What Looking Looks Like: An Interview with Stephen Shore




13 minutes reading

Few photographers have been as influential on the evolution of the art of photography as American photographer Stephen Shore (1947). In the ‘70s, when black and white was still considered the medium of ‘serious’ work, he was one of the frontier artists to use colour photography, and he continuously challenged the conventions of the medium at large by turning his camera towards ‘the everyday’ in direct subversion to the notion that photography had to prove itself a serious artform through pictorial or dogmatically formal means. Now, after more than fifty years of photographing, Shore alternates easily between large format film cameras and Instagram. A major retrospective of Shore’s photography has been developed as a travelling exhibition (at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam until Sept 4, 2016) and moves chronologically through the major projects of his life’s work. He speaks with us in this interview about artistic transparency, the wordlessness of visual language and responding to what you see in front of you.

One of your ongoing themes is ‘transparency’, in the sense that you deliberately want to exclude signs of your artistic workmanship in the photos. Was this always one of your goals or did this only emerge after you started to reflect on your work?

I would say it first appeared with the conceptual work (1969-70) and that by American Surfaces (1972-73) it was one of the main themes of the work. Let me explain the connection. I was interested in taking pictures that seemed 'authentic', that did not show as much the artifice of visual convention. In the conceptual work, I tried that through the idea of taking some of the artistic decisions out of my hands: I would follow a program, for example taking a picture at a set time, or from a set angle. I saw it as a way of subverting my imposition of visual convention. But, I ultimately was unsatisfied with that. I felt I ought to be able to do that really from the inside and to purge myself of it.

So, for American Surfaces, one of the things that I had in mind was to take a picture that felt less mediated by convention and so what I did was, whenever I thought of it during the day, I would take essentially a screenshot of my field of vision. I wanted to try to just see, ‘What does looking look like? What is the experience of seeing like?’ and use that as a reference for how to put a picture together.

Another way of looking at it might be, I think everyone's had the experience that when they write, they tend to use a language that's a little more formal and a little more stilted than when they speak, and I think there's a visual equivalent to that. I wanted a picture that was more the visual equivalent of speaking.

You’ve also been teaching photography since 1982. Have any of your your students ever brought in some photographs looking down at the meal they just ate and asked, "But why doesn't it work... you did it just like this?" What’s the best way to help a new artist understand why it worked for you, but it may never work again?

Well, none of them have exactly had the nerve to do that... but were they to do it, what I would say is one of the things I'm interested in is a kind of authenticity. it's seeing the world with fewer filters. When I did it, that was the result of seeing the world with fewer filters. But, if you have in your mind my picture as a filter and have it as a model – "This is what a good picture should look like" – then even though the picture may look similar, your picture is the product of a filtered experience, and I suspect it will have a slightly different feeling. It won't have the edge of immediacy, it won't have the edge of discovery, because it really is plugging something you're seeing into a model that’s already existing in your head.

I’m glad you bring up the ‘models’ you see the world through. In your book The Nature of Photographs (1998), which is a brilliant primer in how to view and understand the visual language of photography, you describe your own model as, “a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination, and intention.” How do you apply that model in the moment?

I guess what I'm saying is that it's not one thing, and it’s not something static. For example, Edward Weston wrote in the ‘20s or ‘30s about an idea of his called ‘pre-visioning’ where he imagines as he's about to take the picture how the finished picture will look, and Ansel Adams called it ‘pre-visualization’. Other people try to make that sound like something dead – like you imagine the picture and then you simply fulfil it. I don’t want the model to sound static in that way, and if you read Edward Weston, what he's talking about isn't static, either.

I may approach a scene with certain questions in my mind or certain factors I'm working on that interest me, I may have certain ways of making a picture, but I also have to be responsive to what's there. So, what I'm doing can wind up being different sometimes to what I intended going in, because the model changes in response to what I encounter.

Are you aware of the questions you’re trying to answer while in the moment?

It's totally conscious. I may not put it into words because I'm thinking visually. For example, if you're sitting at a desk now, and as you're reaching over, you realize you're about to knock over a glass of water and you grab it... there's a lot of thinking that goes on without words in your head.

I've learned to be able to put what I'm doing into words because if I'm teaching, I have to communicate in words, but when I'm working I'm not thinking in words, I'm thinking visually. In visual terms, I'm consciously aware of issues that I'm working on or intentions that I have, almost all the time.

One of the things I’m interested in is a kind of authenticity. It’s seeing the world with fewer filters.

How do you balance formal perfection with the transparency you’re pursuing? It seems these two things are a bit at odds with each other.

I'm interested in the problem of transparency, but that doesn't mean that that's all I've done. I've had periods where the works seem, to my eyes, so extremely formal and non-transparent in a certain way, although other people will say, "Oh, it's sort of a snapshot aesthetic", and it doesn't look at all like a snapshot to me.

The formal decisions, that is, the structural decisions, in some of my work is, in my eyes, very obvious, and there are others where the structural decisions are transparent. But they both are equally conscious and they both are, in a way, equally formal – they both are choices. I mean, think about the difference between a poet and a journalist. The journalist may choose her words as carefully as a poet does, but wants to leave the impression that the work is not about the choice of words but the idea being communicated. Both the journalist and the poet can have formal intents and formal control but choose to go different directions.

You’ve said that black and white is less transparent than colour photography. Do you feel like you're done with black and white for now or might you pick it up again?

I'm not done at all with it. The main work I'm doing for the past two years has been Instagram, and for that I'm shooting with my phone, but a secondary project that I started last summer, that I'll continue this summer, is photographing my garden with a view camera in black and white.

I'm intrigued to hear you’re on Instagram, because you’ve described photography before as having a disposition towards everyday things and scenes. Now that everyone has a camera, how can a photographer stand out from the crowd?

I realize that I'm about to use language as an analogy for the third time in our conversation, but it seems useful one, and that is: everyone in the Western world is a writer. Everyone has learned to write, everyone writes everyday. And not only mundane things, but now we live in an age where people have blogs and Twitter accounts, where people write comments on newspaper articles or on comments on other people's blogs or comments on other people's comments and put it out there into the world. So, in a way, everyone is a writer and yet there are still people who write commentary that seems more profound and significant than the crank comments on a newspaper article. There are still poets, there are still novelists. The fact that everyone has a voice doesn't diminish the work of the people who have something more to say.

Now everyone has a camera on them all the time. People used to say things like, "Oh, I wish I had my camera with me"... Well, people don't say that anymore. There are 300 million Instagram users but some people use Instagram more interestingly than others, and some people use photography in general more interestingly than others, who have a better understanding of the medium and have more to say.

What's your own ambition for your work with Instagram?

I post every day. When I post, with the rare exception of an occasional ‘Throwback Thursday’ picture, everything is from within a week of taking it, so I'm not culling through archives. Everything is taken with Instagram in mind, so I'm not going out on a photoshoot for myself and then posting the best picture on Instagram.

I put on Instagram pictures I'm taking on the phone, knowing that they will be posted to Instagram. That's sort of the basic framework for what I'm doing. I mean, some people refer to their feeds as their 'gallery', and people will sometimes comment “I like your gallery”. I don't see it as my ‘gallery’, I see it as an Instagram feed, which is a little less pretentious and demanding, because it's not the only way my work gets out there, so it's not my need of public voice. It's more fun than that. Sometimes I post pictures that are maybe a little dumb. I post pictures that I would not make a print up and hang on the wall. I see a little quirky thing, like the light reflecting on the gallery floor, and, to the befuddlement of some friends of mine this week, posted it.

It sounds like it's still important to you to have fun with photography.

Oh absolutely, and that's one of the things that I like about Instagram, is that it's just fun.

To pay attention to something that’s everyday is different than noticing something that calls out to you.

With so much visual noise, is it harder for you nowadays to give the same level of attention to the everyday?

Attention in general is just as important to me now as it's always been. Part of what I wanted to communicate in my work was what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness and I think that's why I tended to be attracted to kind of ordinary things, because to pay attention to something that's everyday is different than noticing something that calls out to you.

That may be why even today, when I'm photographing my garden, I'm looking at a plant just as it's budding or after the flowers had faded. I'm interested in the whole life-cycle of the plant and not just when it's in bloom. Instead of taking the expected pictures of the garden, when it's calling out to be photographed, it’s about paying attention to it at all moments.

With the rise of the internet and so forth, there’s been a lot of talk about our collective diminishing attentions. Do you see any effects of this, for example in your students?

Well, my students are just beginning so they have all kinds of photographic issues to work out, like getting rid of some of their preconceptions about what a good photograph is or maybe they have to get rid of trying to ‘make a good photograph’ and just take pictures of things that mean something to them.

But, something I've noticed with the rise of digital photography is that photographers, even the ones who were using film and were working with a great deal of intentionality, when they pick up a digital camera, can lose that intentionality. Certainly not all the time, but occasionally. I think it's because the pictures are free and they shoot lots and lots of pictures.

When I use a digital camera, I essentially use it the way I use an 8x10, which is, I take one picture of everything, unless something is in motion. If I'm photographing people on the streets I'll take several pictures but if I'm photographing a doorway, I take one picture. If I'm photographing a building, I'll take one picture. It's just from the experience of using an 8x10 for thirty years, but I see this in students and I see it in some photographers who I have a lot of respect for, that there's something about digital where sometimes, they pick up the camera and work with less intention.

How did you develop your own practice of taking that one picture?

When I was first using an 8 x 10, I might take between six and twelve pictures in a day, and I would spend a lot of time with it – I had this rule of only taking one picture of anything. It was not some kind of moral decision, it was simply a matter of economy: 8 x 10 colour was very expensive. In the ‘70s, it was maybe $15 a shot and today it's maybe $50 a shot – so it was just out of simple economy!

I knew I couldn't limit myself by only taking pictures that I knew were going to be good, because then I just take boring, safe pictures, so I had to feel that I could photograph whatever I wanted, but there had to be an economy somewhere and it came down to I would only take one picture. That meant that I had to decide what it is that I actually wanted. That means, if I'm setting up the photograph at an intersection, say, there are hundreds of equally valid pictures that could be taken – it's not that one is better than the other – but one may be more akin to what I want than another. It wasn't my intention when I started this, but just a byproduct: I had to discover what I really wanted.

A retrospective of Stephen Shore's is on display at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam until September 4, 2016. The catalogue, Stephen Shore: Survey, is available from Fundación MAPFRE & Aperture Foundation.