Few iconic visual artists of the 20th century achieved their renown without an equally iconic aesthetic—this being the culmination of all prior ideas and creative activity, wrapped into a tidy narrative arc. Pick out a random photograph shot by Stephen Shore at any point in the last 50 years, however, and it’s a gamble as to whether it will foreshadow anything made a few months or years later, let alone decades.
For Shore, who is largely self-taught, his practice has been a study in how to pivot from one style, subject, or technique to the next: In the 1960s, as a prolific teenager exploring his native New York, he developed a friendship with Andy Warhol, and subsequently documented the raucous, star-studded blur of the Factory on black and white film. By the ’70s, he turned his attention to small towns and deserted landscapes across America, capturing the scenery in vivid color. Out of this emerged his milestone “American Surfaces” series, which established that his interests went beyond Manhattan’s pop art set, and demonstrated his versatility to match. Looking back on the vast scope of his collected works, Shore’s even-keeled execution is the discernible common thread even where imagery seems incongruous at every other level—take, for instance, in a 1996 series, how the rocky terrain of an ancient Israeli archaeological site, reproduced in greyscale, flattens the jagged forms into abstract geometry; and the way a wholesome Americana beams through snapshots of the Yankees practicing on a grassy green baseball diamond in Fort Lauderdale on a sunny day in 1978.
This winter, a major survey of Shore’s photographs will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Opening shortly after the artist’s 70th birthday, it also marks his first retrospective in the United States. From the early 1960s, the oldest selections date back to the beginning of his career, and several hundred pieces span the more than 50 years up through 2015. Bringing together past and present, the most recent item is a custom designed iPhone 6 case emblazoned with a telephone booth and towering saguaro that Shore shot outside of Wikiup, Arizona in 1976 (the original U.S. 93, Wikieup, Arizona, December 14, 1976 is also on view). While the physical show is arranged chronologically, the catalog unfolds as an encyclopedia with almost 60 entries pertaining to general themes, specific content, his technical approaches, formative influences, and notable series—from “American Surfaces,” and “Archaeology” to “Warhol, Andy,” and “Youth.”
For some background on the show itself, can you tell me about how you began organizing it, from the initial conversation to physically diving into your archives? Quentin Bajac, [MoMA’s chief curator of photography], approached me with the idea. For years, I have had a policy to not to interfere with what curators do—a show is my work, but the show is their show. Their decisions shouldn’t be deluded by influence. If they approach me and say, “How would you like to see this?” I’d be glad to give my opinion. Otherwise, I left all the curatorial decisions to Quentin. He made a couple of visits to my studio in the Hudson Valley. I’d gotten together just about everything I’ve done, for him to see. He went through everything, and, from that, decided what to include in the show.
When did you first develop this policy, of removing yourself from the curatorial decisions? In the ’70s. I think it came out of a conversation with the head of the photography department at MoMA at the time, John Szarkowski. We had a discussion about how involved the ought to be. He made the case—and I thought a good case—for the photographer allowing the curator to bring his or her insight to the work.
What was his case? It was that the show is the reflection of both the body of work—but also the body of work as seen through the interpretation of the curator. Let me add, I can see that in play in this particular show, because what comes across is, over the years, my kind of experimentation with different processes, or different means of distribution. That theme is emphasized over, just focusing on a couple of particularly significant bodies of work.
As you were going through your archives, did you come across any series that you had forgotten about, or hadn’t thought about in a while? Yes, in fact, it did. There were a couple of series that I hadn’t forgotten that I’d done, but hadn’t looked at in a long time, in decades. In 1974, I did a series of stereo pictures, which you view through a stereo viewer. They were shown at Light Gallery in ’75 as part of a larger show of mine, but haven’t been shown since. They’re very hard to reproduce because you have to look at them through a stereo viewer. So, they have been resurrected.
Also, throughout the ’70s, while I was using a view camera, on the same trips I also almost always took a Leica with me, and I did a lot of 35 millimeter Kodachrome transparencies, which had never been seen. Again, it’s not that I had forgotten that I had done them; it’s that the opportunity to use them never really arose. There are a number of groups of pictures like that included in the show.
Did seeing those physical photos jog any personal memories of going out to take the photos in this way? There was one instance where it did, actually. There was a series I did in Los Angeles, where I took about 60 pictures in the course of a day [in 1969]. I had remembered those pictures. There were a couple of images I particularly liked, and thought about, which is why I brought out the body of work to show Quentin. What I had not remembered, was that, this came at the very end of a couple of years of doing conceptually-based sequences. What my original idea was, was that every picture I took that day would be used. When I looked at the back of them, I saw that they were all numbered. I had completely forgotten that.
What was interesting for me was that I did a series in Winslow, Arizona, [in 2013]. I took about 180 pictures in the course of a day and showed every one. So, without having remembered the first series, I went back to the same idea. Anyway, some of the earlier ones will be in the show.
After the ’60s, with your earliest work around Andy Warhol and the Factory, a lot of your series throughout the ’70s revolved around road trips. I was wondering how that became something that you began doing on a regular basis. Do you remember the first road trip you went on, or how you planned it? I don’t think I photographed it, as a road trip—but I think the first one I went on was to Amarillo, Texas, in the late ’60s. I went out there just to visit friends. When I made the trip, it was really the first time I saw the middle of the country. Driving to Amarillo, and spending time in Amarillo, and seeing a part of the nation that I wasn’t familiar with, is what inspired me to then make a series of road trips. Each year, I went on a different route, to explore a different part.
Did you plan the routes carefully, or…? Yes. They were all planned in advance.
Was there spontaneity where you would turn off at such-and-such exit because it looked interesting, or was it more like, “stop here, stop here…”? Oh no, I didn’t plan where I was going to stop. I just planned the route.
Except for stopping to take photos, how did you pass the time, while driving? I listened to the radio—this was before cars had tape players. I also, at the time, had memorized a lot of speeches from Shakespeare, and I amused myself by repeating them. There’s so much time you can spend doing that, really! [laughs]
What were your top three speeches from Shakespeare? [pausing to think] There are two from Hamlet—one begins, “Oh, my offense is rank.” The other one begins, “How all occasions do inform against me.” There was one from Richard III that I liked a lot, and from The Merchant of Venice, one that begins, “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.”
Out on the road, when you stopped in these towns, did you attract attention at all? Oh, yeah. In ’72, I was using a little, amateur-looking 35-millimeter camera. I had very long hair at the time, and people were very suspicious of me: “Why is this person…?” I didn’t look like a professional photographer because I had this amateur camera, and I used the amateur camera so that I could go up to people and say, “Can I take your picture?” and they wouldn’t feel like they were being confronted by someone with a Leica. I wanted something that was less threatening, in a way. Then I switched to the view camera, and I never really had problems after that. I was totally conspicuous, because I had this great big camera. But it looked so professional that people just assumed I had a reason for being there. I mean, you can’t be inconspicuous with an 8-by-10 view camera.
I feel like, over the last 15 or 20 years, across the country, speaking from own observations, towns have started to appear more and more as falling into this similar pattern, like there’s a template, almost. Is that something that’s always been true, in your experience? Well, in the ’70s, around the time that strip mall culture started, I was particularly interested in parts of the country where the towns still had a lot of regional flavor. I think a lot still do. This year, I’ve made a couple of trips between New York and Montana. I’ve spent time in Montana, driving around there and seeing what the communities are like. I mean, there are aspects that are changed—some of the communities have grown a lot, and have subdivisions, and big-box stores. But there are other towns right nearby that are essentially unchanged.
When you’ve spoken about how you frame compositions, you’ve talked about this issue of solving the “problem” of the composition, or finding the solution of a given scene. Could you talk about what that means? There are two answers to that. One is, I was probably referring to the period of the ’70s. I was consciously learning and playing with every visual variable I could think of in a photograph, to understand how a photograph is put together, the visual grammar of a photograph, and how it affects perception—how the decisions I make, as a photographer, affect the perception of the viewer.
More broadly, some photographers may devote their life to a particular style of photography. I knew early on that that was not in my nature. When I find myself repeating myself, or doing something almost by rote, I go on to something new. If I find myself succumbing to a visual convention, or that something I’ve been doing intuitively begins to emerge in my mind as a convention that I’ve been unconsciously following, I tend to explore that, and, when possible, explode that. Sometimes this takes the form of being open to different means of dissemination of an image; sometimes it means looking to see what different techniques have to offer. What happens if I switch from black-and-white to color? After 20 years of using color, what happens if I switch back to black-and-white? To go from a 35-millimeter camera to an 8-by-10 camera, or from an 8-by-10 camera to an iPhone—what aesthetic territory is opened up by that move and that decision?
There are also questions about content. For example, some of the most recent work was a body of work I did in Ukraine. In visual terms, I don’t think it breaks any new ground, formally. But I was interested in the kind of emotional communication to communicate emotional states I was feeling while I was doing the work, without being manipulative—and how to reach that place where I’m not avoiding the emotional state, and doing something, just “cool,” but, at the same time, not depending on a kind of manipulation of the viewer. That becomes, then, a question not of form, but a question of content. So, these questions and problems take different guises at different times.
Could you tell me more about the Ukraine photographs? My wife had come across a foundation that helps support holocaust survivors living in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. If they had been to concentration camps, they would be getting reparations from the German government. But in Ukraine, people were not sent to concentration camps by and large—there were very few camps in Ukraine. So, they don’t get the reparations. It’s in a kind of ironic way, because Ukrainians were treated worse than the people further to the West. Jews were taken out and shot. They, ironically, don’t get the reparations that people further to the West would have gotten. So, they depend on government aid and this foundation that steps in to fill the gap. We started supporting it. It was my wife’s idea to make a trip.
That sounds like it’s sort of different territory than almost all of the major series you’ve done before. Yes. It’s very different, in terms of a certain kind of involvement with the content. Where, with my earlier work, I was making more cultural and sociological observations, this is both more emotional and, perhaps, political.
You’ve been teaching students photography for years as well, as the director of the photography program at Bard College since 1982. I would wonder rather if this flexibility that you’ve been able to foster in your own work, from year to year, do you think that’s one of the benefits of being self-taught? I think that it’s actually a benefit of teaching. And here’s why: If I have a class with eight students, I’m not trying to get them to take pictures that look like mine—I’m trying to lead each of them to find their own voice. I have to be a guide to eight different people in the class. So, I have to think the way they do. I’ve found that doing that for years has broadened my sense of possibilities, for images. It’s kind of exercised my photographic faculties, in just responding to their needs.