A Unified Vision
By Kate WolfMay 27, 2014
THOUGH HE’S PROBABLY best recognized for his series of iconic photographs taken across America in a number of separate and meticulously documented road trips throughout the 1970s, over the course of more than four decades, Stephen Shore has photographed an incredibly varied range of subjects in depth. These include baseball players, archaeological digs and relics, Monet’s gardens at Giverny, the Hudson Valley — where he lives — Warhol’s Factory — where he started hanging out as a teenager — the rising waters of Venice’s lagoon, the town of Luzzara in Northern Italy, and the pets of his small family farm. From 2003 to 2008, Shore made a collection of 83 print-on-demand books on a wide variety of themes, often shooting and assembling an entire book within a single day; a complete two-volume set of the series was released by Phaidon in 2012. Shore is also the author of a primer on photography theory, The Nature of Photographs, and recently experimented with making his first exclusively digital publication entitled A New York Minute, a series of videos shot on the city’s streets.
This month Phaidon published his newest book, Stephen Shore: From Galilee to Negev. The culmination of six different visits to Israel and the West Bank since 1994, the work is part of a larger project commissioned by Frédéric Brenner that brought a diverse group of contemporary photographers to the region. Shore’s photographs in From Galilee to Negev have all the hallmarks that have come to be associated with his images: the arresting formal structure, the deadpan humor, the cogent capturing of seemingly unremarkable visual details that our eyes usually pan over in everyday life. The book is a thoughtful and unexpected portrait of an area often approached only through its most obvious dichotomies. I met with Shore to talk about his work this past April when he was in town for Paris Photo Los Angeles. It was the first time I’d seen him since I was briefly his student for a semester at Bard College, where he’s taught devotedly for more than 30 years, inspiring many future photographers, and even this non-photographer alike.
— Kate Wolf
KATE WOLF: I’m struck by the Edward Said quote that you include on the cover flap of the book. I think it’s true of this body of work, but it also seems to apply to your work in general in some ways.
STEPHEN SHORE: How do you see that?
The quote is, “interpretation depends very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.” I’ve noticed looking back recently on previous photographs of yours — and I’ve heard you mention this as well — that you often leave a certain distance so the viewer is able to make their own connections. In these cases you seem to present a miniature world, and the photographs are open enough that they don’t feel pointed. So even in a picture like the “Sambo’s” picture [Sambo’s, US 101, Eureka, CA, July 29, 1973] it’s not just that you’re documenting an unfortunately named restaurant, there’s another building and a parking lot in relation to it; a different viewer might not even notice it right away.
It’s in fact off to the side.
Yes, exactly. Knowing that that’s the way you often work, I wondered why you chose to include the Said quote in this particular instance?
It was suggested to me by one of the book’s editors. And forgetting my work as a whole, it’s just that the situation in Israel and the West Bank is so complex that it’s not different sides, it’s like there are overlapping realities. The kind of subjectivity you apply to the quote seemed relevant.
How much did you get into the conflict before starting this project? Did you research?
Well, it’s what’s mostly reported in the American press. I remember in the early 1970s I spent several months in England and at the time there was a lot of turmoil in America — this was at the time of the Kent State massacre — but reading about it in the Herald Tribune it sounded like the country was falling apart. And then I came back and found that life had gone on, that yes, terrible things had happened, but the newspaper wasn’t reporting that the corner deli opened at seven in the morning as it always does — and it’s not that the paper should report that. But if you only know of a place from what you read in the newspaper, you’re not getting the whole of life.
I was interested in what else was there without trying to avoid the conflict. I was interested in daily life, interested in the land. In the book, when I get to Hebron, the conflict becomes very visible. And there are traces of it even in the landscapes: hilltops claimed by Palestinian villages and hilltops claimed by Israeli settlers, but there’s also just the land itself.
Looking at those pictures of isolated settlements, it wasn’t necessarily clear to me if a place was Palestinian or Israeli, which is why I found the Yotam Ottolenghi essay that’s included in the book intriguing. He’s able to read that image of the house in Abu Ghosh through so many subtle signs that I would never pick up on.
My idea for the text of the book was that I didn’t want some authority on photography saying how wonderful the pictures were; nor did I want someone who was an “expert” in the subject of the pictures writing a four-page essay on Israel and the West Bank because what can you say in four pages? Or 10 pages? Instead, I wanted people to look at the pictures and unpack them; to pick a picture they were interested in just for the reasons you’re saying. One that wasn’t talked about — and this is what actually gave me the idea — is the picture of a store window with very frumpy women’s hats. If I were to come upon that picture 10 years ago, not knowing where it was taken, I would think the photographer took it because it was the remnant of a kind of retro store: it has chipping paint along the windowsill, cracks in the pavement, and it just seems like it’s a little derelict and the styles are old-fashioned. But in fact, this store sells a very specific kind of hat that’s worn by a particular group of Orthodox women. And I understood that someone who hadn’t been exposed to ultra-Orthodox or exposed to Israel wouldn’t know that. That’s why I wanted to have people like Ottolenghi and the others come in and pick a picture they were interested in, like Eyal Weizman’s essay on the aerial photographs — these could be archaeological ruins. You don’t know from looking at them that these are Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the war.
But when you took the picture of the hat store, for instance, did you know what it was?
Yes. My work in this book was part of a larger project. Twelve photographers were involved, an extraordinary group that includes Thomas Struth, Nick Waplington, Josef Koudelka, Fazal Sheikh, Wendy Ewald, Gilles Peress, Rosalind Solomon, and Jeff Wall. Before we started working, the person who organized the project, a French photographer named Frédéric Brenner, gave us each a two-week exploratory trip where he packed our days with travel around the country and meeting people from different realms in Israel. I think Frédéric’s idea was that, in a way, we would be buffeted by all the contradictions and meet people who would express those contradictions. So we had a different background to begin with than an average tourist might have. And when you work in a place with a goal, it’s different than simply traveling around and taking it in. I made six trips, and I was out every day photographing all day long. I was with a guide who could explain things to me, so a lot of these things I understood. There’s a picture of a handbill on a wall with an argument from two rabbis — we printed a translation of the text in the book. But for example, when I saw that, my guide read it to me so I knew what it was.
Before you took on this commission did you have a connection to Israel? I know that you visited in 1994 — did you have a connection based on that trip? Or did you have a relationship to Judaism at all?
My family was Jewish, but liberal reformed, and mildly observant. And during the trip I made in ’94, I did spend a week traveling around the country on my own, but my purpose was very directed: it was to go on archaeological digs, and that’s really where I was devoting most of my time.
Returning to your knowledge of the conflict and its history, did you decide beforehand, because of its complexity and because you were going to be in Israel anyway, that learning more about it wasn’t necessary to understanding things on a day-to-day level in the country?
I did read a lot about it, but I’m hesitant to say anything political, really. I know a lot more now about the conflict and the whole situation than I did five years ago, but I can’t compare what I know to the people who live there; there are millions of people who live there and live it, and have thought about it everyday. Before I went I had opinions — everyone has opinions. But I feel in a way that’s been tempered by the experience.
I wouldn’t know what your stance was from the photographs. And that’s why I wondered if you tried to keep yourself from having a strong feeling either way.
That’s also the limitation of photography. I mean, photography can show things, but it can’t really explain things. I can only show cultural forces where they become visible. As I said, I was interested in the daily life and what else was going on in life, but what was going on in life also happened to be the conflict. I can’t photograph an argument at a dinner table, which I heard plenty of, but where it becomes visible at a place like Hebron, it’s accessible for me to photograph.
In that vein, I’m curious about your treatment of the wall and other physical barriers. You approach depicting these in a few different ways. For instance, there’s the picture in Netiv HaAsara, at the Gaza border, where the wall is in the background, but the camera is focused on the shrubs growing in front of it. What made you decide to photograph it like that?
There are some pictures of the wall, but I also knew that Josef Koudelka was doing his entire book on the wall, so that kind of freed me from thinking I had to do something complete about Israel and the West Bank — because I knew other people were dealing with it. And there was no way for me to be complete anyway: that would be an illusion. So I could just go and take the pictures I wanted to take; I didn’t avoid the wall, but I didn’t make it a main focus because I knew Josef was going to make it a focus, and that when people see the whole show, all these different facets are going to be represented.
You also have the photographs at the beach where you position yourself right up against the wall.
I’m at the Gaza border in those. Right after I took that picture the army swooped down and arrested us for being in a restricted area, although there were no signs saying it was restricted. We were in detention for three or four hours. I was furious.
Was there anything you were wary about photographing, things that might appear overly symbolic?
I don’t recall that. I mean, I was aware of decisions like the ones you were asking about the wall: to what extent am I going to emphasize it in my work? I saw it almost every day, and I could have done a whole thing on it, but at some point decided that’s not what my project was about. I felt like I had to acknowledge it, but keep it in the background; that I was more interested in life aside from the conflict. But as I said, life aside from the conflict still has to acknowledge the conflict.
I noticed there aren’t really pictures of people praying.
I didn’t photograph anyone praying, but I did photograph ultra-Orthodox.
Is it not something that interested you?
Again, I didn’t approach the project thinking I had to do a complete picture of the place. The past few years I’ve been photographing outside the United States, and I’m interested in what I can show about a place with the fresh eyes of a visitor, but not by taking tourist pictures. I’m interested in taking pictures that are somehow relevant to what’s essential about a place, but are also not illustrations. And I could imagine someone in this case having a checklist: people praying — I have to go take a picture of people praying —and then it’s an illustration. It becomes photojournalism.
As for the landscapes in the book, was there something geographical or topographical you wanted to get across about the region?
I love the desert and I found the land fascinating. Until you get to the North, it’s not beautiful in any traditional sense. But it’s this very raw land that people have been fighting over for several thousand years. I found the land very powerful.
I know some photographs, like the ones taken of the desert from a helicopter, were made using a digital camera. How much of the book was shot with digital?
It’s about 50-50. You can’t necessarily tell because both formats are produced the same size. Those are all digital [points out some photographs] and those are all digital. All the other landscapes are 8x10. Some of the portraits are 8x10, and a lot of the architecture, but some of the architecture shots are also digital. This is when I was first exploring really high-end digital; I got a very good camera, and this is the first time I used it. I didn’t know what to expect, but after the first trip, I saw the results and realized it was producing pictures that in reproduction size are absolutely indistinguishable, technically, from 8x10.
When you’re shooting digital, do you use the same process that you would with a large-format camera?
I use very much the same process. I take one picture of anything, just as I would do with 8x10. Though, if I’m at an intersection and people are walking by, I’ll take more than one picture. But I try to do it as intentionally as I would with 8x10.
Do you have to try and resist the urge to look at something to see how it turned out?
If I had some question about it, I would look at.
And then do it over?
Yes, but if I didn’t have a question … Occasionally I’ll find that as I’m taking the picture — just as I’m taking it — I’ll realize something that I hadn’t noticed, and then I’ll take a second picture correcting it. But it’s not very often.
Does that ever happen to you when you’re shooting with 8x10?
And then do you just say, “too bad.”
No, I’ll take another picture. It’s not a discipline. With 8x10, it’s just a matter of cost and not wanting to waste film. I’ve spent so many years not taking more than one picture of something that I’ve wound up with a pretty good sense of what I want when I see it — I know where I want to stand and how I want to frame it. Every now and then, something occurs to me just as I finish taking a picture, and there’s no rule that I can’t go and take a second one.
When you approach a subject, do you see something head-on and think, maybe I should go stand over there — or do you walk around first and see where you’d like to take the picture?
When I first started with 8x10 I walked around a lot. And then as I became more sure about the process, I would almost just automatically walk to the spot that I wanted to photograph from. One of the reasons I was interested in digital is I ended up seeing more pictures than I could possibly take with 8x10, and I wanted to have the fun of solving more photographic problems in a day. Digital has allowed me to do that — and the quality is amazing. I can’t make 3x4-foot prints that’ll look the same, but I could make 20x24-inch prints that would be very hard for someone to tell weren’t made with a view camera. It also allows me to take pictures I couldn’t take with 8x10. It gives me the flexibility of a 35mm with the quality of a view camera.
I heard a lecture you gave once were you said that you started using color photography at a time when very few other photographers were. Then 20 years went by and you looked around and everyone was using color, so you decided to use only black and white for the next 10 years. I wonder if you ever feel that way about digital now. Now that it’s so common, does it ever make you feel like you want to give it up?
That hasn’t occurred to me yet; I’m still enjoying it. It opens a number of doors, which is wonderful. One is what I’ve just described, that you have the mobility of 35mm with large-format quality. The second I also described, that I can work much faster and can take 100 pictures in a day — solve 100 photographic problems, not just take 100 pictures — as opposed to 15. It’s not just to accumulate more work — it’s more fun. And the third part is technical. There aren’t many interiors in this book, but in the past two years I’ve been working in Ukraine and have been photographing a lot of interiors there. And digital is so much better than film for that because film has reciprocity failure and digital doesn’t. I can take a picture in almost the darkest room you can imagine, and it will look like it was lit by studio lighting, without a flash. If I were to turn all the lights out here, and close that blind, I could take a picture in this room, with the camera on a tripod, and it would just glow.
In this body of work, there seems to be a counterpoint to the photographs of everything that’s not shown. I think the majority of viewers will come to these pictures with preconceived ideas about the region and the conflict; the pictures are very effective because you don’t have to show the conflict for the viewer to understand that it’s happening, but I wondered if mostly not showing it, and relying on it’s implication, was a tension at all for you?
Yes, and that’s why I thought it was important to address it in Hebron. That, if I just took pictures that were beautiful landscapes, it would seem as though I had blinders on. [Flipping through book] This is a good overview of it because this is the Jewish part of Hebron and this is the Arab part. That’s a gate; this is a guard tower; and this is a guard tower. This is the oldest part of the city, which had been taken over by Jewish settlers. The day before I went here there was a suicide bombing at the bus depot in Jerusalem. It was the first suicide bombing in probably several years. I was at dinner that night and I said, “Do you think it’s safe to go to Hebron tomorrow?” And they said, “there’s no place safer.” The Israeli part of Hebron is a military camp; there are more soldiers there than settlers. [Points to another photograph] This is in the old part of Hebron, and the Magen Davids are spray-painted by Israelis claiming the territory, like planting the flag.
Archaeology and ancient sites are another theme in the book. In a way, it echoes the loaded quality of the landscapes — sites that are contested in part because they’re considered sacred — but it’s also just slightly unbelievable, like the picture of “Abraham’s footprints.”
I would say it’s quite unbelievable. [Laughs] And there’s a lot there among my sacred stones that are maybe not necessarily believable. We don’t know that this is the stone that Jesus’s body was laid on and anointed; we don’t know that he stood on this rock when he ascended to heaven in the Chapel of the Ascension. But the thing is that these particular sites have been venerated for 2,000 years, and whether there is historical fact or not, there is a fact that this particular rock has been the focus of a certain type of veneration for a very, very long time.
I heard a story you told about meeting Ansel Adams when you were 25 and he was 85; he admitted to you that for the last however-many years he had just had a series of potboilers going. You said that was the moment you decided if you started to repeat yourself, you’d have to give yourself new problems to figure out. I wondered in terms of this book, and maybe just recently, what kinds of “problems” have you been working with?
Well, the Israel project led to the next one. Let me back up: one of the issues for me was that I’d been photographing in North America for a long time. In 1990, I did some work in the Yucatan, and in 1993, in Italy, in Luzzara, and this is when I began to explore other cultures. Some of the things I mentioned earlier, about trying to come to it with the eyes of a visitor, the kind of fresh eyes of a visitor, but at the same time to use a sensibility to try and sift out what’s essential to a place — for me, that’s an aesthetic issue and different from what I had done before. This led me to the next project that I’ve been doing in Ukraine, which is photographing Holocaust survivors, their homes, and the villages they live in. Aside from actually being interested in them, which I am, the aesthetic problem is I’ve never photographed anything with as much cultural and emotional charge. As soon as the word Holocaust is used, people have an emotional reaction. Even you straightened up for a second.
How do I photograph something with that much charge that doesn’t depend on it — that doesn’t become an illustration? I think I had for most of my career avoided charged subjects, and it was in the Israel work where — because of the significance of the place and the conflict — I realized there was no way to avoid them. I guess it’s what you were asking about before: what am I avoiding or not avoiding? When I said I realized I couldn’t take pictures that were just pretty landscapes, because it was clear something would be elided. That’s because everyone has a certain knowledge of the place and has a certain reaction to it, and whatever I do, whatever anyone does there, it’s going to bounce off that a priori knowledge.
In photographing the Holocaust victims, are you trying to see what remains, what comes up on film based on someone’s past trauma?
I find Ukraine a very emotionally charged place. Not just because of the lives of these people, which have been pretty intense, but the history of the country over the past, say, 80 or 90 years has been intense, and tragic. I feel a trace of that almost any place I look in the country. And I’m interested in if an emotional state can be communicated without overtly relying on symbols and emotional manipulation.
Are you Ukrainian?
My father’s father was.
And you think the Israel project led you to this project?
Yes, I think it did, because spending so much time in Israel led me to think more about my past.
Are you related to Holocaust survivors?
No, my family came to America in the 1890s, both sides of my family.
It’s interesting to think about in connection with your pictures of America. There are horrible things that have happened in this country in the past, too, but when I look at the photographs in American Surfaces, say, it’s not like I’m thinking about those things explicitly. They’re certainly there, though, perhaps just further off.
No matter the subject, your work is most often unsentimental, slyly humorous, ordered. I wonder, is that the way you relate to the world — is that your personality? Or is that part of the refuge of photography for you, that it allows you to relate to the world in that way?
I think it’s part of my personality.
That’s how you see things?
I don’t want to say the pictures are an exact representation of how I see things, but I think I see humor in things. There are some people who impose a structure on themselves like there’s a chaos inside, or they’re afraid there’s a chaos inside, so they think they have to contain it in some kind of order. And the photographic equivalent is a picture where it feels very much like an order has been imposed upon the picture. But I think if a person has a certain degree of confidence, they don’t have to impose the order on the picture in that way. They can just allow themselves to take it, and it will come out ordered because there isn’t a chaos inside; there’s some unity inside and the picture will express that unity. I see it in architecture. There are architects who design a building from the outside in — they get the façade looking right, and then they work out the interior. But there are other architects who start with what each individual room ought to look like and trust themselves that they have the expansiveness of vision that when they get to the outside it will hold together.
In relation to someone trying to impose order on a photograph, how would they be shooting it?
It’s the structure of the picture; it looks very composed that way. That may be strange coming from me because I’ve taken some pictures that are very intensely structured, but there are some pictures where it feels as though the structure is imposed on reality, not that it’s a kind of meeting of the two. I have to impose a structure on a picture, that’s all I can do. But that structure can be an attempt to understand the world; it can be an attempt to see an order in visual events. And so, even though it’s coming from me, because that’s the only place it can come from, it’s coming from me in the service of, or at least directed toward, my understanding of the events outside of me. But there are other pictures where the composition seems to be almost an overlay, where things are used as raw material for a composition.
How do you feel about setting up pictures, then? Because when you talk about structuring, you’re really only structuring your placement and your framing.
Exactly, I’m deciding where I’m standing, where the frame goes.
But from there, someone else might say, in this picture there has to be a woman who’ll be sitting on the ground and she’ll be smoking a cigarette in front of the bar that’s behind her.
That raises another issue, which is that there is a certain kind of arbitrariness in a photographer’s decision. I could take a picture here and you’d see a corner of a room. But I could take a picture back a couple of inches and now I have my foot in it. And that changes the meaning of a picture: all of a sudden it appears to be in the first person and not the third person, you have a sense of the presence of someone in the room. All I have to do is move a little over that way and the meaning changes. So, if that kind of dramatic change is available through the decisions I’ve made, I don’t see it as totally unacceptable that a photographer would alter what’s in the picture by putting someone in it. If I’m taking a picture of a street and it needs a car, I’ll drive my car into it. I see it as part of a continuum and not as something completely controlled.
Not overly controlled?
It’s really controlled, but I think photographers are really controlling people.
*All images are taken from Stephen Shore: From Galilee to the Negev by Stephen Shore. All images are courtesy Stephen Shore and Phaidon
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