This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Shore

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant the other day. My Dad was across the table; we were both a little sketched out. The joint seemed like a front for the mob: dirty, empty, and unintentional.

Dad was buying with a coupon, so I guess I already appear ungrateful. Which might end up as the theme of the column, when all is said and done. (Yes, that is foreshadowing.)

We were waiting for our tacos when the door flew open. Dramatically. In stepped a very large, crew-cut, blue-eyed man dressed like rancher, in jeans and a Western shirt. He was sporting a baseball cap that made reference to Texas. (I couldn’t say beyond that, exactly, as he was moving rather quick.)

Behind him marched a procession of five children and a wife, all wearing homemade long dresses and bright-white bonnets. They looked Amish, or like refugees from a compound in Utah that they featured on “Big Love.” It was a little bit Kubrick, to say the least.

Stranger still, once they got settled, the big man began speaking, very loudly, to two Mexican men, the only other patrons in the place. Fluently. In Mexican-accented Spanish.

I did a triple-take.

Odder-yet-still, within five minutes, he began singing. In Spanish. At the top of his lungs. In the middle of lunch.

What?

I had no frame of reference.

Sometimes, life catches you by surprise, like a leopard pouncing on a lady who’s just out to wash the laundry. There’s no way to prepare.

That’s how I felt when I opened up the new Stephen Shore book, “From Galilee to the Negev,” recently published by Phaidon. Wouldn’t you know, it was the next book on my stack, after last week’s genius Israel offering by Rosalind Fox Solomon.

Stephen Shore, doing Israel, for the “This Place” folks? How lucky was I? How lucky are you?

Awkward silence.
Fingers pausing on the keyboard.
How to proceed?

All right, I’ll just be honest. I found this book less-than-enthralling. Slightly under-dramatic. It’s hard to believe he’s covering the same country as Ms. Solomon. No sooner than I’d written about the tension in the air, the vibe pulsing through everything in its path, than I open up this book.

I know, many of you will consider it blasphemous that I’d even hint at criticizing a master of the medium. A member of the metaphorical Mt Rushmore of 20th Century photography. How dare he, you might think.

I get it. That’s why I chose to review the book, if you call this a review. I’ll let you see some photos and make up your own mind.

Mr. Shore, at his best, managed to squeeze deep pathos into the most meaningless of situations. That’s his hallmark, a level of perception that supersedes mere mortals. Not to mention his subtlety with color, and super-sharp large format negatives.

In this book, there is not a lot of life. (No chutzpah, if you will.)

What happened?

I couldn’t tell you. Which makes it interesting. How does a great artist go to a fascinating place and not make fascinating pictures? How did Baz Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” end up so bad I couldn’t make it 10 minutes into the film?

Not to suggest that this book is bad. It’s not. It just depicts a place entirely more placid than in the books I reviewed by Mr. Brenner and Ms. Solomon.

Am I an ingrate? To expect greatness from a great artist? Are average fish tacos worth it, if you don’t have to pay for them? Did that big Texan break his family out from some Branch-Dividian-esque compound near Waco?

I have no idea.

If I were a betting man, I’d say they were his kids, he does ranch work near the Mexican border, and makes his family dress differently than he does. I’d also bet that Mr. Shore enjoyed making these pictures as much as he did in his stuff from the 70’s.

It’s hard not to see this project as something like the Rolling Stones might make at this stage of their career. They keep touring, and people keep buying tickets to hear “Satisfaction” in person. Their fans are thrilled to get the experience, and consider it money well spent.

Am I being unfair to Mr. Shore, when I compare his book directly with two others that were made in the same place? Or by expecting his work to reach the same heights it did years ago? Are these questions worth asking?

Let’s finish by wishing you a Happy New Year. If you celebrate that sort of thing.

Bottom Line: Confusing book about Israel from a master

To Purchase “From Galilee to the Negev” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. I agree. It made me think that, perhaps some terrific film photographers relied on the color film to carry the work. Those super saturated colors or the reds of Kodachrome. The darkroom printing too.
    Now, working with digital, they actually need to know color and software to bring the right feel back to RAW images. This conversion along with film selection narrowed to little, exposes the technical limitations of some of those fine art photographers.
    These look digital to me. Even if scanned from film. But the post processing and/or lighting conditions are pretty bland.
    Alternatively, the printer or publisher messed up or the author did in press checking.
    Aside from that, the image selection is, kind of vanilla.
    But I do not expect innovation from a great artist after a certain age. Perhaps a sort of career iteration which, I think was the attempt here. Slightly off target though.

  2. Chris Barton

    My (semi) educated guess would be that your dinner companions were Mexican Mennonites:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonites_in_Mexico

    From Wikipedia: “There are 100,000 Mennonites living in Mexico,[1] including 29,277 adult church members;[6] About 90,000 are established in the state of Chihuahua[2] and 6,500 in Durango.”

    I remember seeing them when driving through Chihuahua years ago – pretty incongruous to be sure…