Casual America: Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore is a languished expert of the American portrait. He has always held a special place in my heart. His work is sublime, relaxed and so beautiful to look at. Shore’s work just captivates me. His photography reads like a journal, and that’s something I think we can all empathize with.

Watching TV in a sunbathed motel
Room 125 West Bank

I was probably 15 years old when I initially discovered Shore’s photographs. I completely fell in love with his color prints when I was able to get my hands on a book from my local library on The Factory.

A bathtub partially filled with water in a motel
Room 115, Holiday Inn, Belle Glade, Florida, November 14, 1977

Being a young teenager in the new millennium, I was enamored by Pop Art, and completely devoured any books I could find on the subject. It was all so compelling. These young men and women were completely exploring a new world of art. Subsidized by their wits, cigarettes, chasing fame and drugs — nothing was sacred. Shore was the de-facto documentarian, and an expert in his craft by the age of 14 nonetheless. There was something dignified but unfiltered about his photography of The Factory. Purely raw, and a real thrill to thumb through. You could just hear the echoing transistor radio amidst the cigarette smoking workers.

A woman smoking a cigarette on a patio
Susan Hoffman, Dallas, TX, June 12, 1976

Examining some of his photographs from 1974, I felt as if I was in the passenger seat with him. Peering deeply into the few gloss prints I could find in the Time-Life tomes, I saw myself — I saw my father’s amateur photography and my aunt’s artwork as a portal to expression. Something I think I had struggled with growing up. My self-doubt over my own crude artwork began to wash away with every desolate and sublime photo. I realized the importance of process and adventure.

A woman in a lounge chair alone on a Miami beach
Miami Beach, FL,November 13, 1977

Later, in college I revisited Shore’s work for a class assignment. It couldn’t have been more timely either. I had just gone through a traumatic time dealing with failure. It was as if, I just picked up where I left off with him. Looking back, working on that research project was extremely cathartic. His work served as a reminder of persistence. I can’t be certain exactly what it was, but Shore’s photography really helped me press onward. But of course, with all things in our youth — time passed, and I moved on.

A four way intersection, meat shop and cars on the street
20th St. & Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA, June 21, 1974

I still haven’t seen a print of Shore’s in person. However that may change soon enough, as he has an exhibition at the MoMa going on until May 28th. Since moving to New York City in the beginning of 2017, I’ve been lucky to experience some incredible collections at many of the city’s wonderful art museums. From Kara Walker to Georgia O’Keeffe, the spectrum of work on display are pretty varied here. I love it.

A building in downtown Fort Worth, Texas
Taylor Street, Fort Worth, TX, June 13, 1976

Shore’s deliberate choice to use large-format cameras and delicate subject matter seems so nonchalant and ethereal. But it feels as though it was shot on a small point-and-shoot. There’s something so casual and fleeting in frame.

I think a few filmmakers and directors of photography have taken cues from Shore — purposely or not. Notably and in no particular order: David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Robert Yeoman, and of course the Coen Brothers.

A man about to cross a street in downtown El Paso, Texas
El Paso Street, El Paso, TX,July 5, 1976

What makes the mundane so compelling here? Perhaps it’s that life moves so fucking fast. Shore’s photography provides a reprieve, a deep breath and a moment to reflect.

Have you ever been on a roadtrip? The scenery changes so quickly we don’t have time to digest. The ephemeral hand-painted signs, or the cashier behind the counter at the gas station, the brass knobs on a door, or the  meticulous placed soaps in your motel — just quick flashes in the grand scheme. Taken for granted and forgotten.

A quaint building in Maine.
Bridge Street, Mexico, Maine, July 30, 1974

This is probably why Instagram is a such a popular photo sharing network. Everything is important. Stacked upon the previously important snapshot. A rich slice of life, that everyone can take part of. Perhaps, Shore’s lasting impact on the American landscape wasn’t the culmination of Uncommon Places, but instead merely the plated food photograph. The original Instagramer.

Palm Beach, FL, November 8, 1977

 

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