Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore *(1), considered to be one of the most important American photo books, is a diary. The pages of the diary have fallen out and been put back together out of sequence but it is still a diary, a journal in the tradition of the Victorians like Edward Lear who wrote, sketched and painted as he travelled through Italy, Albania and Greece in the 1850’s or of Shore’s fellow American Robert Frank who toured America one hundred years later camera in hand. Each of these men documented a place in time with a forensic eye for detail and no little skill and in the perfect medium for their time.
Lear worked in watercolours which Wilcox and Newall * (2), in Victorian Landscape Watercolours, tell us was considered in the 1800’s to be “a new art” and one that rose to its zenith in the middle of that century when Lear was complaining about poor roads and dirty villages in Southern Italy whilst creating a collection of landscapes that documented the region.
Robert Frank’s work is black and white photographs, considered in the 1950s, and for many years before and after, to be the only possible medium for art photography, and then we have Shore who was one of a small group of American photographers who worked in colour and who made that medium acceptable and then acclaimed.
I believe that this link is key to understanding the work of these documentarists. Each wanted to communicate something they saw as important about the places they visited and the people they found there. If you wish to communicate something it is only sensible to use a language that can describe your subject and that be heard and understood. Each man selected the medium of his time that best allowed them to describe their subject. The difference is that Lear and Frank rode the crest of the wave of their chosen art form whereas Shore was part of the formation of the wave of “New Colour”.
Uncommon Places has been published twice, an original in 1982 which comprised 49 plates and an updated version in 2004 which included around 100 more photographs. This has now been reprinted many times, my copy being the 2013 reprint. Uncommon Places is seen as one of the most important photograph books of modern times and my own research shows that this book and William Eggleston’s The Guide are two of the most quoted and reviewed books in the world of photography. Given its status I wanted to understand, as far as possible, what Shore was trying to achieve when he embarked on his road-trips between 1973 and 1979 so I have spent time finding interviews with the artist in both written and video form so that I started to look closely at Shore’s work with his own thoughts and statements as my guide.
There is, of course, a technical aspect to Uncommon Places which is much discussed and much copied. Shore’s choice of camera was a 8×10 view camera which can been seen in a number of films of him at work *(3). This camera can only be used with a tripod and focussing is carried out on a ground glass backplate. Once the film is inserted the image can not longer be seen so Shore stands to one side of his camera, cable release in hand and waits.
Having worked for a number of years with a medium format Bronica, which could be used hand-held but was far more effective on a tripod, I know that a large camera guides you towards a slow, measured and thoughtful approach to subject selection and composition and, because the tripod enables long shutter speeds, there is the opportunity to use deep depths of field. Shore realised all these things before he started using the 8 x 10 but more importantly he recognised that this allowed him a greater level of compositional freedom than he had known with a handheld camera. In his interviews he repeatedly uses the word “detail” and this is part of the key to his work. He saw that, by having such a wide DoF, he could compose his images with great depth and include detail right to the horizon, as an analytical man he became intrigued with the structure of his images and “how deep space in a picture relates to a picture plane”. * (4)
This depth is one of the first things that stands out in his landscapes and it is not just about DoF and sharp focus from near to far, it is more to do with the fact that the images are often full of detail deep into the picture and that he is composing the background right into the depths of the frame. The huge 8 x 10 negative means that he has precise clarity for this detail when he prints and this means the comparatively small prints that he often displayed overflow with information.
There are many examples in Uncommon Places of these trademarks of his style, the depth of the image in the frame, the immense amount of information that draws us in, and the careful, precise, positioning of every element; in U.S 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, 1973 the telegraph poles disappear so far away from the viewer it is difficult to say precisely when they are still there and when they have gone, the clouds lead us to a vanishing point somewhere behind the billboard and the horizon is fringed with mountains upon which the trees might be counted. Main Street, Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, 1974 is a very different type of photograph, a small urban scene, but like South of Klamath even the more distant objects are carefully positioned and you can sense that he took a step to his right to position the blue building so precisely between the telegraph poles, Gull Lake is also an example of the type of detail that connects with viewer and calls for a second, third and forth look to see the cowboy boot on the Coca Cola sign which in itself is missing several letters, the two street lamps with red shades outside the little white store at the end of the street and is “Wal Wal” really “Wall to Wall” and is it a carpet shop?
This extreme level of detail and Shore’s tendency to exhibit his work with comparatively small prints reveals yet more of his analytical nature. He knew that the 8 x 10 negatives, even when masked in camera to allow him to take two 4 x 10 pictures on one negative, would allow him to produce large prints without any significant loss of quality but he also saw that a large print allowed a viewer to casually look and move on, thereby missing whole tranches of information * (5). A smaller print, however, demanded close inspection and once we start to look closely at a Shore print we look even more closely and then we reach for our reading glasses and look again. I found myself using a magnifying loupe to investigate the depths of his compositions.
There is another aspect of detail that makes Shore unusual today and made him stand-out from all but a tiny few in the 70s. His all-in-focus pictures using all the available detail of the 8 x 10 negative allowed him to offer everything and nothing as the subject. In American Beauty * (3) he says ” recording in extraordinary detail allows me to see things but not make them the whole point of the picture.” This idea, of what he calls a “state of hyperawareness” make his pictures a more complete view of a scene than we could have had by being there. He captures everything in a split second but it takes us far, far longer to explore the scene via his image and often, there is no one subject, no item sitting at a “rule of thirds” intersection that explains the composition and I do not believe that he wants us to ask what is the subject? of say “Speedway Boulevard, Tuscan, Arizona, 1976” is it the cars? is it the Mazda sign? is it the road? because it is all of these and the lamp posts and the palm trees and the road signs and … The point is made; he presents a complete and complex view, left to right, top to bottom, front to back that in totality describes Speedway Boulevard.
Stephen Shore embraced colour in much the same way as William Eggleston, he saw the world in colour and documents places that might be described as “dull” using a technicolor palette. He rejects the idea that the colours in his photographs are nostalgic * (4) and the re-print of Uncommon Places supports this position. Plate after plate glows with saturated colours. He choses to photograph people in bright clothes against muted backgrounds so the subject leaps out such as in “Main Street, Fort Worth, Texas, June 17, 1976”, or in “Ginger Shore, Miami, Florida, November 12, 1977”. He revels in the colours of vehicles whether in close- up or as part of his landscapes and when there is little colour contrast he offers beautiful tonal variations as in his photo of the Yankees at West Palm Beach, Florida, March 14, 1978. Colour is never incidental it is front and centre in his compositions.
Having highlighted the depth of his pictures, the detail and the colour there is one further element that brings everything together and that element is structure. Shore is a scholar, a thinker, an analyst and as much a scientist in temperament as he is an artist. His photographs therefore have many levels, some apparent to the casual viewer and some that are less obvious and this is where I found his words an important guide to his work. Shore tells us that he spent a lot of time exploring the structures of photography and how to organise space in a picture * (3) and it is clear that Uncommon Places, a celebration of colour, a documentary journey across America and a detailed record of what he saw is also part of this exploration of structure. The organisation of space, the careful balance of large blocks of tone and the lines that he uses to direct our view are examples of his desire to show that “structure is not a visual nicety simply over laid on the world but is way of understanding the world.”
Because compositional structure is so important in his images one can select nearly any of the plates in Uncommon Places as an example to prove this point but I am selecting “Miami Beach, Florida, November 13, 1977” as my example because, at first glance, it does not conform to Shore’s other landscapes. This is a picture of a woman sunbathing under a tree on a quiet, nearly empty beach; it is constructed around four large shapes, the road and wall being one, the beach, the sea and, lastly, the pale, blue sky. Each of the four is nearly an empty space but each space is broken by small but relevant points of interest, the rocks in the wall, the trees, two people, huts and shadows on the beach, the ship and the waves and a band of clouds on the horizon. Overall the frame is divided with restful horizontals that match the relaxing scene and diagonals that run both left to right and front to back to create some tension. The position of the huts and trees are balanced and carefully related to each other and the ship sits perfectly both on the horizon and between two trees. The woman is off centre and could be the natural starting point but the lines move us left, then right and at each pass we see a little more, now there are waste bins on the beach, there is another set of tyre tracks we didn’t see the first time until eventually he has led us around this scene and we have seen everything and feel we have an understanding of that afternoon in Florida.
Shore compositions are painstakingly precise, many are symmetrical with buildings carefully centralised and related to parallel horizontals and verticals. Roads, which are a recurring theme, often cross from bottom left to top right or visa versa, human subjects are mostly centred, and diagonals regularly link with other diagonals at 45 or 90 degrees. His high structure is in stark contrast with his mundane subjects. Shore wanted to photograph the parts of America that were not news, document the heart of his country with forensic accuracy, record the backdrop, the ordinary scenery of the nation whilst most eyes were on New York or Washington, Vietnam or the cold war that was all in the centre of the stage.
Not being an American my emotions are not those of nostalgia when I look through Uncommon Places but my responses are emotional, I love the saturated colours in the sunshine, the voyeuristic insight into a place I can never visit, the ugly middle American architecture of gas stations and car dealerships set against the distant majesty of mountains and arid desserts, the gas guzzling pick up trucks and flat, wallowing, limos stuck in traffic jams.
At its heart Uncommon Places is a dairy but it is a diary about everything that is ordinary and unremarkable about middle America, it is about ordinary people and ordinary places captured in an extraordinary way.
* (1) Shore, Stephen. (2004) Uncommon Places: The Complete Works: 2013 reprint, London, Thames and Hudson.
* (2) Wilcox, Scott & Newall, Christopher, (1992) Victorian Landscape Watercolours, New York, Hudson Hills.
Kimmelman, Michael, (2007) Biographical Landscape: Passing Mile Markers, Snapping Pictures, New York, The New York Times. www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2005.100.498
Hodgson, Francis, (2013) Stephen Shore: Something and Nothing, Sprüth Magers, London – Review, London, The Financial Times. www.ft.com/cms/s/2/42423636-5b42-11e3-848e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2tKC0Qo47
* (4) Jiang, Rong. (2007) The Apparent is the Bridge to the Real: Interview with Stephen Shore, New York, ICP. www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/interview-stephen-shore-the-apparent-is-the-bridge-to-the-real-2007.html
National Gallery of Art, (2009) Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, the National Gallery if Art. www.nga.gov/exhibitions/frankinfo.shtm
Welling, James, (2010) James Welling puts five questions to Stephen Shore, Blouin Art Info International. www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/33591/james-welling-puts-five-questions-to-stephen-shore/
Edvardsen, Simen, (2012) Uncommon Places, on the Road, The Photobook Club. photobookclub.org/index.php/2012/02/10/simen-edvardsen-uncommon-places-on-the-road/
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections
* (5) Stephen Shore Uncommon Places, (2012?) Spike Productions interview with Stephen Shore. vimeo.com/32562146
* (3) Stephen Shore American Beauty, (2009) Joy of Giving Something Inc. Directed by Donna Golden. www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRM2X1GnNSQ#t=318