Stephen Shore, the Museum of Modern Art’s five-decade retrospective on the artist, is not only a celebration of one of the most significant photographers of our time but also a celebration of photography and documentary for their own sake. This exhibition of over five hundred images is Shore’s first survey in New York to span his entire career. As stated by MoMA, the exhibition seeks to “demonstrate a singular vision—defined by an interest in daily life, a taste for serial and often systematic approaches, a strong intellectual underpinning, a restrained style, sly humor, and visual casualness—and [an] uncompromising pursuit of photography’s possibilities.”[1]

New York native Stephen Shore was born in 1947. He rose to prominence with fellow color photography pioneers William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz in the 1970s with his influential collection, American Surfaces, capturing the straightforward and unglamorous aspects of American culture—which includes messy motel beds, half-eaten diner breakfasts, garish signs and billboards, and pornographic magazine covers In his career, he has conducted a continual study of image-making, from the gelatin silver prints he made as a teenager to his current fascination with the possibilities of photography in the digital age. Shore was first introduced to photography at the ripe age of six, when he was gifted a darkroom set by his uncle. By the time he was eleven, he got a Leica and began practicing photography on the vibrant streets of Manhattan. Shore recalls in the exhibition’s audio commentary: “I wasn’t intimidating. It was just a kid saying, ‘Can I take your picture?’ And they always said, ‘Yes’.”[2]

Stephen Shore’s first feature article “Angry Young Man With a Camera” was published in the popular magazine U.S. Camera in 1963, and this is a reputation he earned from his restless dedication to his craft. At fourteen, his work entered the collection of MoMA when he boldly persuaded Edward Steichen to buy three prints. In the exhibition, you can find many of his earliest works—black and white photographs documenting the daily lives of New Yorkers and their surrounding scenery. Along with these early images is a rare 1964 silent film by Shore, entitled Elevator, blending shots of a lift’s metal grilles to create a stream of dashing lights and shadows. The night his film was first shown publicly, Shore met a fellow artist, none other than Andy Warhol. Shore asked if he could visit the Factory to take pictures, and for the next three years made the legendary bohemian institute his own place of education, dropping out of high school and decidedly not applying to college. Shore’s portraits of Warhol bear a casualness and spontaneity that only true friendship could account for. They somehow manage to peel back the veneer, allowing us to see the man behind the black-rimmed sunglasses.

By 1969 Stephen Shore traded the concrete sidewalks of New York for the dusty plains of Amarillo, Texas, where he took suites, or as he calls them, “serials,” of photographs, studying a single principle in repetition. It was during this period that he started thinking differently about approaches to photography, becoming interested in sequential and conceptually based images. His interest in the mundane would continue with All the Meat You Can Eat, a 1971 show at a gallery in SoHo, where Shore displayed images he had collected on his travels. These images—kitschy, perturbing, and mostly unrelated to one another—included postcards, fighter jets, forensic photos, nude pin-up girls, among his own photographs shot with the Mick-a-Matic, a children’s camera in the shape of Mickey Mouse.

During the seventies, Stephen Shore produced his Uncommon Places. A selection of eight-by-ten photographs, statelier than American Surfaces, presenting America’s burgeoning suburbs as meticulously composed tableaus. In the beginning of the eighties, Shore moved to Montana in order to pursue a new challenge—landscape photography. His landscapes manage to resist heroic grandeur, instead depicting the otherwise overlooked or forgotten details of the American northwest. “I wanted pictures that felt as natural as speaking,”[3] recalls Shore in his sage commentary.

Although the exhibition has been widely praised, one component has been receiving some flak. A handful of iPads are provided for exhibition-goers to swipe through Stephen Shore’s Instagram account—now the primary outlet for his work. The account offers landscapes, still-lifes and even images of food and pets. Jason Farago of the New York Times commented in his review of the exhibition: “I regret Mr. Shore’s fifth-act decision to, as the kids say, ”do it for the ’gram.”” [4] But Shore defends Instagram, saying, “an Instagram image doesn’t have to be the same as a picture you’d hang on a gallery wall; it’s more of a visual notation.”[5] Other unusual offerings at the exhibition include rare stereographs from 1974, seen in a special viewer injecting a third dimension to a woman’s wispy red locks or a stack of yellow grapefruits bathed in sunlight. Also unusual, is a wide-ranging ensemble of print-on-demand books Shore made in the early 2000s, each hanging from the ceiling for guests to peruse.

Stephen Shore’s MoMA survey reveals a true master photographer in a vast exhibition, reminding us of the value of photography and documentary. In this review, I have not been able to cover Shore’s travels through Scotland and Mexico, his work in Israel, the entire room dedicated to his commissioned projects, or his 2012 trip to the Ukraine, where he documented and shared the stories of Holocaust survivors. The good news is that those gems wait for you to uncover them, kind reader. I’ll leave you with this quote from Mr. Shore: “Whenever I find that I begin to repeat myself, I look to head in a new direction. Sometimes, it is a change in location, a change in subject matter. And sometimes, it’s a change in the form of the work, and taking advantage of possibilities that might not have existed before.”[6]

Stephen Shore, through May 28 at the Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan.

 

Sources

1 — MoMA website.
https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3769 

2 — MoMA website.
https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/45/705

3 — MoMA website.
https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/45/717

4 — “Stephen Shore’s MoMA Survey Shows a Restless Reformer as a Master of Photography”
The New York Times, Jason Farago. Nov. 22, 2017.
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/arts/design/stephen-shore-review-moma.html 

5 — “Stephen Shore Loves Instagram (and Thinks Warhol Would Have, Too)”
T Magazine, Aimee Farrell. May 20, 2015.
https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/05/20/stephen-shore-instagram-photo-london-somerset-house/?action=click&contentCollection=Art%20%26%20Design&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article 

6 — MoMA website.
https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/45/720

 

Tom Yoannidis’s critical review “Love and Beauty are the Shape of Water” & his script Summerlong won first prize in the Sixth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Contest. Tom’s short story “Suicide House” and his script “Runaway” each won second prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. He has written reviews for The Match Factory on Safe (directed by Todd Haynes in 1995), Mulholland Drive (directed by David Lynch in 2001) and Paris, Texas (directed by Wim Wenders in 1984). Tom was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1990. Raised by a wild/artistic mother (model/private pilot/photographer) and an adventurous father (commercial pilot), he moved to New York on a whim in 2012 to study acting, and graduated from the Maggie Flanigan Studio in late 2014. He then moved to Toronto to work as an art director/art director’s assistant on TV commercials before returning to study Film at SVA. Tom is a hopeful director/writer in the making and an impulsive watcher of 70s cinema.