Something and Nothing: reflections on an exhibition of Stephen Shore’s work and his book “The Nature of Photographs”

Reflections on an exhibition by Stephen Shore

window of the Spruth Magers gallery

window of the Spruth Magers gallery

It was by a chance scanning of photographic exhibitions in London that I came across this exhibition of Stephen Shore’s work at a private gallery in Central London. I wonder why the Open College of the Arts had not seized on it and made a study day of the occasion; it seems the college are more focused on photography as art rather than “photography for photography’s sake!” yet Shore is recognized as a seminal photographer. At the beginning of his book “The Nature of Photographs”, James L.Enyeart writes in the introduction that Shore can be considered in the same light as John Berger, Roland Barthes and John Szarkowski, all distinguished commentators on photography. Barthes and Berger wrote as critics of the medium while Szarkowski wrote with greater empathy for his subjects, promoting photography as art. What Shore has done is present photography and in particular the photograph from the point of view of a photographer or the “operator” as Barthes refers to the maker of photographs at the beginning of Camera Lucida.

Stephen Shore was born in 1947 in New York. He started taking pictures aged 6, had sold prints to the MOMA by the age of 14 and at 17 became a regular at Andy Warhol’s factory where he began to experiment with fine art techniques. In 1971, he switched to making colour photographs and started travelling around the USA photographing the diversity of the suburban landscape and producing the series American Surfaces and Uncommon Places; he started teaching photography at Bard College in New York in 1982.

Looking at the image on the Internet that advertises this exhibition, I wonder what makes it so remarkable. One sees the torso of a woman, her firm breasts filling the bra she wears while behind there is an interesting gold and black wall paper design. She does not seem to be an incredibly beautiful woman or particularly sexy neither is she a recognizable celebrity; what made the photographer take this image and put it in a gallery? The reason for it being put on the net is probably because the gallery thought that a loosely clad female would immediately attract attention particularly that of males, still the dominant force in society.

Paddington Station

Paddington Station

I made the 2-hour journey by train to London to see this exhibition before it closed, reading Shore’s book “The Nature of Photographs” as I did so. He is interested not so much in the technicalities of image making but the substance of the photograph. The book written in the 1990’s is perhaps a little dated (it has since been updated) as Shore writes about “all photographs made with a camera and printed directly from the negative” hence revealing he is primarily concerned with the pre-digital photograph. However, his consideration of photography as photography rather than under the vaguer term of art is welcome. These days, the majority of photographs are viewed electronically yet his description of “an image, an illusion of a window onto the world. It is on this level that we usually read a picture and discover its content” is still as relevant today as when it was written possibly more so.

Prints still do function in the world of photography since they are the mainstay of the gallery though screen viewed images are increasingly popular. A print created through electronic rather than chemical means still possesses many of the characteristics Shore mentions such as the physicality of flatness, the frame, hue and tonal range, texture of the base, the effect of dyes and pigments. Still of interest is “the way shadows, mid tones, and highlights are described by the print; they determine how many shades of gray the print contains and whether these tones are compressed or separated.”

The text refers to prints that were viewed in an exhibition and hence the book falls rather short of accurately conveying what Shore is talking about although the series of images reproduced give an excellent insight into the photographic medium and many of its protagonists. In his own words, Shore writes, “The context in which a photograph is seen affects the meanings a viewer draws from it.” A book or screen can never reflect the carefully produced image of the individual print, a fact that is often lost in the contemporary electronic proliferation of images.

A photograph “depicts” aspects of the world and “are the means by which photographers express their sense of the world, give structure to their perceptions and articulation to their meanings.” The three dimensional is transmuted into the two dimensional and yet photographs can present spatial depth and their monocular vision although apparently limited does give a unique view of the world as it “creates juxtaposition of lines and shapes within the image, edges create relationships between these lines and shapes and the frame. The relationships that the edges create are both visual and ‘contextual”. New visual relationships emerge from within the frame and the photographer needs to respond to these.

What the photographer includes or excludes is another important consideration. Visual relationships exist not just between elements within the frame but also in regard to the frame itself. The active effect of the frame varies between images.

Time also plays an important part in the still photograph since it is frozen. As Shore says, “A photograph is static, but the world flows in time. As this flow is interrupted by the photograph, a new meaning, a photographic meaning, is delineated.” What Szarkowski called “a discrete parcel of time” is effected by what Shore identifies as “the duration of the exposure and the static nature of the print and film.”

Focus and the way in which it is employed by a photographer is another important feature of the photograph as it can effect the reading of the image; it can also effect the way the eye adjusts to seeing the image when different planes of focus might upset the predictable movement of the eye. There is a mental focus as “your eyes don’t actually refocus (since you are only looking at a flat page). It is your mind that changes focus within your mental image of the picture …” There can be a marked difference between the space depicted in a photograph and the way the eye understands that space. “The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.”

When making rather than taking a photograph, a photographer makes decisions relating to vantage point, framing, timing and focus so that “The quality and intention of a photographer’s attention leave their imprint on the mental level of the photograph”. Such decisions can be “conscious, intuitive, and automatic” according to Shore and are part of the way a photographer mentally arranges a picture. “When photographers take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds, models that are the result of the proddings of insight, conditioning, and comprehension of the world.” There are basic models that allow “only sunsets to pass through” while “At the other extreme, the model is supple and fluid, readily accommodating and adjusting to new perceptions.” Shore makes the point that if the photographer is conscious of this process it can bring “the mental level of the photograph under control.”

There is depictive and realized space not only within the photograph but also between the photograph and its viewer. A landscape might cover a large area but not require the mental eye while a close up of a confined space might make the eye move between different elements.

The making of photographs “is a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination, and intention.” There are different levels to the photograph that is ultimately ‘a piece of paper … a seductive illusion … a moment of truth and beauty.”

Reading Shore’s book “The Nature of Photographs” I thought might set me up for an exhibition that I might otherwise have difficulty comprehending although its message is probably much simpler than one might imagine from reading a book. It was good to read the book again and again, like last time, in a train! It is full of a certain kind of photographic wisdom as it tightly analyses the elements of the photograph. It did not however relate much to what I was about to see.

Spruth Magers gallery, London W1

Spruth Magers gallery, London W1

Spruth Magers is a gallery in Central London occupying a corner of Grafton Street tucked away behind the Royal academy of Arts amidst shops named after well known brands such as Burberry’s, Chanel, Cartier, Dior, Gucci and Tiffany’s. On the ground floor of the building, there is an impressive front window in which the exhibition is announced. “Something and Nothing” curated by Todd Levin starts (if indeed it does have a beginning) with a couple of books under a glass case, held in place by a large pebble with the Taoist ying-yang symbol on the top. Text by the composer John Cage is visible behind the glass and begins as follows …

“This is a talk about something and naturally also a talk about nothing. About how something and nothing are not opposed to each other but need each other to keep going.”

glass cabinet with John Cage text

glass cabinet with John Cage text

A print out from the gallery also on their website, gives information as to how this exhibition might be understood yet I leave this to read later.

Inquiring at the entry of the building whether photography was permissible and receiving an affirmative, I started by adjusting my camera to the colour temperature of the gallery by photographing a white wall. I could of course have left the colour correction to the eye dropper in a software program yet more elaborate approach seemed a good way to start if only to sustain something of the purity of the photographic process which Shore has obviously used in the making of his images. Another visitor asks me whether I think the photographs are digital or chemical; he points out one image in which the curious nature of digital seems to lurk in distorted foliage. A digital print perhaps possibly even the result of a digital camera? I wonder if this consideration is really relevant to the exhibition and show being more a concern of photographers trying to clumsily eke out the method behind the genius of Shore.

collection of landscape photos

collection of landscape photos

Behind the presentation of the books, is a wall with 4 large landscape photographs with white frames. Like all the photographs in this exhibition there are no titles or captions given, one needs to rely on the image itself to understand it, another example of the photographic purity of Stephen Shore. All four images contain slopes of one kind or another with 3 having texture brought out by rocks and stones and the other by grass. Other than being part of the landscape genre, one wonders what relationship these images have between each other; there seems to be no clear message although one image in the top left of the display surprisingly reveals a town that blends into the image disguised by the building’s similarity with the stones on the slope beneath it.

more photos from the first gallery

more photos from the first gallery

On another wall of this gallery, there is a series of 6 images that indicate a merging between landscape and the urban. In one, a tarmacked road leads towards a large Christian building, half hidden by the vegetation and buildings that surround it. Although in the background, Shore has focused on this building leading to a softening of the foreground detail thereby focusing our attention on the building in question, a technique suggested in his book “The Nature of Photographs.”

A feature of this exhibition is the way images have been grouped together, recognizably joined by subject matter. This was done in preference to presenting a chronological order.

Magritte painting

Magritte painting

Shore's photograph

Shore’s photograph

The other gallery, the one that forms the entry to the exhibition, also has a glass case mounted in the centre of the room. Under this, there is a painting that appears to be a Magritte original. It shows a meticulous and realistic painting of the seaside that perfectly merges with seaside behind it, seen through a window behind the easel on which the painting rests. The easel is inside a room. The motif is characteristic of Magritte and recognisably surrealistic. To the right of Magritte’s painting is a landscape photograph that contains another landscape photograph. As in Magritte’s painting within a painting, Shore’s photograph reflects the landscape yet it is far from a seamless blend showing the view at a different time of year and day as well as from a slightly different viewpoint. Shore seems to be making a point here about the nature of the photograph and the differences between painting and photography. They are different disciplines producing different results might be one message but one might speculate further. The photographed photo for instance is an idealised view, it contains not only a snowy peak yet also a sunset or sunrise, and like so many photographs of that kind remains an idealised view of the world rather than a realistic one as is clear here. I think perhaps this is my favourite image in the exhibition because it contains meanings that interest me and that I understand to some degree; there is also an element of humour in the juxtaposition.

grouping - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9357

The first set of photographs I look at in this room involve people moving through landscapes. There is an image of a man seen from behind, wheeling his bicycle through woods; he is just approaching a divide in the road and one may wonder whether he will continue along the well-worn path that bears left or the overgrown one that leads to the right. The photograph has a subtle tension and is another favourite of mine. In another image alongside this one, a man walks past a long lorry from which an arm drapes out of the passenger window. The man walking towards us looks to one side and carries a bouquet of flowers. In the background there is architecture that looks dated particularly the top of a tower above which a small mobile mast pokes incongruously into the sky; the road is unkempt, the setting rural. Another image shows a woman striding past a building, her shadow falling crisply on a stone wall while behind her is a much larger yet softer shadow of a tree looking almost as if it might ominously be creeping up on her. Other images of people walking through built up areas show different characters most notable a couple of bowler hatted Jews with beards and flowing locks.

grouping 2 - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9348

The next group of framed photographs contain not people but cars in built up areas. As with all the groups of images, some prints are small possibly contact printed from 4 by 5 inch negatives, while others are much larger. In one of the larger images, a woman sits in a car drinking from a bottle, her face partially obscured by shadow and the bottle she drinks from.

grouping corner - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9349

A group of 4 images is set in one corner of the gallery, indicating both the complex design of buildings that stand alongside each other in towns and cities as well as the array of objects that modern civilisation produces which includes keys and locks, light bulbs, kettles and so on. There is a symmetry to these images that arises out of careful design on the part of the photographer.

images of ordinary food

images of ordinary food

The next group of photographs shows close up images of different kinds of mostly prepared food although fruit does feature in one. The food is accompanied by cutlery and hence the idea of consumption is suggested. I cannot help but think of Martin Parrs culinary images although those suggest nauseasness while Shores merely imply a slight distastefulness, for instance, food being kept beneath plastic covers.

photographs of ordinary objects

photographs of ordinary objects

Another group of photographs show a set of interiors within which characteristic objects are found although these are of a dated appearance. There is a TV in a wooden cabinet, a newspaper with Russian script, a book with Jewish script on the cover, medals with Russian inscriptions are placed on a carpet, a telephone with a student ID card lying beside it and an image of a radio. These objects are transitory, the kind of devices that people change on a regular basis and their presence says much here about time.

group of found portraits

group of found portraits

The first of two groups of portraits shows found images; portraits in an official document, a photograph attached to a gravestone and portraits that are part of advertisements.  The second group of portraits reveal more formal yet unstudied portraiture, the subjects appearing in the real life the photographer is documenting. There is a baby (a small print), a young boy asleep against a window, a young woman wearing a head scarf her identity obscured by the fact she is photographed from behind, two small images of glamorous women (one of these is the one being used to advertise the exhibition), an elderly woman who looks up from her pillow with a lined face and eyes that do not meet those of the photographer, another small photo of a man with a naked torso lying on a couch in front of a window while a larger photo reveals a young man seen from the side who wears a small cap on his head. Another reference to Jewishness! Is this a subject Shore is concerned with? These two portrait groups and the former one of people walking through urban areas reveal that Shore likes to include a varied range of subjects.

group of portraits

group of portraits

grouping of photographs of suburban houses

grouping of photographs of suburban houses

The final series of photographs, these are on the right of the entrance to the galleries and so might be intended to be viewed first, shows a series of suburban houses. Again a taxonomic approach is suggested as Shore records houses that range from a mini castle complete with crenelations, a bungalow amidst trees lit by dappled light, a modern looking building with high windows set behind palm trees while there is a two-up, two-down fronted by lush green topiary.

I go to a nearby café for some refreshment; over an hour of seeing the exhibition and making notes starts to tire me. I also want to consider what I have seen, reflect a little on the nature of the images. Their appeal lies partly in the fact that they don’t need captions and can be viewed as entities in their own right.

The lighting in the gallery illuminates the photographs well yet there are many reflections that interfere with the viewing of the images, requiring the viewer to move around rather like a photographer seeking the best angle from where he can make his image.

The use of large format does add a clarity to the images that is admirable and eases the gaze of the viewer. This may just be a technical matter but it does have a considerable effect.

cabinet in passage way where Stephen Shores books were kept

cabinet in passage way where Stephen Shores books were kept

In another space, a hallway in which there is also a lift, there is a display of Shore’s books on shelves behind glass. They are not for sale (the poster was but copies were exhausted soon after the exhibition began) but can be ordered through the publisher Phaidon. The fact that Shore has released a project called “A New York Minute” in digital format and is still producing new work is evidence that he is not just a seminal photographer but also a contemporary one.

My lingering perception of Shore’s photographs is that they are well-made, high quality products. This is partly a result of them being made with a large format camera by a skilled operator who knows exactly what he is doing, not as common a occurrence as one might assume, while the content of these images are also thought provoking and informative. There is a kind of photographic purity to Shore’s work that I find refreshing in todays world of mass produced electronic photographic imagery which usually reveals little skill requiring only pointing the device in a certain direction at a given time. Shore’s images are everyday yet they are not mundane rather they transform what might be considered banal into something worthwhile. Shore’s approach is not just referential it is also reverential.

main gallery

main gallery

The A4 print out I read after seeing and reflecting upon the exhibition; it mentions that “the images are organised categorically rather than chronologically” as evidenced by the groupings mentioned in my account of the exhibition. One sentence from this print out reads, “Shore’s photographic eye similarly directs us to markers of time and of change, capturing the quotidian, a sense of locality and signs of cultural and temporal change” and that he pioneers “two of the most important photographic idioms of the past forty years; the diaristic snapshot and the monumentalised landscape”.  My understanding of the exhibition is influenced by the title and introductory text by John Cage though the correspondence is not immediately obvious other than to suggest that this is more than just a collection of favourite images, the result of many years of photographing the social landscape.

Here is a link to Stephen Shore’s Book of Books, a collection of his life’s work so far.

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