Spotlight on Stephen Shore’s Color Photography

Stephen Shore’s extensive career has been defined by a quest to discover everyday America through its vernacular architecture and landscape. Ambitious, Shore rose to prominence at a young age. At 14 he cold-called Edward Steichen, who was then the esteemed curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (his precocious move paid off—Steichen purchased three photographs from the young photographer). Shore then worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory from 1965 to 1967, being exposed to conceptual modes of artmaking. Shore was awarded a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971, the first living photographer to be given such a show (the show included just his early black-and-white photographs). He exhibited a grid of color snapshots at the Light Gallery in New York the following year, an exhibition that was met with skepticism and criticism.

Capturing the “American Main Street”

Shore is most identified today as an early practitioner and proponent of color photography. From 1973 to 1979 he traveled the United States in a series of road trips making color photographs, both with a large-format 8×10 camera and a 35mm. On these trips he made images of the “American Main Street” as well as images of the everyday, seemingly banal life he experienced. “I wanted,” he says now, “to somehow get to my perception of the underlying quality of the American landscape.” While the handheld camera images are spontaneous and snapshot-like, the large format shots demonstrate Shore’s formal approach to making images. 

Shore’s photograph titled 2nd St., Ashland, WI (1973) is emblematic of this approach. Taken at dusk, the image features the neon lights of a small-town movie theater, a twilight moon suspended above it in the sky, and sleek parked cars reflecting the neon and streetlights in the shifting light. The large format camera necessitated a long set up and exposure, resulting in images that feel devoid of the rush of human life, but which also allowed Shore to create an image replete with fine detail that can be read slowly and fully. These images are calculated and crafted, but the photographer’s cool reserve allows the viewer to deposit memories, emotions, and experiences of their own, imbuing each work with a sense of meditative possibility. Taken as a whole, Shore’s body of work speaks to something that is quintessentially American—documenting something vast, something of the acting out of the American dream, something beyond the specific time and place each image was made. 

A Revolutionary Approach

These color photographs are now considered revolutionary and, at the time, put him on the front lines of the changing and developing mode of making images. Shore considers Walker Evans an early and important influence, and his approach to photography became not unlike the leading American practitioner—observational, transformative, taking everyday life and subject matter as the primary subject. “I have always been interested in everyday experience,” Shore says, “It relates to an idea I had back then of what it might be like to pay attention to the average moments in your life, rather than just the dramatic moments. Attentiveness is self-awareness—you are aware of yourself paying attention. It was a different experience and I was nourished by it. I still am.”  

Stephen Shore, Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA, chromogenic print, 1974. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.

This road trip work was published as the landmark Uncommon Places in 1982. Color work, for Shore, seemed to best reflect everyday life, and along with his contemporaries, he helped usher in the era of color photography and its acceptance into the canon of fine art. 

Related Reading: American Street Photography of the 1940s–50s

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