Born in 1947 in Manhattan, Stephen Shore is an only child; his parents ran a handbag business. His introduction to photography came very early on — he received his first darkroom kit, a gift from his uncle, when he was just six years old.
As Shore would later tell The Wall Street Journal, school was never a top priority. ‘I’m sure my parents had hopes and dreams for me that I would graduate high school and go to college, but I think it was clear that this was just so interesting,’ he said of his burgeoning photographic career.
At the age of just 14, he sold three of his photographs to the Museum of Modern Art, encouraged by Edward Steichen, the museum’s former Photographs director, and John Szarkowski, who had taken over from Steichen.
When he was 24, he had his first solo show at the Metropolitan Museum.
When he was 17, Shore befriended Andy Warhol. For the next two years the Pop artist and the Factory scene would be Shore’s primary subject. ‘I saw Andy making aesthetic decisions,’ he recalls in his book, Factory: Andy Warhol. ‘It wasn’t anything he ever said to me. I saw these decisions happening over and over again. It awakened my sense of aesthetic thought.’
Over the course of his career, Shore has worked with everything from a Mick-A-Matic — a plastic camera shaped like Mickey Mouse — and other inexpensive automatic cameras, to a handheld 35-millimetre camera and large-format cameras.
In the 1970s he turned to colour, before returning to black and white in the 1990s. In the 2000s he embraced digital photography and printing, as well as social media.
Key influences included 19th-century French photographer Eugène Atget, and American masters Timothy O’Sullivan and Walker Evans. But he did not exclusively look to the past.
Central to Shore’s artistic development was his discovery of the work of his contemporary Ed Ruscha, particularly his photobooks unaccompanied by text, including the photobook Every Building on the Sunset Strip.
‘It was at a loft in Soho in 1967 or ’68’, said Shore of the moment he first encountered Ruscha’s work. ‘The curator Kasper Koenig said, “I have something to show you”, and he unfolded the book on the floor, and I immediately went to Wittenborn bookstore and bought all of Ruscha’s books, which I still have.’
Shore was immediately drawn to Ruscha’s eschewing of perfectly planned and posed shots in favour of the conceptual — the ideas behind the images. From the late 1960s, Shore began to experiment with conceptual techniques himself.
For a 2017 book, Stephen Shore: Selected Works, 1973-1981, Ruscha returned the favour, making a selection of some of his favourite images from Shore’s varied career. ‘Looking at one picture you could hear a pin drop. Another would roar with noise and yet another would hum along quite ordinary-like,’ he said.
In the 1970s Shore began to travel the United States, capturing America in all its mundane, unglamorous sprawl.
He became a pioneering figure in a movement known as New Topographics, whose adherents (including photographers Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and Nicholas Nixon) took an interest in urban landscapes and compositions found within the imagery of the everyday. ‘I wanted pictures that felt as natural as speaking,’ Shore has said.
In this decade, Shore produced his two most popular series, American Surfaces and Uncommon Places. With Uncommon Places, he would recall decades later, ‘I was interested more in the ordinary, of things not happening in your life. I wanted to be visually aware as I went through the day. I started photographing everyone I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked on, the towns I visited.’ Indeed, the images in Uncommon Places — motel beds, street signs, gas stations and main streets — highlight Shore’s status as a traveller.
This focus was initially derided by an older generation of artists such as Ansel Adams who lauded the elevated, sublime beauty of nature. Eventually though, Shore’s ‘aesthetic of the banal’ began to gain acceptance.
Both American Surfaces and Uncommon Places were — controversially — shot in colour. In the 1970s, the medium of colour photography, far from being considered a fine art, was associated with the common family snapshot, pop culture, commercialism and kitsch. Shore’s decision to work in colour was a purposeful and deliberate choice, serving to underline the mundane qualities of his subject matter.
Since 1982, Shore has served as the director of the photography programme at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Students are expected to learn the fundamentals of photography: darkroom skills and an appreciation of the history of the medium, even as Shore himself has fully embraced its new directions (he has become a keen Instagrammer).
In 2015, a retrospective of Shore’s work was held at the Rencontres d’Arles in France. Until 28 May he is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — the first survey to cover his entire career.
‘The consistent demand for Shore’s work has largely paralleled his success as an artist who has long been exhibited and collected by major international institutions,’ says Rebecca Jones, Photographs specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘Collectors continue to be drawn to his compellingly-executed colour photography — and his lifelong insistence on the medium’s rightful place within the dominion of fine art.’