Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1968 - 1993

Even if you don't already know the photography of Stephen Shore, entering Presentation House gives the uncanny feeling of familiarity. It looks like Shore looks like everyone else.  The fact is, he got there first, and The Biographical Landscape:  The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1968 - 1993 shows many of the still dominant trends in contemporary photography that Shore helped to define, including the reflection of some of Vancouver's best known photographers.  Why "biographical"?  

The answer begins in American Surfaces.  In the early 1970s Shore headed West from New York to Amarillo, Texas.  Using a 35 mm camera, color film, and a snapshot aesthetic he produced a photographic diary of the adventure.  The pictures are autobiographic.  Like a photo album they tell a story, the story of his first trip across country.  They also develop a subject matter and pattern of working that he would refine and enlarge upon in Uncommon Places, Shore's essential series on the American vernacular landscape and the focus of the exhibition.

From 1973 to 1982 Shore crisscrossed the United States and Canada taking color photographs of everyday scenes.  For reasons not explained, he switched from the ease and portability of a 35 mm camera to large format cameras - the kind with accordion bodies - that require a tripod. Because of their size and the nature of their operation, use of large format cameras contributes to clarity of image at the same time they preclude the possibility of spontaneous picture taking.  What Shore lost in the snapshot aesthetic, he gained in crisp detail and forthrightness of composition.  Like American Surfaces, Uncommon Places is a record of what Shore encountered - the places he saw, the people he met, the motel beds he slept in, the meals he ate.  But it's more than that.  They're how Americans see themselves as Americans.  More still - they're how they fondly remember themselves because for many it's a vision of America that's never been known firsthand, known in no other way, but photographs or stories.  Looking at the photographs we realize they're iconic images.  This is the moment when the landscape becomes "biographical" in a way more significant than photography's ordinary subjectivity because the feeling isn't "this is my experience of the landscape", but "this is my landscape".  The feeling of ownership is concrete.  What starts as autobiography becomes biography at the moment I recognize the images as mine.  It's no longer Shore's story he's telling, it's my story, and your story, and the story of everyone for whom the photographs become "mine".  When a thing is owned so personally by so many it becomes iconic.      

How does Shore make me claim his landscape for my own?  First, through a combination of subject, classicism of composition, and quality of light the pictures induce an experience of solitude which makes the moment of their taking seem quiet and unshared.  Next, looking at any photograph you imaginatively replace the photographer.  When there's no person in the photograph as in many of Shore's, you become the only one present when the photograph was taken.  With that realization you own that moment held by the photograph and whatever is represented in it in a very particular, and I'd say particularly American way.  Americans own differently than other people.  It has to do with a form of proprietariness based on a distinct feeling of ownership of private property.  Absent of anyone else the landscape and everything in it becomes ours in a way that makes it proper to say that it was Stephen Shore's landscape, just as it becomes ours in our moment of viewing.  We are inclined to say along with Ralph Waldo Emerson that, There is no history, only biography.

First published in The Vancouver Courier

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