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Flat, yet with depth: Stephen Shore’s view of America in the ‘70s

Published 26 May 2016 at 14:40 by Inez de Coo

Huis Marseille is exhibiting a retrospective on photographer Stephen Shore, starting 10 June. Shore is legendary and influential due to his interest in the every day and his glorious use of colour, without shying from a bright flash. These are characteristics that can commonly be found in contemporary photography, but were far from usual in the 1970s. His legend stems back to early on in his career, when he sold his photographs to a curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. By the time he was twenty-four, Shore was the second living artist to have a solo exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, crystallizing his reputation. This illustrious CV aside, the quality of Shore’s photography can especially be recognized in his compelling topics, and above all, his outspoken humor.

Beeld: American Suburb X. From the Uncommon Places series. © Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

Every day
When he was ten years old, Shore received the world famous book American Photographs by Walker Evans. The photographs of normal, yet anything but monotone people from the 1930s appealed to Shore immediately. His fascination for the every day can easily be recognised in his own photography, but unlike Evans, Shore is best known for photographing places rather than people.

7.-carretera-federal-97-al-sur-de-klamath-falls-oregon-21-de-julio-de-1973.-de-la-serie-uncommon-places_webBeeld: Federal Highway 97 south of Klamath Falls, Oregon, 21 July, 1973. From the Uncommon Places series. © Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

Flat photographs
Shore uses his photos to investigate the formal aspects of the medium, like its depth and surface. Can photographs be both flat and deep? Think of the image above, a photograph of an advertisement of a mountain, placed in an open landscape. Both suggest depth, yet you are interpreting different versions of depth. The flatness of the advertisement, the depth of the landscape, and the eventually flat photograph you see before you. It’s all too easy to forget that you’re not peering through a window. Shore reminds us of the flat surface that is inherently the photograph.

Beeld: Untitled. From The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965-1967 series. © Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

The Factory
A black-and-white photograph is atypical for Shore, but it’s important to illustrate that he didn’t always work in his later signature colour schemes. Young, successful and extraordinarily productive, Shore was already hanging out in Andy Warhol’s The Factory at seventeen. This famous ‘art factory’, the place to be seen in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was the birthplace of The Velvet Underground and the hangout for icons such as the Twiggy-esque muse Edie Sedgwick and famous drag queens Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. Although Shore’s career in New York started out avant-garde, his interest swiftly shifted to the typical landscapes of the American south, that would later characterize his oeuvre.

Beeld: West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, 2 October, 1974. From the Uncommon Places series. © Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

Shore had spent his life in Manhattan, but in 1972 he decided to pack his bags and drive to Amarillo, Texas. It was a huge shock. The bright colours overwhelmed him and his obsession with postcards became reality through his car window. After his colour photography exhibition in MoMA in 1976, his first photography book finally was published, entitled Uncommon Places, in 1982. The photographs exude his wry observations of life in America and became iconic of the suddenly popular colour photography. William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank became Shore’s colleagues in this movement.

Beeld: Post Falls, Idaho, 25 August, 1974. From the Uncommon Places series. © Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

Yet this was far from obvious: colour photography was shunned by art photographers of the ‘70s. Colour was associated with commercials, while artistry could be recognized in the sharpness and class of black-and-white photography. Shore’s colourful work, and its resemblance to commercial photography, could be his interpretation of Warhol’s bright and bold influence – think of his Brillo boxes and the Campbell cans.

Beeld: Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973. From the American Surfaces series. © Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

A remarkable recurring subject in Shore’s work is his love of photographing food. It is due to this legacy that he’s sometimes thought of as a proto-instagrammer. Besides the commercial photography, postcards were essential to Shore. His photographs can be compared to the faded 1970s postcards, that typify the nostalgic look Instagram attempts to mirror – with its Polaroid filters. It’s a comparison that Shore, unlike most photographers, doesn’t shy away from; he has since embraced Instagram with a passion. His Instagram account will be projected during his exhibition in Huis Marseille.

Members can attend the opening weekend of the exhibition on Saturday 11 June and Sunday 12 June.

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