Photo: Stephen Shore, East Fifth Street and Main Street, Fort Worth, Texas, June 17, 1976 (detail).
In 1982, Aperture published Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore, a collection of large-format color photographs exploring the American vernacular landscape from an entirely new point of view—one that embraced the ethos of mid-century populism. It offered a fresh take on modernism, embracing the spectacle of the mundane, the glorious humdrum of the nation under soaring blue skies and wide open terrain. It enlivened the eye and the mind to a sense of the sheer magnificence of that which we see everyday though we may never really look.
Uncommon Places, which has since been expanded and reissued several times over the past 35 years, has influenced a generation of photographers to look at the landscape where they are. In the past five years Shore has returned to his archive to delve more deeply within the works that he produced during the period from 1973 to 1981. He then brought the unseen works to Aperture, who invited an international group of 15 photographers, curators, authors, and cultural figures including Wes Anderson, Francine Prose, Ed Ruscha, Taryn Simon, and Lynne Tillman to select ten images each to create a series of portfolios collected in the new book Stephen Shore: Selected Works, 1971-1981.
Each chapter presents a cohesive body of work, offering a window through which we may consider Shore’s photographs. Filmmaker Wes Anderson opens the book with a series of images accompanied by a one-sentence story that adds another layer of meaning to the work. Consider the photo of Boca Bayou in Boca Raton, Florida, made on January 4, 1974. Here we see a shiny white motorboat docked beside a perfectly manicured lawn, as palm trees provide cover from the sun’s warm rays—all of this viewed from way up above. “This might have been a very good location for a special episode of Three’s Company outside the studio,” Anderson muses.
This is a testament to both the content of the image and Shore’s ability to give us a sense of place within spaces that are right with depth, texture, and nuance. There is something uncanny about these works, as they float between a space that is familiar and foreign all at once. It is almost as though they are set photographs, dioramas into constructions of American life that might appear in a film or on television. This is due, in large part, to the use of color throughout, the mesmerizing blues, greens, yellows, pinks, and creams that lull us into a dream state.
Writer David Campany reveals, “For me one of the joys of Uncommon Places is the infinitely delicate understanding of the color green. As the prime color of flora, green is eternal. As a color for cars, clothing, plastics, and the like, it goes in and out of fashion. Clearly Stephen was drawn to nature and manufacture, and in his photographs the relationship between them is by turns fraught, funny, poignant, surreal, and occasionally harmonious.”
Indeed, color lends itself to the creation of a mood, of the transformation of the American landscape from vast open prairies and dirt roads to smoothly paved over streets upon which a never-ending vista of brick and mortar buildings sit. People come and go through these scenes, taking a moment from their routines to pose for Shore’s camera, and in doing so, they come to stand for the needs of the individual and the way it shapes the path of the development of new technologies that seem quaint in retrospect.
Among those technologies are the very camera itself, the one that Shore lugged around to create these magnificent images of all that remain of days long gone. As Shore writes, “The photographs in this book were made by me so long ago that I often have no memory of their making. And what memory I do have is shaded by the lack of certainty that I’m indeed remembering the circumstance and not conflating the memory with my decades-long familiarity with the image itself.”
And so these selected works reveal the significance of the form, of the necessity of photography for preserving the fractions of time forevermore. The drive to create occurs as more significant that most anything else, for it is in the act of producing and publishing photographs that Shore moves the needle forward.
All photos: From Stephen Shore: Selected Works, 1973–1981 (Aperture, 2017). © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.