When Stephen Shore began photographing Andy Warhol and his entourage in 1965, he was a precocious teenager who had already made an avant-garde film and had sold several works to the Museum of Modern Art. Capturing such interstitial moments as Andy pensively examining his fingernails and Nico standing like a moon-goddess bathed in fluorescent light, his Factory images, published as The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-67 (1995), combine a fresh, youthful vision with an ease and technical skill usually found in the work of more mature photographers. Shore felt that he didn't begin to 'make the transition to thinking aesthetically' until he had been exposed to Warhol's serial process and disciplined, critical approach to making art. Not long afterwards, he began to work with colour, became fascinated by snapshots and postcards, and discovered the quality of light in the American Southwest.
Shore's recent exhibition included work from three quietly revelatory series shot between 1972 and 1993. After beginning in 35mm film he worked with large-scale negatives, and the outstanding pieces in this show were eleven works produced during this period. These exactingly rendered scenes of the US and Scotland, shot with an 8 by 10 inch view camera, make startlingly apparent his influence on younger photographers such as Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall. Their extraordinarily sharp, uncannily uniform focus yields an effect of total transparency, a sense that everything in the frame is loaded with importance. In a recent interview, Shore acknowledged their 'surreal density of information', citing his interest in Vermeer's canvases and 'the tangible force of his attention'.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is often painting that these photographs evoke. In Merced River, Yosemite National Park California, August 13 (1979), the photographer looks down at several vacationers wading, strolling, and taking snaps. They seem almost mannequin-like against the sunlit shore of the river, which is a stark, plaza-like expanse spread out before a dramatic backdrop of conifers and mountains. Figures are absent from another work of the same year, Jackson Wyoming, September 2 (1979), but traces of a human presence are visible in the form of a campsite and a pair of jeans drying on a rock. In these scenes, people or their possessions are not dwarfed by nature, as in 19th-century Romantic images, but rather subsumed into a moment that's as artificial as it is natural.
Also remarkable, though distinct in composition and subject matter from the large-scale works, are 40 images from the series 'American Surfaces' (1972), which Shore shot with a 35mm camera while travelling across the country to document the places, objects, and people he came into contact with. Although these images are carefully structured, their subjects tend to be simple in the extreme: a teddy bear on a patterned rug, a baby peering up at the camera, an array of fruit baskets, a plate of fried eggs, an open fridge, a toilet, a pink payphone, a Conoco station, a half-eaten TV dinner. A few in the series are portraits in the guise of casual snapshots. When I came across an image of someone I know, the avant-garde film scholar P. Adams Sitney, gazing candidly at the camera, light glinting off his glasses, the photograph brought home the delicacy of Shore's approach. A subtle evocation of character and the hue of a passing moment, this seemingly off-hand image is reminiscent of the Factory photographs, but enriched by a rigorous attention to colour and detail.
In On Photography (1978), Susan Sontag argued that the trend toward banal or 'boring' subjects in the 1970s led to a corresponding emphasis on the photographer as author by privileging 'photographic seeing' over content. Although Shore might seem to fit this model, his lineage is a complex one, and this is evident even in 'American Surfaces', which is replete with banal subjects. A shot of a classical bust in a barbershop window, for example, evokes Eugène Atget's haunting photos of Parisian shop exteriors, while other images point to the work of Walker Evans or Ed Ruscha, two distinct early influences. However, Shore's contact with Warhol is significant not only in his early choice of subject matter, but also in that he seems to have pursued what Sitney has described as Warhol's 'conscious ontology of the viewing experience' as much as 'photographic seeing'. Not least of all, rather than foregrounding his own authorship, Shore has maintained such a modest profile that this show was nothing short of a revelation.
First published in Issue 54