Stephen Shore is one of the most iconic and legendary American photographers of all time. This year, some four decades into his career, sees the publication of a book of photographs that have remained unseen for many of those years. It is hard to state how significant this is, especially for an artist who already has had more than 25 books published. This latest book, “Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979” is extraordinary because it provides an alternate view into the production of one of Shore’s most iconic and enduring works, “Uncommon Places.”
For those unfamiliar with Shore’s work, he is probably most well known for his work cataloguing the American experience in both “Uncommon Places” and “American Surfaces.” Both bodies of work were produced during the 1970s on road trips across the United States. They have both become iconic works that reside lockstep with other major works of photography, including Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” Their influence cannot be overstated.
For the past 45 years, Shore has published and exhibited widely. His list of exhibitions, honors and published works is too long to list here. But he has been working, and gaining recognition, from a very early age.
When Shore was just 14, the legendary Edward Steichen, curator at MoMA in New York City, bought three of his photos. When he was 17, Shore met Andy Warhol and started photographing him and his cohorts at “The Factory,” Warhol’s famed studio. Then at the incredibly young age of 23, Shore became the first living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art since Alfred Stieglitz some 40 years earlier.
Together with Wiliam Eggleston, Shore is one of the most important photographers to have worked in color, helping to establish it as an art form.
“Transparencies” brings together a trove of images Shore took while working on one of his most important masterpieces, “Uncommon Places.” While the work in “Uncommon Places” was made using large format cameras and with a more rigid, formal composition, “Transparencies” brings together photos made with a more compact 35mm camera. The results are less formal and more akin to snapshots.
Shore has said his 35mm work (“American Surfaces” was also realized in 35mm) was an attempt to get at “how people talk,” whereas his use of larger formats that brought far more detail into the image, were more like “conversations.” His various approaches are not haphazard, they are deliberate.
As Britt Salvesen says in her afterword to “Transparencies”:
Referring to the 35mm photographs he made in the early-to-mid 1970s, Stephen Shore has explained his interest in making photographs that were the equivalent of how people talked: ordinary speech, as opposed to the formality of writing … When he set out to make photographs corresponding to ‘how people talked’, he didn’t mean how they talked about photography, but how they talked about the world. With his technical skills and extensive mental image bank, could he see and picture the world in a natural way? To achieve authenticity in picture-making, he had to look within and find a process for doing so; external prototypes, whether random snapshots or the works of Walker Evans, are only points of reference. ‘If you remove as much of the photographic convention as possible, what you’re left with is yourself, and how you see.’
The release of “Transparencies” provides us with a fascinating insight into the making of one of American photography’s most iconic works by one of photography’s most important practitioners.
You can find out more about the book, and buy it, here: Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979” by Stephen Shore (MACK, 2020). In addition, you can see more of Shore’s work and find out more about him on his website, here.
*Editor’s note. This text previously misidentified Britt Salvesen by referring to “his” afterword. The text has been updated to “her” afterword after our error was pointed out by our extraordinarily helpful readers. Britt Salveson is the distinguished Curator and Head of Photography and Prints and Drawings at LACMA.
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