C/O Berlin Foundation, Berlin
6 February – 22 May 2016
by FRANCESCA WADE
Halfway through this retrospective of the work of American photographer Stephen Shore, there is a dramatic shift: the black-and-white photographs of New York streets, of friends and family and Andy Warhol’s Factory, erupt into images of objects, road signs and landscapes made luminous in bright colour. Shore was one of the first art photographers to use colour in his work, and his shift sparked a revolution in the form. Yet this isn’t the only gear change in this substantive and captivating exhibition. In 1990, after his colour innovations had made his name, Shore relinquished his newly established trademark and returned to black-and-white photographs for more than a decade, swapping scenes of American suburbia for the rocks and valleys of Montana. This retrospective, the most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever shown, traces Shore’s whole career, from the 60s to the present day, revealing him as an elusive, chameleon figure, swift to adopt new technologies and never content to be labelled.
Shore was born in 1947 in New York City; his rise to success is the stuff of legend. Early gifts of a darkroom kit (at age six) and a copy of Walker Evans’s American Photographs (aged 10) spurred his precocious interest in photography, and in 1961, aged 14, Shore demanded an audience with Edward Steichen, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who was impressed enough to purchase three of the young artist’s photographs. Early photographs show Shore experimenting with his camera and with perspective: a 1964 self-portrait shows an uneasy young man in a large white room with an air vent, looking quizzically out beyond the viewer, his camera the only other object in shot, almost hidden at the side of the frame. Other images from this era show him developing his interest in mundane urban landscapes, the parts of the city that are not usually given a second thought: in his depictions of New York, skyscrapers languish in the background, while the focus lies on drugstores, Esso petrol stations, dogs in windows and loners lurking on street corners. A photograph entitled 1.35am in a Chinatown Restaurant encapsulates this early aesthetic, which would mark Shore’s career: there are murmurings of menace among the lonely diners who pick at the residues of meals, while anxious waiters hover, the clock in the centre of the frame announcing the time, the only certainty in this vaguely dystopian scene.
At 17, Shore began to hang around Andy Warhol’s Factory, helping out with films and lighting, and photographing Warhol and his collaborators, fans and muses: Paul Jasmin, Gino Piserchio, Benedetta Barzini, Julie Garfield, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison. Shore’s Factory pictures, taken between 1965 and 1967, are fascinating snapshots of Warhol’s aura, depicting simultaneously a sense both of glamour and vulnerability. In one, Warhol reclines on a sofa surveying his kingdom, a decrepit warehouse filled with detritus: ladders, hat stands, a swivel chair and a giant mirrored glitter ball. In another, entitled Beauty #1, Warhol playfully wrestles with a grinning Kip Stagg in front of one of Warhol’s famous cow prints, propped casually against the wall. The artwork is in the background; Shore’s focus is on the moment, which he captures in full motion, from the blurring of the men’s fingers as they meet to the shadow spreading across Warhol’s hair as he gazes down at his adversary. His time at the Factory was brief, but established Shore’s reputation: in 1971, still only 23, Shore became only the second living photographer to show his work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Perspective and the position of the photographer remain important themes in Shore’s 60s experiments. Several of his series of images are differentiated by small changes made to a set scene – a shift in camera angle, a change (or removal) of clothes, a switch of subject. A series of pictures of his parents, Ruth and Fred, juxtapose images of the middle-aged couple dressed up and in their underwear. In Circle No 1, a figure stands in a landscape while the camera moves around it like a compass, revealing different prisms of the surrounding scene. In 4 Part Variations, a car is photographed in a desert at several levels of close-up, the landscape around it in turn looming and disappearing, while in KT Ranch, Shore photographs a chair in a park many times over, each time with a new person sitting in it or standing by it, until, in one, it is left empty. A similar experiment saw Shore photograph the Avenue of the Americas over one day, chronicling the passage through this space of various different groups: slickly suited workers, mothers with prams, rowdy gaggles of friends. A more personal iteration of this diaristic impulse was July 22, 1969, the springboard for Shore’s celebrated colour series American Surfaces, with which this work is here juxtaposed. The series captures Shore’s friend Doug Marsh at half-hourly intervals over the course of a single day. Shore prioritised concept over framing, timing his shots meticulously with a stopwatch, not waiting for an opportune event, but photographing whatever the allotted moment offered him. The work – which shows Marsh asleep, driving, fishing, eating in a diner, lounging on the sofa – displays Shore’s interest in everyday subjects and the rejoinder to deliberate artistry inherent in his imposition of constraints on his work.
“I wanted,” said Shore, “to make pictures that felt natural, that felt like seeing, that didn’t feel like taking something in the world and making a piece of art out of it.” In 1972, Shore set off from Manhattan for Amarillo, Texas, documenting his journey through a series of colour photographs of mundane objects and everyday scenes, which his lens imbues with subtle poignancy. Rather than photograph views or landmarks, Shore’s attention turned, as it had in New York, to street corners, shop windows, car parks and house fronts. American Surfaces, 1972-73, interrogates not only his subjects, but the role of photography itself. Colour photography had previously been considered commercial, the preserve of advertisements and glossy magazines, but Shore subverted this context by using colour to highlight the banal scenes that made up not a projected, idealised life, but the details of his day-to-day travelling experience. He photographed meals – empty milk cartons, the hollowed melon and pancakes presented on doilies at the nondescript Trail’s End Restaurant in Utah – and every detail of his hotel rooms: TV screens, toilet seats, bedside tables, strip lighting, empty fridges, ornaments. Occasionally, he photographed his external surroundings, too: in Federal Highway 89, Arizona, the ochre colours of dusty ridges are set beautifully against the blue sky, as Shore captures a fleeting moment from the side of the motorway, a place usually literally passed by. Along the way, Shore printed glossy postcards of his offbeat scenes, entitled Greetings from Amarillo, and distributed them clandestinely at kiosks and tourist shops along the route, a subtle mark of his presence left behind.
In 1973, Shore changed from the handheld 35mm he used for American Surfaces to a 4x5 view camera, which he fixed on a tripod. The new equipment heralded a different kind of project, slightly grander and less intimate. Uncommon Places moves from small-scale objects to scenes, often the landscapes Shore passed through; complementing the grittiness of everyday experience, Shore gathered ephemera along the journey, which are preserved here: postcards, receipts, parking fines, newspaper cuttings. A billboard on the US 97 South of Klamath Falls, Oregon depicts a stunning mountain range reflecting lustrously in the sea: Shore’s travelogue exposes the artifice of such alluring images. Shore has an eye for humorous signs and the lies of advertising: “Strange Drugs”, announces one, while the side of a building enthusiastically proclaims “Need Money? See Will!” “Public Market” reads a sign on what looks like an underground car park, Shore presenting the dissonance between experience and advertisement with deadpan panache. A deserted building announces itself as “Sunset”, and claims to be open Friday, Saturday and Sunday; any vestiges of parties and glamour are absent under the glare of the sun, which reveals the peeling paint.
In 1980, Shore moved to Montana, and switched from depictions of urban life to finding new perspectives on land and nature, with entrancing large-scale pictures of tree trunks and desolate tufts of grass in sandy valleys. After the intricacy of the travel series, the large pictures in the exhibition’s final sections are something of a jolt. There are more New York scenes, on a far grander scale than his early works, the viewer immersed in bustling crowds of almost life-size people. In more recent years, Shore has photographed the forests of the Adirondack Mountains in New York, archaeological sites in Israel, and daily life in Winslow, Arizona. In 2012-13 he visited Ukraine to photograph some of the last survivors of the Holocaust, a moving series that juxtaposes mementoes of the past – ominously burned books, a bust of Stalin, war medals – with everyday items: a fridge, a telephone, a loose butternut squash. Ever innovative, Shore has also experimented with new formats, and the exhibition includes a stream of his Instagram feed and a series of print-on-demand photo books (each made in 24 hours), displaying Shore’s interest in the distribution of photography and the new constraints offered by working in a digital context. His colour images were derided when first shown at the Met, but these quiet assemblages by that uncertain young man posing with his camera are now widely considered modern masterpieces of American photography. This exhibition is an excellent chronicle of the development both of a highly contemporary art form and of one of its masters.