Visual Culture

Stephen Shore’s Unorthodox Photography Teaches Us to Celebrate the Everyday

Jacqui Palumbo
Feb 6, 2020 11:11PM
Stephen Shore
Horseshoe Bend Motel, Lovell, Wyoming, July 16, 1973, 1973
303 Gallery

When Stephen Shore became the first living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1971, he didn’t get a proper opening. The New Yorker noted in “The Talk of the Town” column in its March 6th issue that year that instead, Shore invited his friends, relatives, and parents to meet him at the museum on the evening of the first day of the show.

The fanfare for Shore’s photography arrived unfashionably late. His Met show wasn’t well-received: “The press coverage, what little there was of it, was uniformly terrible,” he told The Guardian in 2005. His color work was overshadowed by that of his peers; he struggled to find galleries to show his new work after his landmark series “Uncommon Places,” which was published in 1982; and his anthropologist’s eye was often misunderstood until the mid-1990s, when he found new popularity through his first retrospective in Germany. His now-revered 1970s body of work “American Surfaces” (1972–73) was finally published in book form in 1999, with a second edition in 2005 and a new one coming this spring from Phaidon.


Today, Shore’s oeuvre is more widely appreciated, yet his star doesn’t shine as brightly as it ought to. Shore didn’t receive his first major New York survey exhibition until 2017. The self-titled show at the Museum of Modern Art took place nearly six decades after the institution’s former curator, photographer Edward Steichen, acquired three of Shore’s photos while Shore was still a teenager.

Yet Shore has made an indelible impact on photography, teaching his viewers—and generations of students at Bard College—a different way to see. Here, we highlight four fundamental aspects of his work that have influenced the field.

Pioneering color photography

Shore has said that photographer Paul Strand warned him it would be “a disastrous career move” to show color work at his 1971 Met show. Strand’s expertly printed, mounted, and framed black-and-white images were on view in a neighboring room, while Shore’s small-format shots were printed in a Kodak lab and stuck plainly to the walls with double-sided tape.

Shore’s show at the Met opened five years before William Eggleston would make his grand debut at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 with his watershed exhibition “William Eggleston’s Guide,” which is often considered the catalyst for color photography’s acceptance in the art world.

Though color film had already been used for decades, it was considered crass by the heavyweights of black-and-white photography and was most often used in advertising or by amateurs. That changed in the 1970s, as artists like Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, and Joel Meyerowitz shot on color film in earnest. Shore is often included in the cohort of artists that brought about the rise of color, but not given credit for his prescience.

Defying artistic convention

In his images, Shore is a neutral observer; one who is not emotionally engaged, but whose presence is strongly felt. His images of empty hotel rooms and plates of food have often been called “deadpan,” and while they can feel dispassionate, there is great care in his approach. “There are no heroics in Shore’s images, but rather a poetics of the ordinary and the everyday,” curator Quentin Bajac wrote in the catalogue for Shore’s MoMA retrospective.

The largely self-taught photographer had distilled his friend Andy Warhol’s way of seeing into his own images: At 17, Shore had dropped out of high school and continued his education on the hallowed grounds of The Factory.

Stephen Shore
Home of Rakhil Rusakovskaya, Kiev, Ukraine, July 28, 2012, 2013
303 Gallery

“I began to see conceptually there because that’s how Andy looked at the world, finding this detached pleasure in the banality of everyday things,” Shore said of the Pop artist in 2005.

In Shore’s early years, he was associated with Conceptual artists, trying systemic approaches to photography that relied on sets of self-assigned rules rather than artistic tradition. He was greatly influenced by Ed Ruscha’s visual typologies, like Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966), as well as the minimal, gridded repetitions of industrial buildings by Hilla and Bernd Becher.

The sensibilities of Warhol, Ruscha, and the Bechers are all merged in the seemingly freeform snapshots of “American Surfaces” and “Uncommon Places.” Shore’s impact is about more than finding the beauty of the banal—it’s also a rebuttal to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s guiding principle that the camera should capture the drama of the split-second “decisive moment.”

Elevating snapshot photography

Shore chose a chronological sequence for his images of his fabled road trip through the rural United States. “American Surfaces” was made up of “everyone I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked, the towns I visited,” he said in a 2004 interview. He began taking trips as strip malls were cropping up and a sense of uniformity was permeating towns across the country.

Shore wasn’t the first to mythicize the American road trip—he was following the tire tracks of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Jack Kerouac—but the quality of his images was subversive in its ordinariness. His diaristic approach has influenced artists like Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Martin Parr, and opened the door to a new type of documentary photography—the kind that feels as if the images have been plucked from a private family album.

Eggleston rejected the term “snapshot” to describe his work, but Shore acknowledged it as a significant visual trait. “They were made to look like snapshots formally, but not in terms of the subject matter,” he told The Guardian, noting that people did not tend to photograph their dinners or hotel bathrooms in 2005.

That has changed as Instagram has re-shaped what is considered photographable, and Shore has embraced the platform, treating it like its own formal creative exercise. At his MoMA retrospective, visitors could scroll through his account on iPads, reinforcing his long-held belief that all types of images are valid art forms.

Eschewing a single style or format

Having a cohesive, recognizable style is often touted as one of the most important things for an artist to develop, but Shore has never abided by that idea. Shore switches between analog and digital, black-and-white and color, photographic and production techniques, and film formats.

His subjects have great range, too, from his well-loved Americana to studies of archaelogy sites to his more recent portraits of Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. Shore’s interest in vernacular images has led him to experiment with found photographs, as well. In 1971, he put together the show “All the Meat You Can Eat,” featuring his own photos shot on a children’s Mick-a-Matic camera with images from crime scenes, postcards, and erotic publications, juxtaposed together in enthusiastic discord.

Shore’s interest in amateur techniques and production has led to striking contrasts within his oeuvre. His highly influential artist’s books, published through major imprints, were followed up by a series of iPhone print-on-demand books made through Apple from 2003 to 2010. Shore published dozens of letter-sized books in limited editions of 20, featuring series shot in one day or less, like a visit to the Westminster Dog Show or a walk through Central Park.

The extreme variation in Shore’s work has sometimes worked against him. “The full range of his work remains unknown or misunderstood, too often reduced to his 1970s photographs of everyday American subjects,” Bajac writes, noting one of the major factors is “his lack of a clearly identifiable style.”

Yet Shore has never shied away from the challenges that arise from his experimentation. He even revisits past work, including classic images in his print-on-demand books, releasing extended editions of older publications, or reprinting older images at different sizes. “This constant reworking points to a photographer who has never been boxed in by a single approach,” Bajac writes, “and considers all of his work, whether current or past, to be alive and in flux.”

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.