PhotOpinion: A Review of Stephen Shore’s Retrospective at MoMA

SIGNS OF LIFE: SYMBOLS IN THE AMERICAN CITY (1976) by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.
Ruth Formanek and Judy Rosenblatt are members of New York City’s Park West Camera Club who team up to review photography exhibits for the club’s award-winning monthly newsletter. Park West (parkwestcameraclub.org) just celebrated its 80th anniversary as one of New York City’s oldest camera clubs. With their kind permission, Honeysuckle is reposting this review of photographer Stephen Shore’s sweeping retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which covers his pioneering efforts in the field and his entire career to date. Ruth and Judy enjoy their collaboration and are especially pleased when they disagree, which happens all too rarely.

By Ruth Formanek and Judy Rosenblatt

1:35AM IN CHINATOWN RESTAURANT, NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1965-67) by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.
Ruth with her camera

Ruth’s Review:

According to Wikipedia (and The New Yorkers review), Shore, (b. 1947 in New York) was the only child of parents who ran a handbag company in New York. Interested in photography and self-taught, he received a darkroom kit at age six and began to use a 35 mm camera three years later to make his first color photographs. At ten years of age, he was greatly influenced by Walker Evans‘s book, American Photographs. Shore’s career began at fourteen, when Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at MoMA, bought three of Shore’s photos. At seventeen, Shore met Andy Warhol and began to hang out at Warhol’s studio, the Factory, photographing Warhol and his friends. These early photos are in a very small format and hard to see in the MoMA show.

Shore traveled cross-country, photographing American and Canadian landscapes. In 1972 he began to photograph in color, first in 35 mm and then with a 4×5″ view camera, before finally settling on the 8×10 format. In 1974 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funded his work, followed by a Guggenheim grant and in 1976 a color show at MoMA. Photographers Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Martin Parr, Joel Sternfeld and Thomas Struth have acknowledged Shore’s influence on their work.

ALL THE MEAT YOU CAN EAT (1971) by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Shore has been the director of photography at Bard College since 1982. In recent years, he has worked in Israel, the West Bank, and Ukraine. The MoMA show is huge, spanning almost the entire third floor, and is sponsored by Allianz.

In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl reviews Shore with enthusiasm that I do not share. While photographers in recent times have tried to find unusual angles on conventional subject matter, Shore emphasizes the conventional, and would receive mostly ‘B’s from our camera club competition judges. He tries to be novel and inventive by, for example, using a banal shot of two buildings with a street between them, in five different sizes, all on one MoMA wall. See one, and you’ve seen all five. Some of his large Mexican photos depict grass in front and a sky in the back. Could be anywhere in the world. I did like a few portraits, but he rarely photographs people. One Mexican photo shows a diagonal arrangement of fruit that seems livelier than his grass or his streets or his buildings.

YUCATAN, MEXICO, 1990 by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.

I got the impression that Shore has studied the work of recent photographers who look for the unusual or who express a sense of outrage (e.g., Robert Frank), but that he reacts in opposition to them by shooting the conventional. It reminded me of studies of the artistic development of children who learn to draw not what reality might look like, but use as their models the conventional representation of that reality.

Shore’s colors are beautiful, his shots are well-taken, in focus, and it’s clear that he knows his craft. Curmudgeons like me, however, find much of his work boring.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL, SEPTEMBER 12, 2009 by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.
Self-portrait of Judy, with camera

Judy’s Review:

I came into this show fairly ignorant about Stephen Shore and his status as a much admired and influential American photographer. I knew I’d seen some of his work, and that it explored in color the same territory as Lee Friedlander had in black and white: everyday scenes of small town America. I wasn’t greatly enthused, but since this was a major MoMA retrospective, of course Ruth and I had to review it! I left it with mixed feelings, though they were more positive than Ruth’s.

For one thing, the show covers the arc of a long career, from youthful beginnings to some surprising current preoccupations, with many variations along the way. Shore sees photography largely as a problem-solving process, and if problems are solved in one area it’s time to move on to the next. So, Picasso-like, he’s been constantly reinventing himself, as, for instance, when he turned away from the manmade environment to landscapes, and from the view camera to Instagram postings. I think this makes the show a rich experience, and caused me to ponder the much more modest arc of my own photography.

AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS, JUNE 17, 1970 by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Though it was interesting to see the early work of this precocious photographer, it was Shore’s large format scenes from his road trips that really began to engage me. The painter Edward Hopper came to mind as I viewed his townscapes filled with the artifacts of human life—cars, buildings, poles, signs, roads—but mostly devoid of people. I sensed a somber mood and sense of isolation in many of the images. Also, my grandson, who photographs most of his meals, is a disciple of Shore even though he doesn’t know it; Shore famously documented his on-the-road breakfast settings. I also noticed that Shore breaks some of the rules of composition that were drilled into me over the years: he places objects of focus in dead center, and sometimes leaves large, open spaces in the foreground that most of us would probably crop out. This probably contributes to the snapshot-like quality of some of his images—though they are anything but snapshots. He wants us to take notice of our ordinary surroundings and endow them with an importance we never give them. Doing this in color in the seventies made him one of photography’s pioneers.

Whatever problems Shore was trying to solve through his landscape photographs, he ended up with large images of rather empty stretches of land that to me seemed boring. (Here I agree with Ruth; his townscapes I did not find boring.) Two exceptions are his scene of the Merced River at Yosemite, with a few people dwarfed by the scenery playing at its banks, and a scene from Scotland with winding waterways, both with beautiful light.

GREETING FROM AMARILLO, “TALL IN TEXAS” (1971) by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.
LOOKOUT HOTEL, OGUNQUIT, MAINE, JULY 16, 1974 by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.

The last photographs on the exhibit walls are of Israel and the Ukraine, where Shore went to document the lives of Holocaust survivors who had returned there. This project connected him with his own ancestry. I was moved by his portraits of the elderly Ukranian survivors. Earlier in the exhibit, among the unpeopled scenes, there was a lively portrait of an elderly couple that made me wish Shore hadn’t largely left out people from his survey of Americana. So I was interested to read that in his book, Survivors in Ukraine, Shore noted that his wife “understood that my work needed to move into a more personal sphere.”

A more personal, diaristic approach is also evident at the exhibit’s end, which shows Shore embracing new technologies: Dangling from the ceiling are small self-published books that he began to produce. I didn’t have time to look through many of them, but one documenting a dog show displayed great empathy for the dogs. There are also screens through which to view Shore’s ongoing posts on Instagram, which seem a logical extension of his experimental nature, and where he has 121,000 followers! (See @stephen.shore)

TSAI GROISMAN, KORSUN, CHERKASKA PROVINCE, UKRAINE, JULY 20, 2012 by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.
Shore’s self-published books dangle from the ceiling in his retrospective installation. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.

My final impression leaves me with questions about why Shore so restrained himself through much of his career from including more people in his images, especially since he seems so good at portraits. I’m also not sure what he means by seeing photography as “problems to solve” as distinct from “images to compose.” To me they go hand-in-hand. Perhaps the exhibit catalog by its curator, Quentin Bajac, clarifies these musings. A positive takeaway from this exhibit is an appreciation of Shore’s experimental approach, more of which I could use in my own work. Now I better understand why Shore is considered an important figure in American photography. That some viewers find his work “boring” may speak to the ease with which a fresh photographic approach can become mainstream and even clichéd.

INSTAGRAM (2014-ongoing) by Stephen Shore. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Archives.

See Stephen Shore at MoMA now through May 28, 2018. Visit moma.org for more details.

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