AS: Hi. It’s nice to meet you. Before getting into the new book, I wanted to ask you about an earlier experience. I understand that you sold your first photograph at the age of fourteen, to Edward Steichen, at the Museum of Modern Art. Firstly, why was Steichen looking at a fourteen-year-old kid’s photographs, and what was the photograph that he bought?
SS: He was looking at it because I called him up. I
think I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to do
this. So I just called him up and said, “I’d like to show you my work!” So he
had an appointment, and I came and showed him pictures. And what were they of?
[Pause.] They were not really very good, and I actually had better pictures from
AS: Do you remember which photograph he
SS: He bought three. There was a boy, sitting,
holding his knee on a bench at the Met. Uh, three young boys were looking at
something and pointing. And, a man carrying an ice barrel on his
AS: And were these in any particular style. I know
that, at that age, you had a copy of Walker Evans’ American
Photographs. Were they imitating that?
SS: I don’t even know how I would put a name to the
style. I had a lot of bad influences also. Aside from the good influences,
like Walker Evans, I looked at the commercial photography magazines, as
AS: Like Popular Photography?
SS: Yes, exactly.
AS: Okay. I just wanted to clear that up, because I
was looking at MoMA’s collection on their website, and for some reason, I
couldn’t find that particular work.
SS: Well, actually what happened was when John
[Szarkowski] took over, he traded those back to me for something newer. [Pause]
Or he may have traded two of them back, and kept one. I think that’s what
AS: Got it. Okay, onto the new book. I was
discussing Uncommon Places with Andrew [Hiller, Editor of the 2004
Aperture edition of Uncommon Places: The Complete Works], and he said
that he sees this work as being very biographical, or autobiographical, in a lot
of ways. I know that the sequencing in the new edition is relatively
chronological throughout the book, and I was wondering if it was structured in
that way to reveal some sort of personal development, or perhaps more of a
stylistic development, as the book’s essay suggests?
SS: I would say that it’s both at the same time.
It’s not strictly chronological. But each trip—each photographic excursion—is
kept separate. And for me, it’s to make clear a stylistic development. But I
don’t think there can be a stylistic development without a really personal
development at the same time.
AS: I also noticed that several of the images in the
new book—such as an aerial shot of Amarillo, Texas—are very similar to images in
your Amarillo postcard series, from 1971, or to images in American
Surfaces, which you did in 1972, the year before you began Uncommon
Places. Were you retracing you steps and saying to yourself, “I want to
shoot this 8x10!”
SS: Yes, exactly. I did American
Surfaces. I loved what I got. But when first exhibited them, I exhibited
them as Kodak produced snapshots. This was before the age of the one-hour photo
machine, and Kodak had a plant in, I think, Fairlong, New Jersey, where you sent
them your film and you got little glossy snapshots back. And so, that’s how
they were originally exhibited. But then I wanted to make larger prints, and
found that the film just wasn’t good enough to support an 8x10 even. It was
just ridiculously grainy. So I needed to go to a larger negative. So I got a
hand held four-by-five [4x5]. There weren’t good medium format cameras at the
time. I didn’t want a two-and-a-quarter square, and there weren’t really other
good ones. So I got an old press camera, thinking that I would do American
Surfaces pictures, just with a Crown Graphic. And I found that, well if
I’m taking a picture of a building—and there are a lot of pictures in
American Surfaces that are of buildings or intersections—or if I was
photographing an intersection, I mind as well put it on a tripod. So, if I’m
going to put it on a tripod, I mind as well look at the ground-glass. So I
started looking at the ground-glass, and found it fascinating. And it began a
process of a kind of formal evolution of my work, that was unexpected. I found
that as I worked, a series of questions started arising, that I then found
myself pursuing. Formal questions, often. So then, by the end of ’73—which is
when I started using the 4x5—I found that I never hand-held it anymore. I was
only working on a tripod. So if figured, if I’m going to work on a tripod, why
not go to an eight-by-ten [8x10]. So that’s kind of how that happened. But
still, you see in the first 8x10 trip, that many of the images are closely
related to what might be in American Surfaces. Really, lots of them
are 8x10 versions of what might be in American Surfaces, but using the
descriptive power that 8x10 has. So a lot of the contentual territory I think
was sort of staked out in American Surfaces.
AS: Did you find yourself going back to the exact
SS: No. There were one or two cases where I
happened to be in the same place. I don’t know if you saw a portfolio that I
had in the latest issue of Index, but it’s of American
Surfaces work that wasn’t in the book. And there’s a picture of a place in
Saint Louis, called the ‘Mullah Temple’, which is a Shriner temple. And I
photographed it with thirty-five-millimeter [35mm], and then the next year went
back with the 4x5, and photographed it. There are a couple of cases where I
rephotographed. The cover of this book—I don’t even think Andrew [Hiller] knows
this—but I photographed this picture before in 4x5, in the same spot [Fifth
Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2nd, 1974], and there
were some technical problems. A whole batch of film was misprocessed by the
lab. So I went back the next year with an 8x10, and took this picture again.
But there are very few instances of that. It’s more in terms of general
AS: So all of the work from ’73 is 4x5?
SS: All of ’73 is 4x5. So, two things are
happening. One is, I’m essentially doing American Surfaces with a
larger format. In the process, I found that some things just were made more
difficult. I mean, I took some good pictures of food with the 4x5, but it’s a
lot easier to go click [mimics taking a 35mm snapshot], than it is to get on top
of a chair, and the pancakes are cold by the time I’m finished. And then there
are other things that can be done so much better with a 4x5. And so, even if I
am doing a television set, I can do it with a different kind of detail. And,
especially if I’m photographing an intersection, I don’t have to have a single
point of emphasis in the picture. It can be complex, because it’s so detailed
that the viewer can take time and read it, and look at something here, and look
at something there, and they can pay attention to a lot more. So I found myself
loving working on a tripod, loving working with an 8x10, and that the pictures
changed so it was not simply that I was just doing American Surfaces with
an 8x10, but that there were new things developing, that started simply
because I was using the 8x10. And that lead to these explorations.
AS: Do you mean in terms of style, like the
formalism that the pictures took on?
AS: Was that the result of the grid on the
ground-glass, or the fact that the image was upside-down and reversed when you
looked at the ground-glass?
SS: It’s the result of thinking—and I see this with
students all the time—that using the view camera forces conscious, decision
making. You can’t sort of stand somewhere, and it is exactly where you
want to be. Do I want it here, or do I want it there—two inches this way or two
inches that way. And you wind up using film that costs, with processing and a
contact sheet, which is costing me, well today it’s probably thirty dollars.
Back then, maybe fifteen dollars. I’m not going to take a picture here, and then
a picture two inches over. I’m going to decide which one it is I want. So what
happens is, I think you can begin to learn conscious, decision making, and
develop a kind of taste for certainty.
AS: It seems that, at first, you were slightly
resistant to go to a larger format. First, you went the hand-held Crown
Graphic, because you didn’t want to have to use a tripod. Then you went to the
tripod. Then you went to the 8x10.
SS: Yeah, well it was never my intention to go to an
8x10. I mean it really was simply that I wanted to continue American
Surfaces but with a larger negative. And I wasn’t expecting to work on a
tripod. I wasn’t expecting to look at a ground-glass, and put a hood over my
head. I really was going to do American Surfaces with a larger
format. And then, I found that the larger format led me to discover other
things about photographic seeing that I wanted to explore.
AS: Did that affect your personality or persona in
any way? I’ve read elsewhere that you often liked to take on certain
photographic personas when photographing—the tourist, the ethnographer, the
explorer, etc. Did you do something similar for Uncommon
SS: I didn’t do that a whole lot. I don’t think my
personality or persona changed particularly. I mean, I remember a couple of
days where I would kind of run into a dry spell in the middle of a three month
trip, and say, “Okay, today I’m going to be Walker Evans, and what would he
photograph if he came to this next town I come to, wherever it happens to be.”
AS: Had you developed any sort of relationship with
Walker Evans personally by this time?
SS: Not at all. Only with his work.
AS: I wanted to read to you an excerpt from an essay
written in 1987, by Sally Eauclaire, in her book American Independents,
and see how you would respond to it today:
“By the late 1970’s he had
achieved work so assured that it was obvious he knew what he wanted and how to
attain it. But Shore came to fear that continuing in his signature style would
lead him to produce facile, undistinguished work, so he retired from the
photographic arena in order to reinterpret and transform his aesthetic. In his
struggle to create a new photographic language, Shore has produced few
photographs that he stands by.”
How would you respond to that, fifteen
years after the essay was written?
SS: Umm, I would say, [pause] Ahh.
AS: What I’m getting at is, what made you
decide—when Andrew [Hiller] came to you and said, “Let’s do a project
together,”—to go back to this work, as opposed to publishing a book of newer
SS: Well he [Andrew Hiller] said let’s re-issue
AS: And you wanted to put more images in?
AS: Because you felt that the 1982 edition was
SS: Yes. Because I knew that there were a lot
more—I mean a lot more [photographs]—that ought to be in it.
AS: And do you “stand by” it today?
AS: For what reason?
SS: There were very few space constraints in this
[edition], and so it got to be that the editor and I sat down and picked
pictures that we thought were important, and good for the project.
AS: What was edited out?
SS: I mean there’s so many that could be edited out,
because there’s so many that may not even get to the first stage. From this
period of time there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of negatives. But
there are some that got edited out, that were in a book that was published in
Europe last year. And maybe a little more than half of the pictures in that
book, are in this. So that means that almost half that book is not in this. It
was coherence. It was avoiding too much repetition. I mean, there’s always a
AS: What I really enjoy about the new edition of
Uncommon Places is the fact that, in the sequencing, you never develop
a steady rhythm. The reader can never just start flipping, without looking.
The horizon lines are rarely on the same latitude on each page. They’ll be a
couple of landscapes, and then, all of a sudden, an interior or a portrait will
show up. Every picture becomes a surprise when you flip the page. I really
love that aspect of this particular book. Seeing as it’s organized in a way
that’s relatively chronological, did you shoot in this way, as well. I mean,
would you just get bored of shooting intersections and say, “Now I’m going to
shoot a television, or my hotel room, or my lunch”?
SS: Well, I wasn’t thinking, “Today, I’m going to
shoot intersections.” It was more, really, in a way, like the way I worked with
American Surfaces. Where, in a day, I could photograph food, and some
portraits, and a toilet, and some buildings. In a way, it’s in this funny
position of being a diary, but it’s a diary of a life geared to making
photographs. So, what’s it a diary of. It’s a diary of a photographic trip.
So it’s things I’m encountering, but it’s also things I’m encountering for the
sake of encountering them. So in American Surfaces, I was
photographing almost every meal I ate, every person I met, every waiter or
waitress who served me, every bed I slept in, every toilet I used. But also, I
was photographing streets I was driving through, buildings I would see. I would
pull over and say, “Okay, this is a picture I want.” So it’s not strictly a
diary. But, to get back to your question about whether I did certain kinds of
photographs on the same day. Like in American Surfaces, I wasn’t
thinking, “Today, I’m just going to do portraits”, and I didn’t think that way
during this project. In fact, what I felt about the original Uncommon
Places is that a lot of these kinds of pictures [pointing to a photograph
of a painting and a photograph of a television in a motel room] were edited
out. So, it was more architecture and intersections.
AS: Because the title obviously alludes to “places”,
and I’ve noticed that there are so many more interiors and details and portraits
in the new edition.
SS: Yes, and in a certain way, the picture of the
pancakes, and the portrait of my wife was included in the original, in a way,
because as we were editing the book, I felt like, “How can we not include these
pictures—even though they don’t somehow fit in.” And, this editing [the 2004
Uncommon Places] is more in line with what I was thinking about and
taking all along. So a lot of what I was looking at and photographing never
made it into the original. And so, I think in retrospect, the original gave a
false impression of what was going on in the work.
AS: That’s very interesting, because the original
Uncommon Places has inspired so much work since its publication—the
Dusseldorf school, the huge wall-size prints, etc.
SS: Well, I’m not turning my back on that work.
It’s all included in the new edition. It’s just that, the original ought to
have been twice the size to include other stuff. That aspect of the project was
that aspect of the project. But, it just wasn’t the complete project.
AS: The one thing that throws me, when I look
through the new edition, is the emergence of all of never-before-seen
portraits. For me, the physical presence of a human face in a photograph has a
certain resonance that something like a pancake or a lamppost doesn’t have. How
important do you feel that these portraits are to the whole project?
SS: I think they’re in there to represent the
balance of what I was paying attention to. Hmm, how ‘important’ are they? I
think that, in some ways, they may be the more conventional of the pictures in
there. But, [pause] I just like them. I think they’re good portraits.
Actually, what I was thinking about when you were asking the question was that
there are a lot of portraits in American Surfaces, and I just love
them. And they’re not the kind of portraits that are about presenting the
person as a three-dimensional character. They’re almost looking at the people
as surfaces, as cultural artifacts. And I think that looking through this work,
I went in a different direction with the portraits. Working on a tripod is very
different for a portrait. I find that, generally people are less
self-conscious. Because there’s not a camera between me and them. The camera
is not an extension of me. It’s this tool I’m using to make something. Also, I
can pay more attention to them, because I’m not seeing them through a
viewfinder, I’m seeing them with my eyes, and I’m choosing the moment just with
my eyes, without a camera in between. So, I found that I could pay more
attention to expression then I had before. I think it resolved in a different
way by ’76 or ’77 [pointing at Helen Butler, Fort Worth, Texas, June 3rd,
1976]. These pictures seem to me to fit exactly into the project. Where I
could see someone thinking that the earlier portraits don’t fit in [pointing at
black couple?]. There’s less, maybe, cultural referencing. They’re more of
just a portrait.
AS: How would you choose the people you
SS: I might have a camera set up to do a piece of
architecture, and someone would walk by, and I start talking to them. You know,
“What are you doing?” and I’ll start talking to them. Or maybe it was at their
homes. Maybe I was photographing a residential neighborhood, and I’d photograph
the people at their home. By the way, in terms of the chronology, there’s one
very long trip in ‘74, which is broken up in here into three sections. I spent
time in New England, I went across Canada, and then went back through the United
States from the West Coast down. And those three sections—before Canada,
Canada, and after Canada—are kept separate in here to contain the chronology.
AS: Do you feel that ’74 was a year in which your
style really took hold? When you were really getting what you
SS: It was an important year in terms of this
transition, from doing American Surfaces with a bigger camera, to
really beginning to explore what the bigger camera could do that can’t be
touched with a smaller camera. I found that that year, a lot of that transition
took place. But in this case [photograph of Robert and Lucille Wehrly, Coos
Bay, Oregon, August 31st, 1974] I was photographing their home. I was just
going down the street, and I said, “Can I take a picture of your house?” and
then we just started talking. But, I don’t know, I love the portrait.
AS: Often this work is interpreted in a “modernist”,
or very formal, graphic way, and obviously, those are very important qualities
of the work. But often, people assume that the actual subject matter was not as
important to you. And I have always wondered if that’s true, because it feels
like the subject matter is really important.
SS: Oh yeah. It’s just that you can do both at the
AS: Because it seems like you love to make small
visual jokes about the subject matter, about American culture—the “Stanley Lust
Drive In”, the billboard of a snow-capped mountain in an open field by the side
of the road. There are a lot of subtle jokes.
SS: Yeah, but all of it was looking at the culture,
the built culture. That some of it is remnants of something older, with its own
character, and some of it is modern American culture working its way through.
I’m interested in this. But I can do that and do formal exploration at the same
time. When the Modern [Museum of Art, New York] had its end-of-the-millennium
series of shows, they did a fascinating show, which was the history of
twentieth-century painting, except it was anti- Museum of Modern Art history of
twentieth-century painting. It was against the Clement Greenberg, standard
line. It was almost this funny, self-referential—it was what they wouldn’t have
done, as the great institution of modern art. You know, there are some artists
that people simply think, ‘These are great artists.’ Someone like, maybe,
Philip Pearlstein. And in an age of the “isms”, you encounter the work of
Philip Pearlstein and you say, “Why do I like this work? Obviously, he doesn’t
think about the people. This is just formal. So I’m going to put it in terms
that I find acceptable, because I like this work, for some unknown reason, that
doesn’t maybe fit in with my aesthetic ideology. So I make it fit into my
aesthetic ideology.’ and say, ‘Oh, it’s just formal, because I’m in a world of
Frank Stella and whatever, and so that’s how I interpret Pearlstein.” So, when
someone says it’s just formal, maybe it’s easier for them to accept it as just
formal. I don’t see where there is a problem with it being both.
AS: I noticed, at a recent show of yours at 303
Gallery [New York], that some of your newer work doesn’t resemble what you’re
well known for. It’s not like Uncommon Places. Some of it is 35mm,
some of it is in black and white. You seem to be experimenting with a wide
variety of photographic possibilities at once. Do you intentionally try to
break out of “isms” or aesthetic categories that are placed on art and
photography, or do you just do what feels natural.
SS: I do what feels natural, but I can’t say I
haven’t thought about it. I mean, I remember reading—while Uncommon
Places was still being done—Beaumont Newhall released a revised edition of
his History of Photography, where he had a chapter called “Recent
Trends”. It was supposed to be the trends of the twentieth century. And he had
four recent trends, and they were, as I recall; the straight photograph, the
document, the formalist photograph, and the equivalent. And so it’s Paul Strand
as the straight photograph, and maybe Cartier-Bresson as the document, or Walker
Evans as the document, and Steiglitz as the equivalent, or maybe the formalist
is Walker Evans. Whatever. But that’s the point. It’s that, to me, someone
like Walker Evans is all of them. And that you could even look at Walker Evans
as the equivalent, in Steiglitz, Minor White terms. Except that he’s drawing
his metaphor not from nature, but from the complexity of the built environment,
which may allow for a different kind of equivalent. So I thought, “Why can’t a
photograph be all four things at once?” –be an art object; be a document, what
ever that means exactly, but deal with content; be a formalist exploration; and
operate on some, metaphor is not the right word but, resonant level.
AS: Walker Evans would often say that he wanted to
“photograph the present as it would be seen as the past”. But at the same time,
when he got into his older age, and people would say, “I love your pictures. I
remember those old Model T’s!” and so on, that it would drive him up the wall,
because he didn’t want his pictures to be seen as kitchy or old fashioned; he
saw them as very modern, relevant, contemporary images. And I know that this
work evokes similar responses today. People say, “Awe, the ‘70s. Look at those
great classic cars, look at those shag carpets, look at the great old signs, and
all the bright colors!” Does that ever frustrate you, that people see this work
as, in a sense, “kitchy” or “retro”?
SS: No. It’s funny you said that. I didn’t know
Walker Evans said this, but that was done intentionally in my work. I realized
in Evan’s work, that the time marker in his pictures were the cars. That a
building is not a time marker, because you could have a black and white picture
across Madison Square and, “Was that picture taken in the twenties, or was it
taken in 2003?” But the cars were the little time markers, which I found
fascinating. It didn’t make his work nostalgic for me. It put it in a time
perspective. And so, I would often include cars for that reason, because I
understood that they were going to be time markers in the picture. So I was
intentionally putting a tag in for a general era…That’s how I saw the cars in
AS: I think that, in many ways, the parallels
between your work, and Walker Evans’ work, are uncanny…
SS: Well, you know, I only heard him [Walker Evans]
speak once, and he talked about a couple of his pictures, and he used the term,
as I recall, “transcendent documents”. And it made me think that this idea I
had, that his work can function in the Minor White terms of the equivalent; an
equivalent for a psychological state was not alien to his thinking.
AS: Well there is that classic quote, where he
[Walker Evans] says that he photographs in a “documentary style”. As if he’s
both photographing objective facts, but infusing and interpreting them with
emotion and aesthetics.
SS: I also interpret that [quote] as what I’ve
always thought of as a postmodernist way, in that he was attaching to his
photographs the cultural ramifications of that style.
AS: I also noticed, when I was doing research in the
Walker Evans Archive, that he took very similar notes to yours, some of which
you include at the end of the new edition of Uncommon Places. For
example, while on assignment for Sports Illustrated in the ‘60s, he
“June 8: South Haven to Battle Creek by back roads.
Photographed buildings in Grand Junction, RR Depot in Bloomingdale. Through
Kalamazoo. Picnic lunch, slept in Post Tavern Hotel, Battle Creek. It is not
very good. From train window, Ypsilanti and Dexter Mich. Have 19 Cent. Main
streets that would be great to record…“June 9: Arrive NY 9AM, To
Life laboratories with 34 (?) rolls of 120 and 9 of 35mm color. Ordered a blue
suit and 6 white shirts at Brooks. Very hot day. Home all
…and so on. I mean, it’s almost word for word,
except for recording the television shows he watched.
SS: [Laughing] Although, I didn’t make editorial
comments, like, “It wasn’t very good.” But this is photographers. [Laughs
again] I mean photography is an analytic discipline. It’s the accumulation,
it’s the resonance of facts.
AS: Okay, enough about Evans. Sorry about that
tangent. Let’s talk about image size. I know that the original prints from
Uncommon Places were all 8x10 contact prints, and you’ve said that you
liked the contact print because it was dense and vibrant enough—the resolution
was so fine—that it allowed even the smallest details to become alive. Like the
little boy in the dentist’s window [pointing at Church Street and Second
Street, Easton, Pennsylvania, June 20th, 1974] , or a small fallen cross in
the middle of a field. They “pop”, and you can still see them, even if they’re
SS: Well, I’m going to counter a myth—which is
promulgated some German curator friends of mine—that all of work was originally
8x10 contact prints. I made enlargements all along. In 1975, I had a show
where I had a 20x24 print. I had a one-man show of sixteen-twenty’s [16x20’s] in
’76. So I was making larger prints all along. I fluctuated on it. I just
couldn’t decide, and each had its qualities. There are some details that I know
I’m paying attention to when I’m photographing, that simply can’t be seen on a
contact print. There’s more information on a negative than you can see on a
contact print. I would sometimes after a trip, I’d make notes about what I was
photographing, and I have to then assign this picture with this note. I’d take
a magnifying glass or a loop, and look at the license plates on cars. You see,
sometimes they have county names on them, and there’s no way you can see that on
a print. All that information is on the negative. So I know that a larger
print expands the information. And so more of the stuff that I’m looking at is
there for a viewer to see. Now, what I found attractive about the contact print
was the almost surreal density of information. That here’s this thing that you
can take in, in a couple of seconds. But, to actually stand on that spot, and
look at every branch on this tree, and every shadow on this building, and the
pebbles on the road—this could take minutes of attention. It was, like, maybe
fifteen minutes of attention had been compressed into this thing you can take
in, in a few seconds. That’s what I mean by “surreal density” of information.
So I found that fascinating. And about four years ago, I finally decided that I
didn’t like this idea of having prints in two different sizes, and had to
decide. And I decided that I preferred larger prints.
AS: So your contemporary work is large
SS: All of the current prints of this work are at
least twenty-twenty-four [20x24]. The work I’m doing for myself now is in two
forms. One is in those little books [iBooks] you probably saw at 303, and the
others are very large inkjet prints.
AS: Because of that myth, I’ve always wondered if
those huge, large scale prints that are so popular now—you know, the Struth’s
and the Gursky’s, even Nan Goldin—if the current craze for wall size, color
prints bothered you at all, because you recognized and celebrated the benefits
of smaller prints.
SS: The myth bothers me, because it just isn’t
true. Because, it’s a myth.
AS: So, in terms of the scale of the images in the
new book, I understand that most of the plates are slightly bigger than 8x10.
AS: Was that just to give more information; so the
viewer could see those little details better?
AS: Andrew [Hiller] was telling me that—when the
1971 Amarillo postcards series came back from the postcard printer—certain parts
of the pictures had been colorized or painted in, in very bright colors. Like
the skies were painted a solid, bright blue. And I was wondering if—when you
got the postcards back, and you saw that really vivid color—if you liked the
rich, exaggerated saturation so much that you intentionally oversaturated the
Uncommon Places photographs. Because it seems to me that you’re doing
something to the negative, in order to get really rich, dense, saturated color
in these pictures.
SS: It wasn’t related to those postcards. But what
it’s related to is that it simply may be my palette. I was just teaching a
class this morning and there’s a student who is using 8x10, and showed 8x10
contact prints. And he’s photographing architectural pictures around New York
City and Albany. And they’re all, kind of, muted pastels. And if I were
photographing the exact same thing—I mean it’s like I could stand in the exact
same place—and it’d be different. He’s choosing a light that’s just this way on
this day at this time, and that’s when he feels the urge to take the picture.
And if the sun, two hours later, moves to a different angle, all the tonality
changes, and I might take the picture. And if I were to see it at his moment, I
wouldn’t even feel like there was a picture there. So we wind up choosing our
palettes. With some complications, like each film has its own palette. So,
when Kodak switched its film in ’76 from Ektacolor to Vericolor, I had to learn
a different palette. The other thing is—do you have a computer monitor where
you can set the color levels on, where you can have 256 colors, or thousands of
colors, or millions of colors? That’s what it’s like to go from 35mm to 8x10.
35mm is like 256 colors, medium format is like thousands of colors, and 8x10 is
like millions of colors. So, part of that sense of saturation, and the look of
the color in it, is coming from just the fact that it’s this large negative,
that simply has more colors. Excuse me, it’s not that the negative has more
color. I mean, if you compared a contact print of a 35mm negative and a contact
print of an 8x10 negative, they would be the same. But, it’s the lesser degree
of enlargement produces more color, because of the density of the actual grain
on the print.
AS: I know that a lot of photographers, especially
when they’re shooting large format, have trouble with direct sunlight. And a
lot of photographers seem to wait for the sky to cloud over, to get that
diffused light. But, much of the Uncommon Places pictures seem to be
way out in the open, in very direct sunlight, adding saturation to the images.
SS: I love direct sunlight. It’s not just color.
It’s really almost like the state of mind it communicates. I often would travel
to the Southwest because of the light; because there’s this sense of clarity.
AS: So you’re interpreting the light emotionally, as
well as aesthetically and stylistically?
AS: Because often people say that you seem
“disengaged” or “unemotional” in your pictures. But, you’re saying that you
want those images to be interpreted emotionally as well—poetically,
AS: When did you meet your wife?
AS: And did she start traveling with you when you
shot? Did she come along?
SS: Occasionally. When it fit in with her job.
AS: Did that change the way you worked at
SS: No. I’m a maniac when I shoot. I mean, I’m
focused like a laser beam, and I’m not the “loving boyfriend”. I’m the
“artist”, and she understood this—that if you’re on a trip with me, the purpose
of this trip was for me to make pictures, and I’m not going to be a nice guy or
anything. I’m taking pictures. And if you’re around, you’re there to help me.
See here, in this picture [pointing at portrait. Ginger Shore, 1977]
she’s carrying my equipment. I used to use an old TWA bag for my film holders,
these are my film holders [red strap over Ginger’s right shoulder], and this is
my camera bag wit extra lenses [blue strap over Ginger’s left shoulder]. I
mean, it takes a lot of understanding on her part, to do that; to participate in
a trip like that. So, in fact, it doesn’t affect my shooting. Except that it
expanded my subject matter, because I could photograph her.
AS: Yeah, I noticed that, in this book, as that
relationship developed there were more and more pictures of her. Did you marry
SS: No, we married later. I realize that the titles
are “Ginger Shore”, but I just felt that I couldn’t use her previous name on the
AS: Because the essay for the new book describes
these pictures as being seen, in some ways, as that classic, American, “young
man alone in the world, trying to find himself, and his place”, and so on; that
kind of Kerouac, “On the Road” cliché. And the reason I ask about your wife is
that; it seems that once you found someone—I’m wondering if that’s when you felt
like the project was winding down, or that you were settling down. Basically,
I’m wondering what brought you to an end.
SS: That’s a very good question. I think there were
a number of things. I think there was a settling down. I mean my life
changed. I was no longer a boy alone; I now had someone I wanted to live with.
And I think something else happened at the same time, which is, I mentioned that
I started in this process of formal questions being raised. That as I was
working, there would be this issue that I felt I had to deal with—to solve,
visually. And in the process of answering this question, other questions would
arise. And this process went on, almost of its own accord. I mean, I didn’t
just sit around thinking, “What problem am I going to deal with next?” It would
just bubble up. And that went on from ‘73, when I started using the 4x5, ‘til
about the end here [points at Bozeman, Montana, 1981]. And then it
just stopped. And no more questions arose. And it seemed like that was the end
of the project. I could actually use this to get back to the Sally Eauclaire
question. See, at first, that situation confused me, and I didn’t know what
that meant. I didn’t know why this would stop happening. And, did it mean that
I lost it. And it took me a long time, I mean years I would say, to understand
and have perspective on it, and to realize that what had happened was—it feels
stupid to say, but my “innate modesty” prevented me from even recognizing
it—that I didn’t have any more questions of that kind. That I’d answered them,
and now it was time for a different phase in my work.
AS: Did you find that you started repeating
yourself? Or you didn’t like what you were shooting? Because, I mean, you kept
on shooting. It’s not like you put down the camera for two years and thought,
“What should I do next?”
SS: Right. I started to become more interested in
landscape. My interests changed in that I developed a particular passion for
fly-fishing for trout, which took me to Montana, where we lived for the first
couple of years after we were married. And, at first I didn’t do landscapes
there, because I realized that, as a guy growing up in New York, all my
landscape photographs in Montana could possibly say was, “Gosh, isn’t this
pretty!” And not have any sense of perception, the way I could bring perception
to a photograph of a residential street in Bozeman.
AS: Is the photograph of Bozeman—the last photograph
in the new edition of Uncommon Places—your street, where you moved to,
and where you ended this series for good?
SS: No. But, this is the town I ended in. I was
fascinated by a couple of things about the landscape. One: I simply loved being
out in the land. That’s reasonable. But then I thought, “Well, I grew up in
New York, and I’m supposed to be a sophisticated artist, and we’re not supposed
to be just doing natural landscape.” So I thought, “Why not? What’s this
prohibition against the natural landscape?” Especially when I found myself
attracted to it. And, after two years there, then I felt that I began to see
things in the land, where I actually had perceptions about the land. So that it
wouldn’t just be, “Isn’t this pretty.” And so then I started this process of
dealing with landscape, which is also very tricky in color. Because it’s hard
to do a landscape in color without it looking like a calendar picture. It’d be
much easier to photograph in black and white, in a way. So, that’s one thing I
started to work on, that continued to hold my attention throughout most of the
‘80s. But, in the process of doing this, I found that a lot of the things I
used to think about—let’s say the formal things I used to think about—I just
stopped thinking about. And, that it all began to just come naturally. Like I
would know where to stand. All the things I was thinking about—do I want to
have this diagonal come exactly into the corner, or just be a tiny bit above the
corner; do I want to have this car just jut in from the side of the frame. And
all these things I used to think about and play with, I found I just stopped
thinking about. And I just, kind of, knew where to stand. And, as I said, it
took me a while to accept that, in fact, there was this new phase. And, it was
AS: The essay in the new book does elaborate on the
idea that, towards the end of the project, you started to get more structured,
but it’s a kind of natural structure. It doesn’t feel as forced as some of the
earlier images. And also, it seems that in some of the earlier images, you
thought, “Oh no, this is getting a bit too structured.”…
SS: Yes. Right.
AS:…So you began to purposefully break it up a bit,
and make it seem more casual, more like a 35mm snapshot.
AS: The last two images in the new book are from the
‘80s, when the project was meant to have ended. Did you take these pictures
with the project in mind?
SS: I would say that, probably the project had
pretty much ended by then. These were just pictures I continued to work on. I
was taking landscapes by then [pointing at Lee Cramer, Bel Air, Maryland,
1983], but I took this picture that I thought fit in.
AS: And who was Lee Cramer?
SS: He was my wife’s father.
AS: That’s very interesting. You leave that out of
the title. Because, where I’m going with this article—If you’ll allow me to—Is
the idea that this [Uncommon Places] is an autobiography, but an
autobiography of looking.
SS: I would say that is very accurate. I don’t
expect someone to look at this and have any particular sense of what I did in my
life. But what it is, is about my explorations and my travels through
AS: Letting someone see you through your own
AS: Well then, I guess that’s all I need to know.
Thank you very much.
SS: Great. I enjoyed this. I think that this was
really probably one of the most insightful interviews I’ve done.
AS: I enjoyed it too. Thanks again.
Cet entretien réalisé a eu lieu en janvier 2004 et été publié dans SeeSaw Magazine.
AS = Aaron Schuman
SS = Stephen Shore