stephen shore: uncommon places

IMG_20140202_131152I recently picked up a copy of Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places The Complete Works. I try to get hold of a new photography book every month or so because there’s something special about seeing photographs as large prints on paper rather than backlit on an LCD display. I also find that with a book I return to the individual photographs more often and spend more time with them. This is especially important in the case of Shore’s work.

Shore is fascinating. Along with William Eggleston he was one of the earliest art photographers to shoot in colour. It may seem strange now but even as late as the 1970s most “serious” photographers considered colour photography vulgar and associated it with what they saw as artistically redundant commercial work and simple family snapshots. Shore’s earlier work, American Surfaces, is full of photos of motel beds, food, televisions and toilets. It’s pretty much a diary of a road trip and the images are seemingly taken with little regard for the inherent interest or beauty of the things being photographed. Although the motivation was entirely different it’s hard not to see these images as prefiguring, three or four decades earlier, the current deluge of mobile phone shots posted to Instagram and Facebook which record the minutiae of people’s lives.

With Uncommon Places however Shore changed his approach. It was still shot on a road trip but instead of the relative speed and convenience of a 35mm camera he took a large format 8″ by 10″ camera. This sort of camera is unwieldy, takes time to set up and, for the colour film of the day, required long exposures, and it changed to some extent what Shore shot with it. The focus shifted to buildings, intersections and the seemingly ubiquitous telephone lines that criss-cross the photographs. The main thing that led to his decision to use the large format camera was it’s stunning resolution; what Shore describes as its “descriptive power”. It results in pictures of stunning clarity; there’s so much detail that you get drawn into them.

At first glance the photos in Uncommon Places might seem unconsidered and devoid of deliberate composition… but nothing can be unconsidered when using a large format camera and with repeated viewings the photos take on form and meaning. They are certainly polarising however, many people find them “excruciatingly boring”. I find that there is something contemplative about them (again, perhaps that large, cumbersome camera had a part to play in this) and when viewed in the right state of mind they are strangely beguiling.

Obviously it would mean something very different to travel around the US today taking photographs in this way, nearly forty years on. In fact doug Rickard recently undertook a similar project but he did all his ‘travelling’ within Google Maps, exploring over a period of years and taking pictures of the scenes that interested him: Doug Rickard: A New American Picture. This project raises the fascinating question of what photography now means – essentially the same question, albeit more urgent, that Shore was asking in the 1970s.

While we’re on the subject of photography books – I’m getting a little fed up with the fact that even recently published books quickly end up out of print and then begin changing hands on Ebay and the like for ridiculous sums of money. Ray Metzker’s Light Lines, published in 2008, now costs in the region of £200 and some Garry Winogrand books are upwards of £600! What happened to the promise of on-demand printing? I thought book publishers were supposed to be in trouble. Surely it makes no sense, with all the connectivity and technology available, to stop selling these books and leave a handful to be passed around the used market generating no income for the original publishers?

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