Interview: Stephen Shore / Retrospectief
Het werk van de beroemde Amerikaanse fotograaf Stephen Shore staat de laatste tijd volop in de schijnwerpers. Zijn werk is momenteel te zien in de reizende tentoonstelling This Place en een retrospectief reist langs Spanje, Frankrijk en Duitsland naar Nederland, waar het bij ons in Huis Marseille te zien is van 10 juni 2016 t/m 4 september 2016. Het MoMA plant bovendien een grote overzichtstentoonstelling in de Verenigde Staten in de herfst van 2017. Onze projectcurator Hinde Haest sprak met Stephen Shore over zijn huidige retrospectief.
Dit interview is momenteel alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.
Hinde Haest: The early age at which your career took off has become legendary and has been much reiterated. By the time you were 23 you had sold work to the Museum of Modern art and exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Few people know you exhibited before that, in a group show in The Hague in 1970 at the age of 22. Would it be safe to say your work was first exhibited in the Netherlands?
Stephen Shore: There had been a small display in a library in New York City when I was 14, but this was the first time my work was ever shown in a museum. It was a show called Photo Portrait (Foto-Portret) in the Gemeentemuseum. As I recall only one piece of mine was in it: a portrait of Andy Warhol, in which he was making a funny face for the camera. Between 1965 and 1967 I regularly photographed him and his entourage at the Factory in New York. I had a discussion with the curator about why this portrait was included in the show. In traditional portraits the camera is not really acknowledged by the subject. And even if the subject is looking into the camera, he or she is looking at the viewer. Here, Andy was directly and overtly responding to being photographed.
HH: Did you come over for the opening?
SS: I did. Not for the opening, but I was in England for a while that year and came over to The Hague to see the exhibition. This was 46 years ago. I have been back a number of times since, and will be coming to Amsterdam for the opening on June 10.
HH: People generally associate your work with (urban) landscape photography in colour, as featured in your most famous series American Surfaces (1972-1973) and Uncommon Places (1973-1981). Starting in 1960, the retrospective pays a lot of attention to your early work and your lesser known conceptual works: all in black and white, and almost all of people.
SS: When I switched to a slower and more 8×10 inch view camera in the early 1970s, it became much more difficult to photograph people, especially in colour, because the film was so slow. It limited the portrait to a much more staged and consensual image. But if you look closely, you will see that a quarter to a fifth of the pictures in American Surfaces are of people. There is also a whole black and white series of street scenes I made with a view camera in New York City (2000-2002) which solely features people. The colour landscapes just happen to be what I am best known for, but I photographed a lot of people all throughout my career.
HH: A number of people return in your work: you regularly photographed your friend Michael Marsh and your wife Ginger. The exhibition even features a diptych of your parents Ruth and Fred Shore in their undergarments. The work is conceptual but at the same time very personal. How do the two relate in your work?
SS: The images of my parents were actually part of a series in which I photographed about eight different people as a diptych, with their clothes on and as unclothed as they were comfortable with. The series featured in my first 1971 solo show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one year after the Photo Portrait-exhibition. The pictures of my parents were placed on a monolith at the entrance. I remember my father would put on the same jacket and tie he wore for the picture and stand by the entrance so that people would recognize him. The other people in the series were edited out because the curator thought the images of my parents would have a more personal resonance, even though they were but one part of a larger series.
HH: The majority of your photographs is titled with a place and date, but your parents, Michael and Ginger are almost always identified. It is like we follow their lives as they unfold over time.
SS: For a while Michael was my best friend, and we are still in touch. He is represented in my early series American Surfaces and Uncommon Places, and he posed for a 1969 conceptual piece for which I photographed him for 24 hours at 30-minute intervals. There are no pictures of him after 1974, so I would not go as far as to say my oeuvre chronicles his life. But I still photograph Ginger. You can see her in the retrospective as she stands by a pool in Florida in 1977, and on yesterday’s Instagram-post, which will be screened live on the gallery wall.
HH: Instagram has significantly accelerated the volume and pace at which images are taken and shared. Your current posts stand in stark contrast to A Road Trip Journal (1972, published 2008), in which you noted every exposure you made in a day while shooting Uncommon Places. Sometimes this came down to only three photographs a day. To what extent have technological developments dictated the way you work?
SS: The exhibition includes facsimiles of the original journal – which is at 303 Gallery –, not as sacred objects in a vitrine, but in order to reveal my visual thinking process. It was the first year I used a view-camera, which makes every decision extraordinarily conscious. I only ever make one image per subject, while oftentimes all different views of a building are all equally valid. At the time of A Road Trip journal I was starting to understand that and become conscious of what is was I wanted to achieve. The sparse number of pictures I took was not so much the result of the medium – setting up the view camera only takes a few minutes. It was because I was deciding where exactly I was going to stand and what I was going to photograph. As time progressed and I became more certain of what I wanted, production accelerated.
HH: The decision-making process is also central to your latest series Winslow, Arizona (2013). You photographed one place in one day and screened the images without manipulating them beforehand. Why was this important?
SS: Winslow was originally presented as a slide-show of unedited pictures in the same sequence in which they were originally shot. They were screened in a drive-in theatre in Barstow, California, as part of Doug Aitken’s Station to Station project. The 180 pictures I took that day are the culmination of the working method I have maintained for years: photographing something once and then moving on.
HH: You also photographed Winslow in the 1970s. What did it mean for you to revisit the same subject with a digital camera?
SS: What originally led me to the view camera is my desire to make larger prints of the snapshots I did for American Surfaces, which proved impossible because the 35mm Kodak prints were not sharp enough. What I wanted was a camera with the flexibility and ease of a 35mm camera, but had the descriptive power and the tonality of a view camera. That camera did not exist until about 8 years ago, when high end 35mm size digital camera’s started being made. It was a kind of celebration returning to older subject matter, but with this new tool that reached the same level of detail as my 4×5 work, but allowed me to take 180 pictures in a day. This new camera gave me the tools I had been looking for since the early 70s.
HH: It seems like technology finally caught up with you. Although technological constraints never seem to bother you much: for New York City (2000-2002) you shot moving street scenes with a view camera, which requires long shutter time and a tripod. It seems like you chose the most counterintuitive medium for the subject matter.
SS: I was trying to overcome the limitations of an 8×10 view camera. I used a Deerdorff-camera with a wooden slide to cover up half the negative, so it would produce a 4×10 inch negative. By moving the slide you could take two 4×10 pictures on each sheet of film. This allowed me to use the lens from my 4×5 camera on the 8×10 camera, which is much shorter and allows for greater depth of field without using a distorting wide angle lens. I worked out a method of pushing the film to increase the ISO of the film by two stops without increasing contrast, which normally happens when you push film.
HH: Apart from the view camera and Instagram you have experimented with a range of different media: from printing postcards to photographing with a toy camera. Whatever the medium, you have exclusively worked in series and image sequences. Wouldn’t film be the more obvious choice?
SS: I only ever made two movies. The first was called Elevator (1964), through it I met Warhol, as it was screened at the same time as one of his movies in a theatre in 1965. Intersections (1971), shown in the exhibition, consists of fairly still images of intersections, made with a cheap plastic hand-held super-8 camera which did not even have a tripod mount on it. Apart from my shaking hand there is hardly any camera movement in the shot. Essentially it consists of static photographs that move in time. The ‘frame’ was not the composition so much as the beginning and end of a single take. It was a year during which I was experimenting with a lot of different things, like the postcards and the Mick-o-Matic – a toy camera in the shape of Micky Mouse. Experiments that eventually led to American Surfaces.
HH: The retrospective emphasizes a number of important turning points in your career, such as your radical switch from black-and-white to colour and back. The show has been presented chronologically in previous venues, a manner of presentation the architecture of Huis Marseille does not allow for. Does the chronology matter?
SS: I see the odd architecture of the Dutch canal houses as an opportunity rather than a constraint. What struck me as I walked through the building is that there was no one path. If you free yourself from the set narrative and look at what work looks best with the architecture of the room, this allows for completely different connections to be made between one body of work and the next. For example, my Instagram work and some of the print-on-demand books relate to American Surfaces, and even harken back to my conceptual work. Having said that, there are certain inevitable connections that are best served by a chronological sequence. If there is one consistency in my work it is that I always keep changing what I’m doing; a fact that may be emphasized more by juxtaposing the individual bodies of work into a single room. In Huis Marseille the series are presented as almost solitary bodies of work.
HH: The oldest work in the exhibition is a photograph of a man who in turn is photographing the local Tarrytown soccer club in 1960. Is this your earliest work?
SS: Before I started taking my own pictures around the age of eight, I developed the family photographs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a photograph of me and my cousin that I developed when I was six years old. I also have some colour slides from when I was nine or ten. But to my mind Tarrytown, New York is my earliest successful picture. I can see myself thinking formally in how it is structured, in the way the photographer was placed in the picture as a kind of visual poise that I see continually in my subsequent work. And in the self-referential quality of my own shadow falling on the shoulder of the photographer who is taking a photograph. There is a lot of visual thinking going on in that picture.
HH: A lot of the prints are new exhibition prints, while the early black and white work is vintage. Does this matter to you if the print is original?
SS: To some people this is an issue, but not to me. I would not want to exhibit a vintage colour print because some of them are faded. Even if they are not, they would not withstand two years on a wall in public view. The colour material we have now is five times as stable as the material available in the seventies. I find the late prints much better, because I have more control over the image with Photoshop. I can now do the things that a black and white photographer has always been able to do in the darkroom, for instance controlling contrast. I can get much better prints today than I was getting in the 1970s.
HH: You increasingly work with projections and Instagram. Do we need prints anymore? Or was analogue another technological problem that needed to be overcome?
SS: No, I think we need prints. Most of my pictures were made to be seen as prints. When I see them projected when doing a talk they don’t look nearly as good. There is a level of detail in the print, and the way you can study it and move up and close to it which is fundamentally different from looking at a monitor. There are also subtle ways in which photographers receive feedback in terms of a print, which alters what they are photographing. When I first saw William Eggleston’s work he projected 35-millimetre kodachrome transparencies on the wall of his living room in Memphis. He was subtly fine-tuning what he was photographing so that it would look good as a projected image. When he showed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, a number of photographs were not included in the show simply because they didn’t work as prints. Conversely, I take advantage of the physical qualities of the print and the experience of looking at a physical object, which may not work as well as a projected image.
HH: A lot of these early works have never been exhibited before. Neither have your latest works. You recently did a series on some of the last survivors of the Holocaust in Ukraine. You also published From Galilee to the Negev (2014), on the contested landscape of Israel and the West Bank. These are very heavy and politically charged subjects compared to some of your earlier work.
SS: My work from the 1970s consists largely of cultural observations; it was not overtly emotional or political. The Ukraine pictures were very personal. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Ukraine in the 1890s. I found Ukraine to be a very emotional place to be because of its incredibly tragic history of going from Stalin to Hitler and back again.
When I first went to work in Israel in the 1990s I was solely concerned with documenting the archaeological digs in Hatzor and Ashklelon. But it is impossible to photograph in Israel and the West Bank without at some point dealing with the political situation. Having said that, I was interested in what else was there, beyond politics. Israel and the West Bank is not just a conflict zone; there is a landscape, there is life, people go to cafes and have jobs.
Of course I had to visually recognize the conflict, but one cannot photograph a political statement or a theory. I can only photograph what’s visible, which is why I chose to photograph Hebron. You see guard towers and a fortified gate that separates the Jewish settlements from the Arab quarters. You see graffiti by Jews claiming buildings in the old part of Hebron, and children drawing pictures of soldiers. This series led me to deal with a new aesthetic problem that was not a problem of composition, but of what I photographed and how I photographed it. And of being aware of the emotional charge and the political repercussions, while at the same time not being manipulative.
Stephen Shore / Retrospective is van 10 juni tot 4 september 2016 te zien in Huis Marseille in Amsterdam. De tentoonstelling kwam tot stand op initiatief van Fundación MAPFRE en werd gecureerd door Marta Dahó.