Shooting Israel / ‘Focused like a laser beam’
Stephen Shore, who began taking pictures when he was 6 and sold his first works to New York’s Museum of Modern Art at 14, has perfected the art of finding beauty in the banal.
Stephen Shore’s career began at the age of 6. An uncle who recognized his innate talent and interest gave him a birthday gift of a Kodak starter kit for developing film. His first pictures − family snapshots − were developed and printed in his parents’ bathroom. Three years later, he began taking pictures with a standard 35mm camera and developing them in a local darkroom in his hometown, New York City.
Shore took his next step on the way to the photographers’ hall of fame at the tender age of 14. Equipped with no small amount of daring, audacity and the naivete of an adolescent, he called the photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and asked to meet with him. The people at the museum, who realized the talent in the teenager, bought three works from him.
Good fortune and talent continued in his favor in the years that followed. Aged 17, at a film festival, he encountered Andy Warhol, one of the great artists of the 20th century, and asked if he could photograph him in his studio. Warhol said yes, and permitted the teen’s entry into the Factory − his famous workspace. Shore documented the time he spent with the artists and celebrities he met there, among them the singer Lou Reed and his band The Velvet Underground, in a book of photographs titled “The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965-67.”
In 1971, when Shore was 24, he had a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, its second-ever solo exhibition by a living photographer (Alfred Steiglitz had the first).
Four years later Shore took part in a groundbreaking group exhibition called “New Topographics,” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which documented the aesthetics of the seemingly banal: in this case, America’s urban and suburban landscapes.
A glance at his photos is enough to understand what this approach was all about: streets, warehouses, gas stations, parking lots, eateries, town centers, industrial areas, suburban homes − everything was considered a legitimate photographic subject. The group’s motto, which to a large extent characterizes Shore to this day, may be summed up in a statement by another one of its members, Nicholas Nixon: “The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions concerning it.”
During the four months Shore spent in Israel in 2010, he managed to explore the length and breadth of the country, searching for the same ostensibly banal subjects.
“Everything interested him. There was no hierarchy [among his subjects]. As far as he was concerned, photographing in an exotic place like Mount Gerizim, with the Samaritans, is exactly like photographing on some mundane street in Ramat Gan. The banal route that a person takes a hundred times from home to work is as interesting to him as the Amazon jungle,” says local photographer Gil Bar, who accompanied Shore during his travels in the Holy Land as part of Frederic Brenner’s international photography project “Shooting Israel.”
“We traveled from north to south, from east to west,” Bar continues. “Every time he encountered something that interested him − he stopped and photographed. Like a crow that’s drawn to something that glitters, so Shore was drawn to the light that falls on a field and illuminates an object in an interesting way. From his standpoint, the world is so interesting, wherever you turn, that there is no need to come up with an organized plan [for photographing] in advance.”
This was also the story behind the picture that appears here: Stones in an open field near the city of Safed, which at first glance are reminiscent of a flock of sheep. Banal or not? You be the judge.
“I shot a whole lot in Israel. People in the street. Signs. Food. Portraits of people. Architecture. Landscapes in the Judean Desert and the Galilee. Things you see in everyday life,” Shore says in a telephone conversation from New York.
Like other top-flight photographers, Shore − a professor who directs the photography program at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York − does not elaborate on his work process or output. He is not eager to share special insights regarding Israel either. “I find it a little funny − giving an opinion on Israel to an Israeli. I don’t live there; I was there only four months. I don’t want to be the American saying, ‘I understand the situation,’” he explains.
“Frederic [Brenner] approached the project correctly: Israel is the land of multiple incompatible narratives. My impression is that that’s a very apt description. I came away with much stronger feelings for the country − a real love of the country, a deep wish that it be successful. At the same time I came away with the sense that I don’t know how the conflict is going to be resolved. I came away much more pessimistic,” he sums up.
This year will mark 30 years since the publication of Shore’s most important book, “Uncommon Places,” which many photographers consider their bible. From it they learned for the first time that, as in painting, color photography can constitute a work of art, that photos of seemingly banal objects can also find their way into museums.
This book was one of the products of the worldwide photography trips Shore had begun taking a decade earlier.
“Until I was 23 I lived mostly within a few square miles in Manhattan. In 1972 I set out with a friend for Amarillo, Texas. I didn’t drive, so my first view of America was framed by the passenger’s window. It was a shock,” he wrote in “Uncommon Places.”
As Michael Kimmelman put it in a New York Times article from May, 2007: “He shot his motel room in Idaho Falls. He shot a pancake breakfast at the Trail’s End Restaurant in Kanab, Utah. He shot a rainbow arching over a rain-soaked parking lot in Lovell, Wyo. And, out of his rearview mirror, while driving along U.S. 97 in Oregon, south of Klamath Falls, he spotted, against a magnificently clouded sky, a billboard with a painting of a snow-peaked mountain. So he stopped to photograph that too.”
Shore continues to embark from time to time on these journeys, including the one in Israel, quite happily. “I’m a maniac when I shoot. I mean, I’m focused like a laser beam,” he told the online photography magazine Seesaw a few years ago. His wife, he went on, has learned to live with his mania when they travel together. “I’m not the ‘loving boyfriend.’ I’m the ‘artist.’ She understands this ... that if you’re on a trip with me, the purpose of the trip for me is to make pictures. I’m not going to be a nice guy or anything. I’m taking pictures.
And if you’re around, you’re there to help me.”
Bar, who was privileged to watch Shore in the field, provides a glimpse into some other aspects of his art: “His [work] process is very spiritual. Before he shoots he actually meditates in front of the object. Stops, looks, pauses, stares quietly, and only then presses the button,” he says.
Half the work Shore did in Israel was with a digital camera. “It was amazing. What I love is, I’m getting a picture I could never have gotten before, even five years ago,” Shore says, though he adds that he sees both advantages and disadvantages to digital photography: “It opens possibilities ... it’s free, you don’t run to the end of the roll and change film. But the flip side of that is that it leads to less discrimination. More lousy pictures are being made than ever before.”
What the renowned photographer-academic allows himself to do is apparently prohibited among his students at Bard, however: “We don’t let our students use digital until their third year,” Shore says. What’s more, they are required to spend an entire semester using a view camera − the large manual type that uses large-format film.
“I think traditional photography is a better learning tool,” he explains. “It puts greater weight and thoughtfulness behind the decisions photographers make.”