Sunday, June 3, 2007
On the road with Stephen Shore
"California 177, Desert Center, California, December 8, 1976," Stephen Shore.
Between 1969 & 1975 I crossed the North American continent seven times by car or hitchhiking. I didn’t own a camera then & never thought of taking pictures. At about the same time Stephen Shore was making many of the same journeys. His pictures, made between 1969 & 1979 and gathered at ICP as “Biographical Landscape,” are among the finest road pictures ever made.
"U.S. Route 10, Post Falls, Idaho, August 25, 1974," Stephne Shore
Shore was young when he shot the pictures for "Uncommon Places," the earlier show that makes up the bulk of this exhibition. He was probably following the venerable American tradition of “lighting out for the territories.” But unlike the classic American runaway, he was neither hung up on the place he had left nor dreaming about the place he was going. His pictures are firmly rooted on the road itself -- this place -- specific & unrepeatable -- familiar and uncannily strange.
An exhibition note in fact describes Shore’s pictures as “…the daily experiences of an astute wandering stranger.” To me they feel more expansive than that. Unlike his spiritual predecessor Robert Frank, whose dramatically personal black-and-white snapshot aesthetic defined the road for an earlier generation, Shore’s anti-romantic color & carefully considered view-camera framing seek to fix not so much the random, high-speed jumble – the experience – of traveling as the distillation of stopping to really look. If Frank’s pictures point to the movies he would make next, Shore’s are very explicitly still photographs. The images are about the photographer of course, as all pictures are, but they also, I think, consciously seek to be icons for other strangers .
"Sunset drive-in, Amarillo, Texas, 1974," Stephen Shore
Before heading out on the road, Shore was the youngest member of Andy Warhol’s circle in New York, photographing the actvities of the Factory. He was familiar with the Duchampian concept of the readymade as championed by Warhol, & he became an avid collector of postcards that depict places (samples from his collection can be seen in an introductory room at the show). It is on these matter-of-fact postcards that his large color prints piggyback to become something new – part deadpan aide-memoir & part transcendent vision .
"Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979," Stephen Shore
At this point I feel I should push the pause button on analysis & say how blown away I was by this show. Go & see it. The large vibrant color prints will lock up your mind for minutes at a time (the JPGs I'm posting here are a pale imitation). Granted, these pictures often have a personal resonance for me, sometimes seeming to be places I might have actually been. It’s not the same shopping center, the same desert vista, but, then again, it is.
"Sutter Street and Crestline Road, Fort Worth, Texas, June 3, 1976," Stephen Shore
I’ll end this post by talking about one of many pictures I looked at for a long time. It’s set in a raw, hastily planned suburb that could be anywhere in the U.S. or Canada (Crestline Road). A nondescript ranch house is set behind an uneven asphalt intersection & surrounded by ragged weeds & half grown shrubs. Behind it are more houses, telephone wires & a soft summer sky. The house is backlit, as though its details don’t matter, but the cars parked on the road are lit. They’re the core of the composition, one fire-engine red, the other baby doll white. Poised for a getaway, the cars are parked on a road in nowhere, but that road leads to everywhere. The picture feels like a Leonard Cohen lyric from his 1968 song, “Stories of the Street:”
“Where do all these highways go?
Now that we are free.”