Stephen Shore
is an American photographer known for his images of banal scenes and objects in the United States, and for his pioneering use of color in art photography. In 1971, at the age of 24, Shore became the second living photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shore photographed fashion stories for Another Magazine, Elle, Daily Telegraph and many others. Commissioned by Italian brand Bottega Veneta, he photographed socialite Lydia Hearst-Shaw, filmmaker Liz Goldwyn and model Will Chalker for the brand’s spring/summer 2006 advertisements. In 2010, Shore received an Honorary Fellowship from The Royal Photographic Society.

Gil Blank
is a writer on the social, political, historical aspects of photography, as well as a practicing photographer. He does not work in one specific, but rather selects his medium based on his subject, often using techniques that have passed out of fashion, like photogravure. In 2004, he created one of his best known series, based on appropriated images from a webcam positioned over a harbor in Portland, Maine.

Gil Blank: Over the last five to ten years, the work of yours that has increasingly come to the widest attention relates most directly to what began in Uncommon Places—photographs especially remarkable for their self-consciousness as pictorial assemblies.

Stephen Shore: Yes.

GB: But your current retrospective has gone a long way to recontextualize that later work in light of earlier practices that clearly demonstrated the much different priorities and influence of conceptualism.

SS: I think it was the intention of the curator, Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, to show that. He saw Uncommon Places growing out of American Surfaces, and American Surfaces growing out of the Conceptualist work. When I look back at a broader view of what I’ve done, though, I don’t see one project superseding the other.

American Surfaces was begun in 1972, with its first showing at The Light Gallery in the fall of that year. I continued the project into the winter of 1973, and that spring I began Uncommon Places, but there was some American Surfaces work that lingered until the end of that year.

GB: So that you were working on both simultaneously during your road trips.

SS: Yes. So there was a little bit of overlap, but I’ll specifically tie it to a shift in equipment. All of American Surfaces was done using a Rollei 35 millimeter camera, which was a precursor to the point-and-shoot. It was very small, very unpretentious-looking, very amateurish in a way. All of Uncommon Places was done with a view camera. And I think it’s important to recognize that, because it’s what led to some of these qualities that you’re talking about. I had intended the photographs in American Surfaces, at the time I shot them, to be seen as snapshots. I had many other cameras that I owned, but I got this camera because it was a kind of amateurish camera. One thing that I hope is made clear in the show is that the roots of American Surfaces lay in the Mick-o-Matic series. These were also meant to be seen as snapshots, and were done with a camera called the Mick-o-Matic, which was a big plastic thing in the shape of a Mickey Mouse head with a lens in his nose. I was interested in the snapshot, and in the natural quality that some few snapshots do contain. I wanted to continue with that, but I didn’t feel I had to limit myself to the mechanism of using the Mick-o-Matic.

GB: Can you explain a little more what you mean by “the natural quality” of the snapshot?

SS: One of the thoughts behind the Conceptualist work was that there’s this world out there that we experience, and that making it into a photograph necessitates the mediation of an artist. Almost inevitably, visual conventions come into play, so that what I see in the photograph is tied as much to visual conventions as any opportunity to see the rest of the world. If some of my decisions can be taken out of my hands because of an imposed Conceptual framework—if, for example, I know that I’m going to walk north on Sixth Avenue and at the beginning of each block take a picture due north—then at least one decision out of the array of many necessary to create a photograph has been taken out of my hands. Part of that was to see if I could circumvent the mediating voice of the artist. I finally found that this wasn’t satisfying, and that I felt like I ought to be able to accomplish the same result independently—because every now and then I would see a photograph that would have that quality of an unmediated experience.

GB: In what context? I’m guessing that you’re talking about what we might now refer to, in terms themselves that I would allege are already loaded, as “vernacular”: anonymous snapshots, newspaper photographs, accidental documents, and the like. You’re not talking about any of the purposely de-skilled photographs born of the Conceptual art period, albeit of an intentionality that sought to imitate those other forms.

SS: I’m talking about what you just said, about postcards and snapshots. Not all postcards, and not all snapshots. In fact, as you look at collections of amateur pictures today, you’ll find that everyone has been so educated visually, and that people are striving so hard to make “good” pictures, that it’s very hard to find that quality of the undetermined image.

GB: You’re talking about the same quality that Gerhard Richter invoked when he said that throwaway snapshots come closest to achieving the state of “pure picture.” And that feeds as well into the purposeful “amateurization” of photography found in the Conceptualism of Ed Ruscha and Douglas Huebler, and separately, into the negative dialectic by which Warhol framed all image production.

SS: Although it’s important to say that it was not my intention to “be a machine.” If I can detect a difference between how I see things as I experience the world, and how I then see them in photographs, that difference interests me. Part of my intention with American Surfaces—and the entire terminology of “mediation” is something I’ve only begun to discuss in retrospect; at the time I don’t think I used that term—was simply to take pictures that looked natural to me, but that distinction is what I was after.