Stephen Shore has managed to capture the individuality of America by photographing the ordinary. He taught himself photography from an early age and was hugely influenced by the work of Walker Evans. Shore was the first living photographer to have a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the age of 23.
Two years later in 1973 he began travelling around America with a 10 x 8 plate camera. The pictures from this and subsequent trips over the following eight years make up this collection.
Although these images give the impression of being taken “on the hoof”, the practicalities of the plate camera meant that the subjects and composition are in fact much more considered. The time taken to set up the tripod and camera was considerable. The lengthy exposure times for colour 10 x 8 film meant that the cats and dogs that made up a significant part of his previous 35mm work became impossible to capture. Meanwhile, portraits became so formal as to be too far removed from the documentary style he was looking for.
Much of the human presence in the book is provided by Shore himself, he even appears reflected in the glasses of an embracing couple taken in 1974. The opening image in this book taken on his first trip shows the legs and feet of the photographer stretched out on a motel bed in front of a single suitcase and chattering television. Thus the reader begins to build an intimate portrait of Shore – our own portrait, from where he travels and what he chooses to record. In fact, the one image that jars is the self-portrait taken in his bedroom in New York 1976. To have him so plainly revealed is like watching a film of a favourite book and finding that the actors bear no resemblance to the characters of one’s imagination.
From 1976 onwards, portraits of people we assume he encountered en route begin to appear. They are captured in the same stark style as the self-portrait, usually out of context, occasionally named but always, like everything in the book, with a precise location and date. The landscapes show America at its most mundane but also attractive: the view of a corner of Route 2, taken in July 1973, offers only a few cars in a muddy lot and a neon motel sign but strangely we all want to be there. This feeling is enhanced by the apparent casualness of the composition and the intense detail captured by the large format camera.
The 10 x 8 images are reproduced very simply as contact prints, as in the opening image of Shore’s feet on the motel bed. Although the outside world can be clearly seen reflected in the television screen, the view through the window itself is completely devoid of detail. This heightens the feeling of isolation and the fact that the location is no more than a caption detail.
The book was first published in 1982 but this is an expanded collection with more than 60 previously unpublished images. It illustrates why Shore has been considered a pioneer of colour photography. Although the images were all taken over 20 years ago, with so many photographers still strongly influenced by Shore, they remain relevant and important today.