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'Ordinary Speech: The Vernacular in Stephen Shore's Early 35mm photography' by Britt Salvesen

[Stephen] Shore’s perspective on vernacular photography is not that of an emulator or appropriator. The apparent legibility and ordinariness of a snapshot are, for him, surface qualities (his brilliantly titled American Surfaces suggests as much). When he set about to interrogate the snapshot aesthetic, Shore remained aware of exactly the things left out of most discussions of the vernacular: photographic technique, presentation and print quality, personal vision. After all, vernacular can also mean the specialized vocabulary of a profession or trade, and Shore achieved fluency in the technical language of photography at a young age. When he set out to make photographs corresponding to ‘how people talked’, he didn’t mean how they talked about photography, but how they talked about the world. With his technical skills and extensive mental image bank, could he see and picture the world in a natural way? To achieve authenticity in picture-making, he had to look within and find a process for doing so; external prototypes, whether random snapshots or the works of Walker Evans, are only points of reference. ‘If you remove as much of the photographic convention as possible, what you’re left with is yourself, and how you see.’

This was the central impulse of American Surfaces, the series Shore produced in 1972–73. He used a Rollei 35mm camera with a flash mounted beneath it, liking the fact that this camera was ‘innocuous-looking’ and amateurish; inhabiting the role of a regular guy with a camera could help him avoid the snares of serious photography.8 [Fig. 4] He depicted his travels not in the critical, emotional spirit of Robert Frank, but more in the observational, neutral vein of Ruscha. ‘I was interested in the snapshot, and in the natural quality some few snapshots do contain’, he explains.9 [Fig. 5] While some artists might have made it their project to imitate the conventions of amateur photographs, Shore’s approach was to train his perception and self-awareness. He got in the habit of making ‘a mental note at random times of the day of what was in my field of vision’ in order to explore the question ‘what does seeing look like’ without the imperative of making a picture.10

When he became proficient with this way of seeing, the 35mm camera and color film proved a good tool for producing pictures with the natural quality he was after.11 This did not mean messy or compositionally confusing (as in John Baldessari’s send-ups of instructional manuals). [Fig. 6] Shore had been using a 35mm camera since receiving a Ricoh rangefinder as a gift around age nine, and had gone through the typical snap- shooter’s learning curve before hitting his teens. [Fig. 7] He could exploit optical idiosyncrasies that might stymie a less experienced photographer. For example, some photographs in American Surfaces contain the particular glares and shadows created by the Rollei’s bottom-mounted flash.

Making decisions at the moment of exposure, Shore had in mind the familiar physical objecthood of snapshots, which were printed in standard sizes at photofinishing plants. Most consumers would keep them in albums, frames, or boxes, but Shore had another outcomes in mind for his snapshots. American Surfaces was first exhibited at LIGHT Gallery, from September to December 1972, as around 190 unframed, 3x5-inch Kodacolor prints, adhered to the wall in grid formation with double-sided tape. This installation effectively distinguished Shore’s snapshots from both family albums and museum displays, where photographs were typically mounted, matted, and framed in metal sectional frames, or blown up into wallpaper-scale design elements. Shore’s presentational choice relates to his prior engagement with conceptual art, but contrary to those earlier sequences (Circle No. 1, July 1969; 4-Part Variation, July 1969), in which the parts serve the whole, each image in American Surfaces could function as a free-standing world.12

Realizing the wealth of detail within each photograph, Shore became dissatisfied with the available options for printing from 35mm film. To continue pursuing what he now realized was his subject — an exploration of America — he needed a negative that would capture more information.13 To invoke the initial premise of making photographs that were like how people talked, if a snapshot captured a comment or quick remark, a larger format could contain the detail and nuance of a conversation. ‘I really was going to do American Surfaces with a larger format’, Shore recalls. ‘And then, I found that the larger format led me to discover other things about photographic seeing that I wanted to explore.’14 In 1973 he got a 4x5 camera (a Graflex Crown Graphic to begin with, and then a Cambo view camera), not trying to use it like a handheld, but taking the time to load film, use a tripod, get beneath the dark cloth, and so on.15 These exposures are preserved in his road trip diary, published in 2008. Before long Shore was using an 8x10 camera (a Calumet, then Arca Swiss, then Deardorff).


8   Kristen Gaylord, ‘Cameras’, in Stephen Shore, ed. by Bajac et al., p. 58; see also Gil Blank interview.
9   Gil Blank interview.
10   Stephen Shore, Selected Works 1973–1981 (New York: Aperture, 2017), p. 217; see also David Campany interview in Stephen Shore, ed. by Marta Dahó (Madrid; New York: Fundación MAPFRE and Aperture, 2014), p. 28.
11   Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs (London; New York: Phaidon, 2007), p. 18.
12   Shore, The Nature of Photographs, p. 62. Campany noted in an interview with Shore that people working at LIGHT said that they started to look at them differently over the weeks the show was on view; see ‘Ways of Making Pictures’ in Stephen Shore, ed. by Dahó, p. 32.
13    Campany, ‘Ways of Making Pictures’, in Stephen Shore, ed. by Dahó, p. 32.
14   Schuman, ‘Uncommon Places: An Interview with Stephen Shore’.
15   Around the same time, Lewis Baltz set out to use his 35mm camera like an 8x10, on a tripod, with Kodak high-contrast copy film, to get the best resolution with the smaller negative; see Baltz in Landscape: Theory, ed. by Carol di Grappa (New York: Lustrum Press, 1980), p. 27.


Excerpt from Transparencies: Small Camera Work 1971-1971, published March 2020.