Stephen Shore in conversation with David Campany
Stephen Shore: Survey, Aperture/Fundación MAPFRE, 2014
Stephen Shore: Survey
Published by Aperture (English)/ Fundación MAPFRE (English EU and Spanish versions) / Contrasto (Italian)
In 2013 Stephen Shore and I had a long conversation covering the entirety of his career, from his first time in the darkroom (aged 6) to the present, looking at all his major bodies of work and many lesser known aspects. A transcript appears in this new book that marks Shore’s first retrospective exhibition, at Fundación MAPFRE Madrid, C/O Berlin, and Huis Marseille Amsterdam.
“Stephen Shore has a sympathetic and responsive listener in David Campany. Shore has given many interviews over the years, but none better than this one.” – Richard B. Woodward, Artforum, January 2015
Read an extract:
An extract from the conversation between Stephen Shore and David Campany:
DC: Let’s talk about your time with Warhol at the Factory. I remember in the 1990s, when a book of the photos you had made there was published [The Velvet Years], many people were surprised that those diaristic, informal images had been made by the same photographer who later became well known for his sober and formal color work. It seemed to come from a very different attitude to the medium. People so often talked about ‘photographers’ and ‘artists using photography,’ and it seemed you moved position. People wondered how come the guy who made Uncommon Places had been at the Factory.
SS: I understand the distinction they’re making, although I look at the Factory work I made and I see a formality to it that I feel is just ingrained in me.
DC: How often were you at the Factory?
SS: It varied over three years. For a while I would go every day.
DC: A large selection of your Factory photos appeared in Warhol’s 1968 Moderna Museet catalogue. ‘Photographs by Stephen Eric Shore,’ it says.
SS: Yes, that’s the place to see them.
DC: Did you consider yourself a chronicler of the place? Were you thinking anecdotally? Some of the pictures are quite formal, but others definitely have the looseness of an ongoing diary.
SS: Well, I was there so long that there are different answers to that. I first went there simply because it was the Factory; it was exciting, and I was documenting what was going on. But then these people became my friends, and so that changed the work. And then there was a period where Andy let me put up a sheet of seamless paper and I did a series of portraits of people who came in. There’s actually a photo of me in that catalogue.
DC: In the folio of photos by Billy Name?
SS: Yes, a portrait of me with Ivy Nicholson.
DC: Dandy suit, big floppy hat—is that how you were dressing at the time?!
SS: Yes. Well, not always. I think I was dressing up a little there!
DC: Did you feel like you fit in at the Factory? People now see you as this urbane, formal, analytical, slightly detached guy, and they find it hard to picture you in that bohemian maelstrom.
SS: Are you suggesting Andy wasn’t urbane and detached?
DC: Sure, he was urbane and detached, but the impression people have of that environment is very different.
SS: Well, different people were there for different reasons, but Andy worked every day. He was not a morning person, but he came in every afternoon and he had a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood as a table, and he would work. He always had something going on. There were other people who came, and there was a famous couch at the Factory, and they would sit and stare into space all day. And I remember at the time finding this just baffling, while Andy was so industrious. They would sit there waiting for the evening, when Andy would be invited to some party, and whoever was in the Factory went along. But I think I fitted in, and, as I say, a number of people there were my friends. Even when I went through periods of not going to the Factory, these were the same people I was spending time with.
There was a crowd at the Factory from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who were the people around Edie Sedgwick. Most of them were friends of mine. I think Edie herself thought she was too sophisticated to deal with a seventeen-year-old kid photographer, and I don’t think we ever had a conversation. When the Velvet Underground came, I never really got on with Lou [Reed], but John Cale and I became good friends. And Sterling Morrison. And Billy Name. Then there were people who were more peripheral—friends of the Cambridge people. I felt I fit in.
DC: Were you taking drugs?
SS: Not as much as some others. There was a lot of speed, but that was about it. There wasn’t a wild drug scene. And also I was straight, which was maybe a little different from some of the people there.
DC: You’ve spoken of picking up a real work ethic from Warhol and an attitude to artistic problem solving.
SS: Yes. I didn’t realize this at the time, but in retrospect I see Andy was very open about his process. What I saw every day was someone making aesthetic decisions. He would try different color combinations, different printing techniques, and he’d say, “Oh, Stephen, what do you think of this color?” And it wasn’t that he actually cared what I thought or [that] he was insecure; I think it was because some people like to work not in solitude but with people around them. It gave Andy energy to focus, and he would ask them questions to draw their energy into him.
DC: Are you like that as an artist?
SS: No, I work alone. Although, through doing commercial work, I learned to work in a collaborative way.
DC: Did your affection [for] everyday things and scenes come from Warhol? Obviously, photography has a disposition toward that.
SS: I think photography has a disposition toward it. And I think this is something maybe a little bit like Walker Evans—I’m not sure I learned it from Andy, but I was attracted to his vision or attitude because there was some similarity. Andy may have been more…cynical than I am. But he took pleasure in the culture. He was just amazed at how things just are. It struck a chord that may have already existed in me. And as you suggested, this may have been why I was drawn to photography. It’s what photography deals with.
DC: You made a series of pieces that have come to be known as your ‘Conceptual work.’ These include Circle (1969) and General Semantics (1970). These works are systematic, analytical, serial.
SS: That’s how I was thinking just after I left the Factory. Andy’s work wasn’t really Conceptual, but he was dealing with serial imagery. And, for me, a very influential book at the time was John Coplans’s Serial Imagery. I started hanging out at John Gibson Gallery that showed—on the less Conceptual end—Christo and Richard Long, and—on the more conceptual end—Peter Hutchinson and Dennis Oppenheim. In fact, there were a number of conceptual artists who saw photography as a graphic element or documentary element. A number of them became friends of mine.
DC: Artists identified as ‘conceptual’ are either regarded as seeing photography as a means to an end or they have a very testy, suspicious attitude to it, not so much an affectionate one.
SS: Well, I wrote a text on the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher [Festschrift Erasmuspreis, 2002] in which I suggested that although they are talked about as conceptual artists, they are photographers, and the ultimate meaning of their work is not the concept. The ‘concept’ of photographing six hundred water towers is not a very complex concept. In fact, it’s not a concept; it is a framework. I know they achieved a certain status within Conceptual art, but they clearly transcended that. John Szarkowski had his blindnesses, and this was one of them. When the Bechers were first shown at MoMA, it was in the sculpture department.
DC: Well, a lot of photographic work first got shown that way at MoMA. In 1970, when Szarkowski was putting on the big Evans retrospective, Kynaston McShine was organizing the big Conceptual show Information in the sculpture department.
SS: The meaning of the Bechers’ work is visual, and that separated them from figures like Douglas Huebler. Huebler always had a plan, a system, like many conceptual artists, and a lot of the photos they made were dumb intentionally.
SS: Yes, they wanted to deflect critical attention away from the work as photography and keep the image simply as a documentation of the idea. In a way the Bechers were doing the opposite, and that’s where I went.
DC: The Bechers really loved those water towers. They knew a lot about them and wanted the viewer to see them.
SS: Yes. So, coming out of a photographic background, I thought I could bring something visual to a concept. And so, for example, I did a series on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, where I’m starting on 42nd Street and walking up to 59th Street. And at the beginning of each block, I’m facing due north and take a photo—but I do it with infrared film and the sunlight glares off these people walking by, and its highly visual.
DC: It’s systematic but not mindlessly so.
SS: I’m trying to remove a certain amount of subjectivity from the decision making.
DC: You’re still choosing when to press the shutter.
SS: Sure. I once talked with the artist John Baldessari about the idea of trying to arrive at a less mediated photograph. If some of the decisions were made by a Conceptual framework, it would take out some of the personal influence, some of the personal conditioning. I did a series photographing a friend of mine over twenty-four hours. I’m still choosing where to stand, how to frame, focus, and so on—but I’m taking the photos exactly on the hour and half hour.
DC: But you didn’t work in that way for very long.
SS: I realized I wasn’t really addressing the issue, and that’s when I began American Surfaces. I was still after a less mediated photography, a less mediated experience; it’s still about making a photo that is less the product of visual and artistic convention. So, as a mental experiment, I would try to take a mental snapshot of my field of vision—what does this look like now? How am I looking at something? I’d do this without a camera, but I would use this experience as a guide to structuring the pictures.
DC: So, this is why so many of the photos in that series feel like hyperlucid stares at the world.
SS: Exactly. But in the translation of seeing to photographing, certain conventions are entering.
DC: That’s inevitable, no?
SS: Some snapshots are clearly very conventional, and there are many different conventions. But every now and then, there is a snapshot or a postcard that just shows what the Hi-Lo Motel looks like.
DC: It’s usually in the middle of the frame.
SS: Yes, that’s how people see. In art there is the ‘rule of thirds,’ but if I put you in the lower left-hand third of my field of vision when we are talking to each other, it is disconcerting to both of us. It’s just not how people look.
DC: But if we think of the visual field as being made up of ‘things’ and ‘scenes,’ I can see that American Surfaces was largely about things, while the next project, Uncommon Places, was mainly concerned with scenes. There are overlaps, but as a general rule you go from surfaces to places.
SS: Yes, but I should say American Surfaces was called that in my mind while I was taking those pictures; I had that in my head. Uncommon Places was a title I came up with in 1982 for the book of that work.
DC: It might have been a disaster if you’d had that as a working title! When did you first start thinking about photographing beyond New York?
SS: It came out of experiences in Amarillo, Texas, where I had friends. It was actually through one of the Cambridge people at the Factory, who had a younger sister who was dating a young man from Amarillo named Michael Marsh. Michael became one of my closest friends. He appears in some of my work. In the Conceptual ‘twenty-four-hour’ piece, he’s the guy. The first photograph in American Surfaces is also of Michael. He lives in New York, and every three months we still have lunch together. Anyway, through him I met a number of other people from Amarillo who were all living in New York. And in 1969 I went to Amarillo with them. I had been to Europe every year of my life—London, Paris, Madrid, Seville, Rome—but I’d seen very little of America. I’d been to LA once, but really New York was the western edge of my travel and Rome was the eastern edge.
DC: New York is very European in many ways. Did you photograph in London?
SS: I went once for a month and once for three months. I was friendly with John Chamberlain, who was making a film. I hung out and took pictures. But when I began to photograph America, I was also in many ways a foreigner. And I loved it, immediately.
DC: Did you drive to Amarillo?
SS: No, I flew. I didn’t drive at the time. If you grow up in New York, there is no reason to even have a car. In fact, it’s a burden to have a car. I loved Amarillo, not just what it looked like but the way people hung out—the pace of the life, the car culture, the barbeque joints.
DC: It was exotic?
SS: It was exotic but familiar, too. I didn’t love it like a tourist; I got into it. I would go there for a month.
DC: The light must have been a big source of attraction.
SS: Oh, yeah. Just to digress a little: Recently, I have been one of twelve photographers commissioned to photograph for a big project in Israel. I have had an assistant who has also been assisting the German photographer Thomas Struth. It’s a desert country, Israel, with clear skies most of the time. The assistant told me that Thomas would wait hours for one tiny cloud to block the sun and then he would take his photograph.
DC: He’s used to overcast Northern European light.
SS: Right. He’s from Germany; I’m from America. And I love sunny days. I would photograph from Texas to Arizona, going to places where I knew I could have a sunny day every day. This morning, I was showing a magazine editor here in London some recent photographs from Winslow, Arizona, and she remarked on the blue skies; an American wouldn’t even comment on the blue skies.
DC: For you the blue is also compositional.
SS: It’s a weight that balances the tonality of the bottom. A white sky wouldn’t do it. Last week, when I was in Ukraine, half the time it was overcast and I would have to construct pictures differently to deal with not having that weight on the top of the picture.
DC: Many photographers see a problem in bright light and blue skies, and the drama of shadows, but this is exactly what you prefer.
SS: For me, that Southwestern light communicates a mental clarity, so there is a psychological attraction. It isn’t simply a symbol of it but a representation of it. Also, if you work in that light for long enough, you have to work out how to integrate a shadow pictorially so that it is not about the shadow, it’s about the physical object—but, structurally, the picture has to take the shadow into account.
DC: If those scenes in bright light are striking you as potential pictures, is it partly physiological? In bright light, our pupils are small, and so everything appears in focus from foreground to background.
SS: This is something I’ve been thinking about this past month. I’ve been reading a book by a Nobel Laureate named Daniel Kahneman [Thinking, Fast and Slow]. He talks about psychological experiments in which people have to concentrate hard, like a mathematics problem. When they do this, their pupils dilate. I realized this is a problem for photographers.
DC: Because with dilated pupils, the depth of field is smaller?
SS: Yes. When I’m concentrating on making a picture, I understand three-dimensional space is being collapsed onto a picture plane. With dilated pupils, I’m not able to see the relation of foreground to background. I have to become so familiar with this that it’s no longer a mental strain.
DC: So, bright light helps with this problem. Concentration and pupil dilation is offset against bright light and pupil constriction! I can see a whole theory of European civilization being built on this! The more overcast the light, the more dilated the pupils, and the easier it is to concentrate on things in close proximity—reading, writing, painting still lifes and portraits!
SS: I’d never thought of it that way. Maybe that’s why I went to the bright light! [laughs]
Also I didn’t need to wear glasses until about twenty years ago.
DC: Coming back to the transition between American Surfaces and what came to be called Uncommon Places, can you talk about how much and how often you were shooting?
SS: Well, in 1972 I didn’t have a clear idea about what I wanted to do. But I knew a couple of things. I’d gotten a little camera, a Rollei 35mm. It was a 1972 version of a good ‘point and shoot’ camera. I liked this because it was unintimidating. I could go up to someone on the street and say, ‘Can I take your picture?’ and they wouldn’t be anxious. I had other cameras—Nikons, Leicas, a Hasselblad—but I liked the Rollei a lot. It was innocuous-looking. Secondly, I had this idea of the ‘natural photograph,’ and I knew I was going to print the results as small snapshots.