A Conversation with Stephen Shore



Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places is one of my all-time favourite photography books, and I don’t think it’s an easy task to grasp contemporary photography without having seen those photo. Given his background as one of the driving forces behind the colour revolution of the 1970s and as an educator, I asked Stephen whether he would be willing to have a conversation about what is shaping contemporary photography now, and I was very happy when he agreed to do so (don’t miss the extra treat at the very end of the conversation!).

Jörg Colberg: As a photographer working in colour, you were instrumental in establishing colour photography as a widely accepted art form, and your photography has inspired large numbers of other artists. Looking back at how contemporary fine-art photography has evolved over the past decades, how has your own, more recent work been influenced by what other people have been doing?

Stephen Shore: I think I’ve been influenced recently more by new technology than by any single photographer or artist.


JC: After the 1970’s colour “revolution” in the fine-arts community - if we want to call it that - the introduction and spread of digital photography appears to be at least equally important. I’d be curious to learn how you view the impact of digital photography.

SS: I’m going to give you a long-winded answer. I guess I see how photographers work as influenced by, among other factors, the cost of their processes. In the 1970s, when I started using 8x10 color, it cost me more than $15 every time I took a picture (film, processing, and a contact print). Simple economy lead me to only take one exposure of a subject. I knew I couldn’t economize by only taking pictures that I knew would be good - that would simply lead to boring, safe images. But, I could decide what I really wanted to photograph and how I wanted to structure the picture. This was a powerful learning experience. I began to learn what I really wanted. Digital is the opposite of 8x10. I see digital as a two-sided phenomenon. The fact that pictures are free can lead to greater spontaneity. As I watch people photograph (with film), I often see a hesitation, an inhibition, in their process. I don’t see this as much with digital. There seems to be a greater freedom and lack of restraint. This is analogous to how word processing affects writing: one can put thoughts down in writing, even tangential thoughts, with a minimum of inner censorship, knowing that the piece can be edited later. The other side of this lack of restraint is greater indiscriminancy. Here’s a tautology: as one considers one’s pictures less, one produces fewer truly considered pictures.

JC: For digital photography good editing would thus be even more important than for film photography. Do you find that for you as a teacher editing has become a more important topic? And do you feel that with digital photography becoming ubiquitous skills such as editing or composing images are getting somewhat neglected?

SS: I once had a student at Bard College, where I teach, who was taking portraits. The results kept disappointing him, so each week he took more and more pictures. Still he was disappointed. Finally, I assigned him to make only one exposure the next week. The picture was excellent. His problem was that he was replacing really coming to terms with what he wanted in his pictures with quantity. If an artist doesn’t work with conscious intentionality, sometimes no amount of editing helps. There are other times (and this was one of the points of my previous answer) when the lack of self-censorship that digital can engender allows for intuitive energy being communicated.


JC: It seems to me that the “digital revolution” is multi-faceted. On the one hand, we are witnessing the addition of new means to proliferate and share photography, with the internet playing the dominant role. The popular photography site Flickr has been brought up as especially important. To me, it’s not quite clear what impact Flickr really has, though, because it seems that depending on how you view it you arrive at different conclusions. For example, from the perspective of the stock-photography market Flickr appears to be quite revolutionary. However, if you’re a photography “amateur” (a word that I am not very comfortable with), Flickr might “just” be another way to show your holiday photos - instead of inviting your friends for a two-hour slide show you send them the link to your Flickr folder. Seen from your perspective, what does Flickr have to offer?

SS: One aspect of the “digital revolution” that I find interesting is the ubiquitousness of cameras. That, coupled with new means of transmission of images, is leading us into an interesting age. A person can email a few pictures taken in an Iraqi prison to a friend and within a day they are all over the world. We can witness the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution from the multiple perspectives of the participants. When Time Magazine illustrates the London Underground bombings of 7/7, they don’t have to rely on photojournalists covering the aftermath - they can use cell phone pictures taken by the survivors. The means of transmission, particularly the internet, mean that everyone now has a public voice. Just as I described digital photography as a two-sided phenomenon, so is this public voice. On one hand it bypasses the visual conventions imposed by the editors of traditional media. It also bypasses the financial constraints of traditional media. Excellent work, perhaps even the most groundbreaking work, can get an audience. On the other hand, when everyone has a public voice, we see how many people just don’t have anything interesting to communicate.

JC: … which then brings up the question whether the digital revolution really makes things easier - or whether the pool of photography gets so large that it is actually getting harder to find the excellent work you were talking about?

SS: We may see the reintroduction of an editing/curating process: people building sites or tagging work they find interesting. And then we are back to still another duality: editors/curators both bring their insight and impose their limitations. But, people will find their way to what interests them. It’s the same with blogs. Some I find fascinating. They’re very smart. They provide not only greater access, but a new type of public dialog and communication. On the other end of the spectrum of what can be encountered, others are inane or self-indulgent. We find what interests or stimulates us.


JC: The second, very important aspect of digital photography is that it opens up many new ways to create photography, which previously would have been very hard to achieve, if not impossible. For example, photography can be constructed on the computer, a process that changes our perception of what photography really is and that, at the same time, might open up new avenues for artists. Or maybe not? Does digital photography offer something new, or is it just simple providing a new, somewhat more convenient (or inconvenient?) way to take photographs?

SS: There have for decades been artists who have made composited photographs (from Henry Peach Robinson to Jerry Uelsmann) and other artists who have used photographic processes as part of a print making technique (from Hannah Hoch to Robert Heinecken). Digital makes some of this easier and perhaps offers new possibilities. The success of work such as Barry Frydlender’s rests partially on the seamlessness of the compositing and the believability of the image. While we all understand how a photograph is a distortion of the three-dimensional world flowing in time in front of the camera, we all also accept a certain kind of literalness of the straight photographic image. Familiarity over time with how digital possibilities erode that literalness may alter the very believability that the success of composited images rests on. On another note, I’m particularly interested in digital Type C printing for straight color photography. It allows me to control contrast and tonality both locally and globally in a way not possible with traditional Type C printing.


JC: I was intrigued to learn that you have been producing small editions of self-published books. What is the impetus behind this?

SS: Ever since I first saw Ed Ruscha’s small books in the late 1960s, I’ve loved artists’ books. Print-on-demand technology allows me to produce books with ease. I like the basic structure of these small books: the individual images are not intended to stand alone, but are seen as a part of a complex whole. I enjoy availing myself of commonly available technology. Finally, my book project allows me to explore many different visual ideas and explore a variety of directions.

Stephen Shore very graciously agreed to share one of his iBooks, which can be downloaded here (file size: about 7.7MB).

This conversation was commissioned by American Photo and can also be found here.