Thursday, February 10, 2005
Just finished: Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places: The Complete Works (Aperture).

Over a hundred pictures, most dating from 1973-6, taken with a Deardorff 8x10 view camera, on a succession of drives across the U.S. and (occasional) forays into Canada. These photographs have long been among my favorites, and having had a few days now to study them and Shore's own comments on them, I want to try to summarize why they've exerted such a long-term hold on me.

Nostalgia. The pictures accurately depict a landscape I rececognize from my book-buying trips to the western states. Any good used bookstore is inevitably located along a street like Vancouver's Kingsway -- the old highway or "business route" into or out of town, now bypassed by a more direct route. Hence strips like Portland's Barbur Boulevard, Seattle's Aurora Avenue, or Las Vegas' Hawethorne Boulevard. Decrepit motel, chain restaurant, "Oriental health enhancement centre," Goodwill, used car lot, pancake house, paperback exchange, Mexican restaurant, & etc.

The world as text. You apprehend photographs made with a view camera very slowly. It is the camera's nature to render every detail in its field of vision with complete legibility, and the photographs consequently include more information than anyone, including the photographer, can process at once. Commercial signage and graphic design is incorporated into these pictures as a kind of three-dimensional collage (e.g., Shore's "Sunset," or "Sidney Lust's Drive-In Theatre," whose texts appear flush with the picture plane, a la Ed Ruscha's paintings).

Architecture as symbolic form. Best illustrated by the Little Rock pictures, in which buildings of different decades and uses rub shoulders. Shore's photographing them doesn't alter them in any way, but his framing of them compels me to study them more closely, thereby noting their internal differences.

The world's beauty. Clouds reflecting off the hoods in a Sault Ste. Marie parking lot. The swoop of a concrete road divider in Texas, a wedge-shaped chunk of space as effective, in its way, as a Gordon Matta-Clark "slice." Ginger Shore's terrifically alert eyes. Tangles of electrical wires and rooftops, all blue skies and roiling clouds above. "John F. Kennedy said: 'Art is Truth'" (double echoes: Eggleston (framing) and Evans ("Art School")).

Why the 8x10? It makes the photographer step back, and, in doing so, notice more things. The subject of the composition is not singular, but a plethora of objects, some of which, by definition, will escape the photographer's attention. Thus the "aesthetic surplus," or pictorial content that exceeds the photographer's initial intention. 35mm, by contrast, involves the photographer's physical proximity to a subject (Eggleston, again). When I get my point-and-shoot Pentax contact sheets back from London Drugs, I find them full of failed images, whose subjects (mountains; mushrooms; signs) are too small, because I haven't gotten close enough to them. By contrast, the "successful pictures" are uncomfortable to make, because to shy me, they feel as if I've had to thrust the camera, a la Garry Winogrand, in my proverbial subject's face.

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