This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Shore

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just got home from a family vacation. In Colorado. So my brain is not working as well as it normally does. (Must. Activate. Remaining. Braincells.)

In fact, I just deleted several paragraphs, and jumped right back to this spot. I never do that. These columns normally flow like the water in the Rio Hondo, right after the snow pack begins to melt.

But not today.

Today, I want to talk about nostalgia. Or, more correctly, the way in which some temporal markers take on a power that is far greater than what they have earned. I’ve got a handy example, so you know exactly what I mean.

I was at Review Santa Fe a few weeks ago, as I’ve mentioned. The articles highlighting the work I saw will be coming out in the near future, but I wanted to share an unrelated anecdote. (What’s that you say? I’ve never met an “unrelated” anecdote? Point taken.)

One of the photographers at the event had a previous career as a TV journalist back in the 90’s. It’s not important whom I’m discussing, but let’s just say that the person held an outsized place in the culture at the time, despite never being a superstar.

During the weekend, I watched as one GenX photog after another seemed starstruck and smitten. Again, this is not Tom Cruise we’re talking about. But some things that are important to us, at critical times in our youth, never really lose their power. (That’s why the rest of us can’t really understand how much Baby Boomer guys love Mickey Mantle.)

Speaking for the 90’s, I think that “Seinfeld” was such a cultural touchstone. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) It’s freaking 2015, and it still seems like Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are America’s weird, narcissistic best friends. Who would have thought a show about NOTHING could make such a lasting impression?

Sometimes, NOTHING is the best possible subject, because it allows an artist to super-impose his or her own vision, or range of emotions, directly onto a historical stage. Even time can feel more important, when it’s supporting a flimsy premise; when all that matters is the way color, light, and composition meld together into an enduring scenario that would otherwise escape notice.

Am I talking about anyone specific?
Stephen Shore. American master.

The last time I wrote about him, I mostly-trashed his book of photographs made in Israel. I pined for the less-complicated, almost breezily brilliant pictures made in his heyday. Back in the 70’s.

So that’s what we’ve got for today: Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places: The Complete Works,” recently released by Aperture. It simply doesn’t get any better than this, my faithful readers. No irony required. This shit is fantastic.

It took me a lot of brain power just to make it this far, so that means I’m going to wrap it up rather swiftly. I’ll shoot an extra few pictures so you can enjoy the ride a little longer, but for once, there’s not much I can say.

The pictures really are about “NOTHING,” in the sense that the collection merely records one man’s travels, and the things he saw, back in the 70’s. There were many images made in mid-1974, and my imagination ran wild, visualizing this guy, moseying around with a big camera, while I was drinking formula and spitting up on my Mom back in Jersey.

The truly iconic pictures, like “Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974” stand out, in that we’ve seen them before. They’re etched in our minds, like our grandmother’s face. But they fit into the continuum of Mr. Shore’s journey, and deliver about as much pleasure as the other plates. (Beyond giving a quick jolt of nostalgic thrill, reminding us of the phase when we first discovered them.)

The last two weeks, I’ve talked about developing your own voice. It is hard, I admit. Starting from your own passion and knowledge base is a good idea.

Another way to go about it is to obsess about your favorites. Look at their work until your eyes bleed. That way, the next time you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’ll recognize when you’re about to snap one of “their” pictures, and then slowly let your finger off the shutter.

Bottom Line: A classic, meant to be appreciated over time

To Purchase “Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places: The Complete Works” Visit Photo-Eye

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Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 6 Comments On This Article.

  1. Pretty sure I talked to the 90’s television guy and his prints were fantastic! A step above the others imo. “Uncomon Places” was one of the first photo books I ever bought. Such a great piece of work! I have to argue “slowly let your finger off the shutter” though; sure that picture has been done before but has it been done by you? I think its interesting to see how different individuals interpret a scene.

  2. A true classic that continues to influence and aspire to this day.

    Heard him speak in 2012 and he began his lecture with a short anecdote concerning the late Ansel Adams who related that he had had a burst of creativity in the forties, and had been “potboiling” ever since. Seems that really hit home with Mr. Shore, who consciously made it a point not to get mired into one particular project for the remainder of his career, or just duplicate past glories. I, for one, was unaware that he spent the ’90s shooting black and white, or that he shot a digital point and shoot for a couple of years, and that recently he was shooting with a top of the line Nikon DSLR which he likened to the camera he always wanted- a hand holdable 4X5.

    I definitely applaud him for not playing it safe with the success formula that garnered him fame and fortune via Uncommon Places (it most definitely cost him at the art gallery box office). Life would have been easy riding that high note a bit longer, but it’s not unusual for artistic visionaries to bounce from project to project, and even style to style, never quite repeating themselves, but never quite regaining the creative pinnacle of their original aesthetic. In other words, despite his willingness to pursue a diverse range of projects- ironically, in the end, Shore, like Adams, will be best remembered for that one, singular photographic achievement that he accomplished in a decade. He may (as he himself stated) well have continued to confront, and answer, the questions he imposed upon himself, but he will hardly be remembered for his point and shoot photos, his small, print on demand books, or his B&W work.

  3. Hi. I’m just wondering what the difference will be between the 2004 edition published by Thames & Hudson and this edition? Any ideas?

  4. Jeff Wade

    You’re right…. these photos are kinda… plain. Lots of everyday life – back then. But I am drawn to them. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia? But the more you look at them, the more they’re not just plain… they take you back to a place and time, and some include a special moment or perspective in time. I really do like looking at these photos. Thank you, Stephen! …and Jonathan, for highlighting this “comfortable” book.

  5. Alan Berkson

    You are not old enough to be able to discuss Shore and nostalgia. You rely on twitter, instagram, facebook, etc. —NOT NOSTALGIC!!! Life Magazine, Colorama, Howdy Doody, now that’s nostalgia. Steven Shore knows these things. His stuff is his own reaction to his nostalgia. Valid, even artful, but modern [or post-modern depending upon your definitions]. Unconnected, vapid, meaningless – that’s what you are trying to explain wit your terminology “nothing’. But the Shore images are far from that while maybe Seinfeld is just that, so I’ll take offense at your lumping them together. Shore’s genius is his ability to see what other do, but to express it in images – something all young ‘modern’ images makers strive to accomplish, some successfully and others mockingly. Enter into the realm of Shore’s world of ‘Uncommon Places’ and see how you come out on the other side. It may take a few years, or many years, but I’m guessing that most won’t have the wherewithal to let the experience color their world.