Stephen Shore | HOW TO SEE the photographer with Stephen Shore


To make all my decisions conscious, I started
filling the pictures with attention. Just the way when an actor who’s trained to
move in a completely natural way fills the theater with the presence of attention. I’m Stephen Shore. I’m a photographer, and this is an exhibition
of my work at the Museum of Modern Art. It covers about 50 years of my work and career. This is a room of black and white work I did
when I was a teenager. When I was 17, I met Andy Warhol, and asked
if I could come to his studio to photograph. And as soon as I went there, I realized that
that was more interesting than going to high school. So this is what I did instead of going to
college, I spent three years on and off photographing at the Factory. This picture was made probably within the
first week or two of my going to the factory. And it’s a picture of me and Andy, and I guess
it could go down in history as my first selfie. Yes. This is a film called “Elevator.” I made it when I was, I guess, about 16. And it was shown at a theater in New York
called the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque the same night that Andy premiered one of his movies,
“The Life of Juanita Castro.” And that’s how I was introduced to Andy. In the early ’70s, in 1970 and ’71, I became
very interested in the vernacular uses of photography. I began using color. Because all snapshots were in color, all postcards
were in color, television was, movies were. But art photography was this one holdout. Art photography was always in black and white. And it was a convention that I didn’t understand,
and I think there’s something in me that just likes to question visual conventions. Which brings us to this room. This is a recreation of a show that I put
on in New York called “American Surfaces.” It was a gallery named LIGHT Gallery. And it was hung just as these are. And one thing I wanted to do was to take pictures
that felt like they were not burdened with visual conventions. I want to take pictures that felt like seeing. Just the way when people write they use a
different language than they use when they speak. The language may be a little more stilted. It may be a little more formal. And I wanted to get to that quality of speaking. So what I would do as an exercise is in various
moments during the day, at random moments, I would become aware of my field of vision. To put it in modern terms, it would be like
taking a screenshot of my field of vision. And I did this so I could see what it was
like to see what the experience I was seeing looked like. And I used that as a guide in how I made my
pictures. So I chose this one as an example of what
I was saying because it doesn’t stand out as a highly charged event. It’s something you might see during the day. And I think it’s also an example of seeing
it the way an eye would see it. That the lines are not aligned. That the water fountain is placed in the center. There was a visual convention at the time
that you don’t put the subject of the picture in the center, which runs completely counter
to how we see, because you always are looking at your subject. After I finished the series “American Surfaces,”
I started using a view camera. These are big cameras on a tripod. Just like the cameras that were used in the
19th century, where the camera’s on a tripod and you go under a dark cloth to focus. One thing that I noticed right away using
the view camera, because the images are so highly detailed, there are little things in
the picture that I can see that I don’t have to make the subject of the picture. So for example, if you look closely in this
scene, there’s a window. And in the window is a boy, and his breath
is on the glass. Where “American Surfaces” were about the act
of seeing almost as though one’s seeing through my eyes. In “Uncommon Places,” I’m often relying on
the descriptive power of the camera to make a complex picture that the viewer moves their
attention through. So what I’m doing is creating a small world
for a viewer to explore, rather than the impression of what it’s like to look through my eyes. One thing I’ve always been interested in is
what the world looks like when it’s seen when you’re in a state of heightened awareness. Those moments which I think everyone has where
experience feels more tangible. Where experience feels more vivid. And as you walk down the street with that
frame of mind, relationships begin to stand out. Let’s go to this picture. This is a picture I made in 1975 at the intersection
of Beverly and La Brea in Los Angeles. And I think it represents the height of structural
density in my work, where I’m looking at every visual relationship in the picture. I’m looking at the relationship of this to
this, of this to this, of this to this, of this to this all throughout the picture. And so, this is structurally about as dense
as any picture I made. In the process of becoming aware of all the
structural elements of a picture, to make all my decisions conscious, I started filling
the pictures with attention. And so, although this seems as casual and
as natural as an “American Surfaces” picture, the difference is for me, there’s a resonance
of conscious attention that fills the picture. Just the way when an actor who’s trained to
move in a completely natural way, who can walk across a stage without apparent self-consciousness,
fills the theater with the presence of attention. What would be called “stage presence.” And this would be the visual equivalent of
stage presence. In 1980, my wife and I moved to Montana. And when I started living there and thinking
about what to photograph, I realized that if I photographed the land, I would be seeing
it through the eyes of a New Yorker, and taking pictures that essentially said, “Wow. Isn’t this beautiful?” And that those pictures would have missed
something that I would be doing if I were photographing in the city or a small town. And that is, they wouldn’t be expressing a
perception of the place. It wouldn’t be expressing a subtle perception
of the place. And so, I took this as my next objective to
understand landscape photography. And so, I lived there for two years, seeing
land in different light, becoming familiar with it. Developing those perceptions, hiking on it,
until a point about two years later where I felt that I had the perceptions I needed
to begin to make what, to me, would be interesting photographs. One lingering question I had after my formal
explorations of the ’70s was could I go to a flat, open piece of land that didn’t have
streets that defined one point perspective? That didn’t have telephone poles to emphasize
the frame? That it was just an open piece of land and
treeless piece of land, and figure out how to make it look like deep space receding? As you move your attention from the foreground
all the way back without skipping over anything, back to the horizon, you may have a sensation
of your eye changing focus. But this is an illusion because you’re looking
at a flat image. After living for a few years in Montana, I
moved to the Hudson Valley in New York State and began teaching at Bard College, which
I understand is ironic since as I told you earlier, I had dropped out of high school. Bard is a liberal arts institution, not a
fine arts school. And I knew that most of the students I was
teaching wouldn’t continue as photographers. And so, I thought about “What is it that I
can teach through photography that would benefit anyone?” And that is, again, referring to a theme that
I introduced a while back, the experience of seeing with conscious attention, and that
photography is a tool from learning how to do that, and that this is something that would
benefit anyone. That seeing with conscious attention and seeing
with self-awareness, in a way, feeds people, feeds part of the mind.

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