that he expected the photos inside the box to be in color, because all the photographs he had seen, and they were mostly snapshots, were in color. So what is going on here? What is this prohibition against color?
RJ: One of the photographers who have influenced you a lot was Walker Evans. When you were at the age of ten, you were given his book of “American Photographs”. But Walker Evans has been known mostly for his black and white photos, even though he did take color photos. I can see the shadows of Walker Evans in your photos, but then they are like a color version of Walker Evans’ photos. Of course, you also have your own style and your own contents in your photos. So was it because you wanted to be different from Walker Evans that you decided to use color or you wanted to experiment with color?
SS: It was really for the reasons I gave. I wasn’t trying to be different from Walker Evans. More than any other photographers, he had an impact on my work, but I don’t have to follow him exactly for him to have an influence on me. Or I don’t have to take him as a model that I then diverge from. I feel a deep visual kinship to Evans, but the color issue is something separate.
RJ: And were you aware of what William Eggleston and other photographers were also experimenting with color at that time?
SS: I became aware of Eggleston’s work in 1973. I showed the works of “American Surfaces” to John Szarkowski in the fall of 1972. And he said there was a photographer in Memphis perhaps you would like to see and he made an introduction. I saw Bill in New York in 1973.
U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973
RJ: What was his reaction to your work?
SS: I think even though our work was very different, there was a bond between us, because we were both exploring color. He then also introduced me to William Christenberry.
RJ: You once said, “Color adds a new level of descriptive information and transparency to the image and shows the color of an age”. But why did you decide to reprint the photos in your current exhibition at ICP? To me, the photos look very fresh and they come across as photos of today rather than photos of 1970s.
SS: This is closer to how the pictures looked when they were exhibited in New York in early 1970s than the vintage prints look today. I’ve heard some people comment when they see my vintage prints that they love 1970s color, but they don’t understand that the prints they are seeing have shifted in color.
RJ: Are the prints at the current show digital prints or C-prints?
SS: They are digital C-prints.
RJ: To me, if we look at the photos in the first edition of “Uncommon Places”, they really make me feel very nostalgic, even though the color is dated. They really remind me of the so-called “good old days” in 1970s. But the ones I saw at ICP may have a fresh look when you saw them, they really look very contemporary.
SS: But you also can’t go by the book, because the reproductions in the book don’t look like the photos that were being shown at the time. You have to understand there is nothing particularly nostalgic about these pictures. This is something that inevitably comes with age. It’s not to my credit, other than I’ve lived long enough. And I keep showing the works. But when the works were first shown, people didn’t feel any nostalgia in it.
RJ: So in other words, you don’t want your works to be sentimental. You really want your works to be natural and unaffected. That is your intention.
RJ: And that has become your style in a way, even though you said, “you don’t really seek your own style to start with. The style is the result of your own exploration.”
SS: Yes. And the style is the result of a person’s temperament, I think.
RJ: The current show is entitled “Biographical Landscape: Stephen Shore’s Photos from 1969-1979”. It includes two major bodies of your works. They are “American Surfaces” and “Uncommon Places”, which you shot while you traveled to many different places in this country. Why did you decide to make these travels? Is it because you had a show at the Met at the age of 23 and in the following year you wanted to rediscover yourself and your country as well?
SS: It started because in the late 1960s, I had a group of friends in New York who were from Amarillo, Texas. They lived in New York, but would spend their summer in Amarillo. So I started in 1968 or 1969 to go back to Amarillo with them. It opened up a part of the country to me that I really didn’t experience before. I lived in the Northeast and had been to the West Coast, but I had never really been to the middle of the country. And I found it fascinating and simply wanted to explore it.
RJ: Were you aware of Robert Frank’s trips and his photo book “The Americans” before setting out?
RJ: So how different is your trip from his trip?
SS: I remember at the time thinking his works were, to my sensibility, overly-pointed or trying to make a point. And to some extent my work was a reaction to that.
RJ: At the time when you were traveling, people in this country were very depressed because of the war in Viet Nam and Watergate hearing. Instead of taking photos of major events and taking photos of such extraordinary places like New York, why did you decide to go to these small and seemingly common places?
SS: I wanted to see what our culture was really like. I knew New York. And in “American Surfaces”, there were a good number of pictures taken in New York City. But I wanted to see a wider spectrum of a culture. I wanted to see the ordinary things that were not the news.
It reminds me of something that I wrote about recently, which is the experience of being in London several months during late 1960s and reading about the massacre at Kent State University in the paper and all the reactions to the Viet Nam War and the other events you were talking about. If you read about it in the newspaper, it seemed like the country was falling apart.
If all you know about something is just what was reported in the newspaper, it’s just this terrible event, because they are not reporting the subway system ran on time today or at a local diner, the food is being served. They are not reporting the average events of daily life, nor should they. I wouldn’t read a newspaper if it reported that. It would be boring. But there is more to the world than the kind of the things that make into the news. In the same way, there is more to the American culture than these big events of the Viet Nam War and the reactions to the War, and to the Watergate hearings that were going on in that period of time. There is more to the country than all that. And I was interested in the small events of life.
RJ: I have also noticed that mostly you took pictures of places rather than people. So your book is called “Uncommon Places”, not “Uncommon People”, even though you also included, in the new edition of this book, some portraits you took during your trips. So were you more interested in places?
Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusets, July 13, 1974
SS: I think this was a trend as I moved from 35mm camera to 8×10 camera. And if you look at the book of “American Surfaces”, you would see a quarter of the book are photos of people.
RJ: But not in “Uncommon Places”.
SS: The film I used for “American Surfaces” was Kodacolor film, which was not very sharp. So I couldn’t make big enlargement from it. These little prints I was making were fine, but I couldn’t make anything larger. So when I decided to go and make larger prints, I had to go to a larger negative.
My first thought was that I would get an old press camera, like the one that Weegee used. I bought a 4×5 Crown Graphic camera. I was going to handhold it and use a flash and take pictures just like these photos in “American Surfaces” except with 4×5 negatives. Many of the pictures I had made for “American Surfaces” were of buildings or architecture. So when I started taking pictures like this, I put the camera on a tripod. And I found that 4×5 had another advantage. It has a rising front. To use the rising front, I had to use ground glass. To my surprise, I loved working on a tripod. I loved the control of the rising front and looking at the ground glass. And I wasn’t planning like that.
RJ: So it was part of the exploration.
SS: It was also leading me into different directions, because it was a different tool. And it wasn’t my intention when I started using large-format camera to be led into that direction.
RJ: Why did you love using the tripod, rising front and ground glass?
SS: It was because of the deliberateness of the process.
RJ: You also said that by using an 8×10 large-format camera, it forces you to be very conscious of your decision-making. You have to be very exact about where you are going to stand and where the angle is, because the large-format negative plate is too expensive and you can’t afford to take too many photos.
RJ: In a way, it’s another major decision and helps you become more focused.
SS: Absolutely. That was the second factor I was going to get to. One is the physical attributes of a camera. And the second factor is what you just mentioned. That is the cost of it forces one not to waste film. All these lead to a different kind of intentionality. This led me to go from 4×5 to 8×10 camera. And the first time I used 8×10, I just fell in love with it. I loved looking at large ground glass. There was something magical about it. When I first saw the results, they had a clarity that was unlike what I was seeing with a 4×5.
RJ: There are more information and greater details.
SS: And greater vividness. It has more color and greater subtlety of color. And it’s much easier to take a picture of a building with an 8×10. So my exploration with the camera led me away from my original intention of doing “American Surfaces” into new directions.
RJ: Into your next project “Uncommon Places”?
SS: Yes. In this next project, I had some still life, but fewer, especially in the new edition of “Uncommon Places”. There are some pictures of people, but it’s not the same proportion of still life and portraits that you see in the “American Surfaces”.
RJ: What do you mean by still life?
SS: If you look at the new edition of the “Uncommon Places”, there are pictures of a lamp, or a television set or chairs. But there are portraits, too. The new edition of “Uncommon Places” is more similar to the diversity you see in the “American Surfaces”. But having said that, just because of the nature of what I was exploring, I wanted to learn all the formal nuances of photography.
RJ: I thought with an 8×10 camera, you would take more photos of mountains, buildings, roads rather than still life.
SS: I did do more. During my project “Uncommon Places”, I did more pictures of buildings and streets than I did of still life and people. That was for two reasons. One is that simply the camera lent itself more easily to it. The other reason, which is maybe a more important reason, was the nature of my formal exploration of the medium. There were these questions that would arise and would compel me to answer visually. And they often needed to be answered in a street setting.
RJ: You believe that photography is also about answering your own questions. When you do a project, questions arise. And when there is no question, the project would end. It happened to you around 1981 or 1982. You also said that you tended to ask formal questions. What kind of questions are formal questions?
SS: They are structural questions. I would be interested in how deep space in a picture relates to a picture plane. I mean there is an illusion of deep space and then there is this reality of the surface that is the picture plane. I was interested in how to make a picture that structurally is consistent, viewed both as something of a three-dimensional illusion and something flat at the same time.
RJ: But you said the world is three-dimensional. The image is two-dimensional.
RJ: And you could create an illusion of three-dimension in an image.
SS: Yes. The reality is a piece of paper with a flat image on it. I want it to function visually as something flat and at the same time to function visually in terms of an illusion of a three-dimensional space.
RJ: It’s very much like the Chinese painting, I think. The Chinese painting is on a scroll. It’s flat, but then it creates a perspective. If you see a Chinese painting of mountains, you usually see three portions. You would see the foreground, the middle portion and the mountains in the far distance, even though it is only a plane. And the oriental visual approach is vertical rather than horizontal. By doing so, Chinese paintings would create an illusion of three dimensions.
SS: That was only an example of the questions. I was also interested in how the edges work in a picture. In other words, what happens when something is cut off by the edge? What happens if you don’t cut off an object? What happens when you have a diagonal going into a corner? What happens when a diagonal goes above or below a corner? These little questions are about how to put a picture together.
Cal. 177, Desert Center, California, December 8, 1976
RJ: So as you said in your book “The Nature of Photographs”, photography is “an analytical process”.
SS: What I meant was that photography in itself is analytical. In a synthetic process like painting, you start with a blank canvas, and any mark you make on the canvas makes it more complex. With photography, you start with the multitudinous forces of the whole world and anything you do, to put a frame on it for example, organizes it and, in a certain way, simplifies it.
RJ: Making order out of it.
SS: Yes. So painting is making something more and more elaborate while photography is refining something. You are taking everything in the world and are selecting this rectangle out of that. And that is what I mean by “analytical process”.
RJ: But it is also believed that many best photos have been taken out of intuition.
SS: I am not saying that photographers have to be analytic. I am talking about the process itself. I am not talking about the thought process of a photographer. I am talking about the way the medium itself works.
You give a point-and-shoot camera to a chimpanzee, and the process itself is still analytic, even if the chimpanzee is oblivious of what a camera is, because when you take a picture, it has a frame, which is an ordering of the world. The same is true with a picture plane and a vantage point. It is a moment out of the flow of time. Even though a chimp has no consciousness of what he is doing, the process itself is still analytic.
RJ: So you are saying that taking photos involves this kind of a process whether the photographer is consciously or unconsciously aware of that.
SS: Right. Some photographers are conscious of that while others may not. But it doesn’t disallow intuition and spontaneity.
RJ: It seems to me that it’s a key factor for you to seek out a visual relationship in your images. You said that it demands commitment from viewers to look at your images. They have to contemplate on your images. Because your images are deceptively simple and look like easy to take, so what if viewers don’t have patience and time to contemplate?
SS: Some of my images are more difficult to make than others. For someone who knows photography, they know that some of my images are not simple and easy to take. For someone who doesn’t know photography, maybe they don’t get it.
RJ: Of course. But some people think that photos have to be visually striking.
SS: I see what you are saying. One of the things that interest me is to communicate what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness. I know that there is a part of me which thinks that can be best communicated in the most ordinary scene. For example, like my image of the painting of mountains on the billboard. I think it’s a wonderful picture. But there is something in me that says it’s easy. That didn’t take a great insight to see it. I would have to think that anyone who drove down that road that day would have to notice it.
RJ: You noticed it through your rear window and the clouds were magnificent and surreal.
SS: So maybe I am underestimating myself. Maybe other people didn’t notice it that day. For me, that is an easier picture than my picture of a lamp in a motel room, which seems a much harder picture, because it’s so ordinary. It’s a kind of the thing where the clouds and the painting were so dramatic that anyone would notice it. The lamp was so ordinary that you would have to really be paying attention to the world around you to notice it.
RJ: Your photos are better received in Europe, especially in Germany. And you have influenced some of the students of Bechers who did a project of taking photos of 500 water towers. And visually speaking, these water towers may not be attractive. Why do you think that your photos are so well received in Europe and in Germany in particular?
SS: I may not be able to answer this question. But I met Hilla Becher in 1973. She told me that what I ought to do was to go all over America and photograph every main street. I remember my reaction was that, “Well, no, that is one of your projects.” I want to photograph the quintessential main street. I think less programmatically than they did.
RJ: So do you adopt an attitude of “take it or leave it”?
Toledo, Ohio from American Surfaces
from American Surfaces
from American Surfaces
from American Surfaces
SS: I won’t say that it has reached a point of having an attitude. I do it, because I am interested in it. Some people like it, some people don’t. I have no control over that.
RJ: Indeed, photos have lives of their own once they are produced.
SS: For example, take some one who is universally loved like Ansel Adams, there is still a lot of people who can’t stand his works.
I really don’t think that great artists set out to make great works of art. I think they do what they need to do for their internal reasons. And their great works are the by-products of it.
RJ: In other words, it’s very personal. It’s about your own life and about your own exploration. And photos are the by-products of this exploration.
SS: But it can have a public face both in that you put it out into the world. So it could be dealing with issues of the world. I mean it could be an exploration of our culture, which is not just personal.
RJ: It is said that most of the great photographers have taken photos of mundane or vernacular things, for example, Edward Weston’s green pepper. But they are able to turn these small things into something transcendent.
SS: Yes, this maybe my temperament that I respond to photographs of the mundane more than the dramatic. I learn more out of these mundane photos and I have to use my mind and my heart more.
RJ: Another artist who has influenced you a lot is Andy Warhol, I think. He once said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surfaces of my paintings, and films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it.” Do you think Andy Warhol has pieced through the surface of his paintings or he purposely chose to remain on the surface?
SS: I think he was being funny. I guess he was trying to make a point. But I would say that there is more to him than what is on the surface of his paintings.
RJ: So you also used the word in your project “American Surfaces”. Did you purposely borrow this term from him?
SS: Not from him. What I have to deal with as a photographer are the surfaces of things. I mean that is what I photograph. Other than skies, surface is what is accessible to a camera. But also I was very fascinated in a very literal way by some of the surfaces that I saw, like a bowl of salad on an imitation wood veneer table. Apart from deeper questions, this is what is more accessible to a camera. What a camera sees is the light reflecting off a surface.
RJ: That’s why you also said in your book “The Nature of Photographs” that photography is not really about content.
SS: No, I wasn’t talking about my photography. All I was talking about was the aim of that book. I think my photographs have content. I am making a cultural observation. What I wanted to deal with in “The Nature of Photographs” were the formal qualities of photography itself.
It seems to me that a good photographer is a combination of two things: one is interesting perceptions and the other is an understanding of how the world is translated by a camera into a photograph. You have to have something to communicate. But you also have to have a real understanding of the tools of communication in photography: that you are taking a three-dimensional world that flows in time and are going through this transformative process of making this flat, bounded, static object.
RJ: Vicki Goldberg said that Koudelka not only has a style, but also has a vision. How do you define personal vision?
SS: Some photographers have vision, and other photographers have a vision. In other words, some photographer’s work is about seeing, while other photographers have a particular vision.
RJ: So the final question is what is really the nature of photography?
SS: (After a long pause) I don’t think there is just one answer to this question. But I would say this: what I have found over time is that I am surprised at how subtly responsive photography is to the state of the mind of a photographer. There is an old Arab saying, “The apparent is the bridge to the real.” All I have to work with as a photographer are surfaces. The surface of a thing is an indication of deeper forces.
RJ: Like oceans.
RJ: Thank you very much.
(Text @ Rong Jiang, All images @ Stephen Shore)