The Craft of Photography

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Stephen Shore describes Modern Instances as “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions. An impressionistic memoir” (p.10). A memoir of sorts it is. It also is “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions”, even as I feel that this description is too modest. All photography is subjective, in particular when it aspires to be art. And given how carefuly considered and thoughtful the book is, to describe it as a scrapbook might seem a tad too modest.

There is something to be said for Shore’s modesty, given that he has served as an educator for a long time. He writes “I see my role in the classroom as that of a guide—leading each student to find their voice as an artist” (p.12).

As far as I can tell, to see oneself as a guide — as opposed to, say, a drill sergeant — speaks of two things: generosity and confidence. If as a teacher you want to guide your students, you need to be generous with your advice, knowing that teaching is not a zero-sum game where you students learn from you at your own expense. At the same time, you need to possess a degree of confidence in your own abilities: a guide might lead some but not all of the way.

Having read Modern Instances, I can’t help but feel that Shore must be an excellent teacher. The two qualities I spoke of — generosity and confidence — shine through very clearly in the book.

But writing a book of this particular kind poses a pitfall for the guiding teacher, especially one with so much experience: the risk is that you mistaken your reader with a student. A reader might in fact be a student — someone eager to learn more about photography. But there might be other readers, for example someone who is curious to know more about Stephen Shore as an artist or even as a person. I have the feeling that this latter reader might not get all the answers they would be looking for.

Modern Instances is subtitled The Craft of Photography. A Memoir. In a conversation, I once was asked to compare Shore with fellow photographer Joel Sternfeld. I came up with the idea that while behind the view camera, Sternfeld looked at America whereas Shore looked at the ground glass. “Both of these pictures are based on one-point perspective,” Shore writes about a pair of photographs made in 1974 and 1975, “with the vanishing point in the center of the image. The Los Angeles image is much denser; there is more information to organize. When three-dimensional space is collapsed into a flat picture, objects in the foreground are now seen, on the surface of the photograph, in a new and precise relationship to the objects in the background.” (p. 20) All photographs are information organized in a two-dimensional plane. If any photographer has spent a lot of time thinking about this, it’s Shore.

I’ve now arrived at thinking that American Surfaces is my favourite body of work by this artist. In his memoir, Shore describes it as an exercise in seeing. But I do think that there’s a sense of playfulness and looseness in these pictures that is absent from the later work where possibly because of the use of a view-camera those aspects had to fall aside. This has me thinking that the work might have been more than merely a study in photographic seeing. Maybe my own path as someone looking at pictures is the opposite of Shore’s as someone making pictures, moving from what is measured and confined to something that is freer, looser.

In the book, Shore connects his own photographic problem solving with examples of art made before him. In a section entitled Influences and Inspirations, he lists a number of them (there are others scattered elsewhere in the book). They include Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, a number of architectural spaces, and more. And then on page 117, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera makes an appearance, which almost made me fall out of my chair. While Shore focuses especially on the lyrics, Brecht’s caustic lyrics and Weill’s helter-skelterly music to me are the complete opposite of the spirit that runs through Shore’s photographs and writing, with its polite, measured, and carefully considered delivery. I suppose this only shows that whenever you think you know something about a person, there still are ample opportunities for them to surprise you.

Shore’s artistic references are mostly male, white, and Western. This makes him a good representative of the vast majority of American artists from his (and later) generation(s). It’s probably obvious to most readers how such a set of references is limiting for a large number of contemporary practitioners. But dismissing the book for that reason would be a mistake. To begin with, Shore’s work simply is too strong and masterful to be cast aside. There are ample opportunities to learn from his work and thinking, the latter of which is laid out in full detail here. Even if as an artist you don’t see yourself as a strict formalist, Shore overarching important lesson is most important: you will have to get your craft perfect.

What is more, to understand the history of photography involves immersing oneself in a lot of material that for any number of reasons one might be tempted to dismiss as not being relevant for one’s own work. In my own experience, I have now come to realize that there is almost no photography that does not offer an opportunity to learn something about what it means to use a camera. For better or worse, the very male and white world of artists that dominates the book has something to offer; understanding how it came about and relates with itself forms an important part of moving to something more diverse.

Stephen Shore is one of the very rare cases where a person combines being an excellent, groundbreaking artist with being a generous and open teacher, and a very good writer. With Modern Instances, we now get access to that universe. This makes for a unique opportunity to get access to something that too often is hidden: how a person developed into the artist they are, given the material and people they associated themselves with.

In my own teaching, I often describe photographs as gifts: they are given to you if you’re able to spot and then take them. This book is a gift. If this (or any other) article spotted it, all that’s left for you is to take it.

Stephen Shore — Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography;224 pages; MACK; 2022