Are We There Yet?

John Haber
in New York City

Stephen Shore and William Eggleston: Los Alamos

Stephen Shore makes it hard to keep up, even in a retrospective. You may never see again so many images by a single photographer, from tens of thousands over the course of more than fifty years. How could he have found time for it all?

How could he have found time to work with MoMA in the first place, when he has been so busy on Instagram? He gave up practically everything else to do with photography in 2014, and he posts nearly every day. High-resolution digital photos of pavement, scum and all, make up his latest show in Chelsea. Before that has you shutting this page and tuning him out, he also realizes a potential in social media that you may never have known: you are there, anywhere, just hanging out and above all looking, waiting to see what you may find. It has me logging in right now. Stephen Shore's Jerusalem, Israel, January 11, 2010 (303 Gallery, 2014)

In 1965, William Eggleston dropped a bomb, and photography is still feeling the shock. He had taken his first color photo, when that alone was daring. He also made it the first in a series, "Los Alamos," after the top-secret atomic test site in New Mexico. By 1974 it had swelled to five thick folders of twenty-two hundred photos, but he pruned them to just seventy-five and printed them afresh in 2002, when Walter Hopps, the museum director and curator, published the selection. Now the Met displays all seventy-five, on the occasion of a gift. They never do reach Los Alamos, but that will have to be Eggleston's little secret.

There, there

No, not you are there at the making of the news. Surely that tired slogan belongs to old-time TV and radio when Stephen Shore, born in 1947, was a child. Surely it is now the province of photojournalism, which does not interest him in the least. Even when he travels to Israel, starting in 1996, he is as likely to document its archaeology as its people. And even when he photographs the Ukraine and its Jewish community, in 2011 and 2012, he is concerned for survivors. He had his first major show, "All the Meat You Can Eat" in Soho in 1971, with found images—from U.S. Air Force publicity stills (way cool jets!) to people with an unknown present and an unrecoverable past.

Yet you can hear the words insistently, from the very beginnings, with Shore as a teenager roaming New York. (He had his first sale to MOMA at age fourteen.) The people, streets, and gas stations look undistinguished enough—but by no means indistinguishable. He does not prettify them, like Richard Avedon, or assign them a decisive moment, like Henri Cartier-Bresson. He does not bring out their character, conflicts, occupation, or history. And still, you have seen them before they are gone.

You can hear it again as Shore hangs out with Andy Warhol and the Factory. Faces both ever so familiar and unfamiliar flash by strumming a guitar, catching a cheap meal in Chinatown, or overlooking a fire escape. They are not so much sordid or glamorous as having a heady time, and you feel the rush at first hand before it is gone. You can hear the claim, too, as Shore crosses the South for "American Surfaces"—with friends, strangers, buildings, and cars on an equal footing and on the open road. He displays them in series like contact prints or, yes, Instagram. And not to worry, for there is not a cat picture in sight.

You can hear it more urgently still as he switches to a large-format camera in 1973, for "Uncommon Places," and the pictures open up. He had already moved to color, but without the saturated hues and artistry of such early adopters as William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz. He embraced it instead for precisely what art photography had excluded, the look of postcards and the ephemeral. Now, though, for the first time in Shore's work, images stick in the mind. You are there as a dust storm barrels toward you. You are there over breakfast in a diner, in a hotel room playing jigsaw, or in New York City as seen in a stereo viewer—or you must be, for there is no one else in sight.

You can hear it loud and clear as he goes digital. He started printing books on demand in 2003, in small editions like artist books, but most for the course of a single day. It might be a day at the dog show or in Central Park. Of the more than eighty books, some identify only the date as a subject—with the front page of The Times as their cover. That series ended in 2010, but then there is Instagram. The curators, Quentin Bajac with Kristen Gaylord, leave keeping up with it to you.

The successive series feel anything but planned. Shore worked so quickly not because he snapped away like Robert Frank, but because, he swears, he allowed himself just that one shot per subject and moved on. Even when he turns to landscape in the 1980s, in prints nearly four feet wide, he is following his life day by day. He and his wife moved first to Montana and then to the Hudson Valley because they saw the scene and fell in love. Still, they are also anything but impulsive. Behind all the drama of you are there, he has some tough questions about there and you.

There and you

You may have heard them already in the face of the dust storm. You are there—but where am I, and do I belong? Who am I, and what could I become? The questions arise from the brief film that introduced him to Warhol, of the blur from a moving elevator. They arise again all the way from those anonymous found faces to housing and highways in the occupied West Bank. Everything for Shore is occupied territory, and he takes care in his most picturesque landscapes to include people.

Their placement creates a sense of depth, but also of an unresolved history. Italy in 1993 fascinates him for its conjunction of modernity and tradition. The human imprint unsettles his images, too, by calling attention to their status as pictures. Shore photographs a glorious western landscape, but on a billboard along an arid Texas highway, and Paul Strand had photographed that village in Italy before him. Even in his most wide-open image, of Yosemite, one boy photographs another, wading. He is after selfies after all.

When he goes on set with John Houston, the director, for Annie, he is not documenting its making. Rather, he photographs the sets as if he were capturing 1930s New York itself. He is making conceptual art, but not only conceptual art. He is still the man who once handed out fliers to "Get Rich Quick!" at Lincoln Center and shot for a while with a toy camera licensed by Mickey Mouse. Yet he is also just plain into pictures. He likes light enough to have shot a movie theater, its marquee competing with direct sunlight.

He likes pictures enough, too, to have taken on all those commissions in the 1970s, from Annie and storefront signs to dying steel towns and the Yankees in spring training. He said that he did so as "an antidote" to his "innate formalism," which sounds crazy coming from him. Then again, the line might well have been aspirational. It came before his turn to natural beauty—and just before his taking up residence at Bard College in 1982. There he asked students to see how Walker Evans uses the picture plane to focus the image or how Thomas Struth invites one to cross it to enter a scene. He asked how Larry Fink uses the frame to make his actors appear to step into the picture, and he asked how Gary Winogrand uses people in motion for a sense of a shared or contested moment in time.

He is an unlikely formalist. Part of him is still the young man toying with instant photography and deliberately washed-out pictures on UV film. He is still sending "Greetings from Amarillo" while insisting that you, too, are there—but still with tough questions. If you associate the claim with photojournalism, you have forgotten so many moments that gain their power from belonging to the lives of others. You did not raise the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics or cry out over a death at Kent State. If you associate the claim with social media, you have overlooked so many pictures of loved ones that you never cared to know.

Shore calls his series in Jerusalem and the West Bank "This Place"—but again, where? He finds individuals in the Ukraine, markedly alone, but also an old passport and an old uniform. In the Middle East, he finds food, a map, and a cemetery in ruins. What constitutes identity, then, and what is lost forever before one can remember? Maybe he cannot stop for an answer on the way to the next picture, but he can make you stop. Maybe there is no answer, not even on Instagram.

Dropping a bomb

William Eggleston did not care for secrets, but people kept questioning him as if he had. What and where is this, and what is it doing there? Why are those cuddly toys on the hood of a car? Why does everything seem in transit from somewhere else, along roadsides and gas stations—and why in the world did he bother to photograph them? He had grown tired of answering when he added such titles as Untitled, Memphis, 1965 for that very first shot. It takes place in a parking lot.

William Eggleston's Untitled (Cheim and Read, 1975)It comes with an almost audible shock. A boy in profile is rounding up shopping carts, but he might well be slamming them into the supermarket wall or the left edge of the picture. A woman behind him might be shopping, disapproving, or ignoring him, and so might his shadow in pink sunlight. A distant blur of other roads comes into view more slowly, as one last aftershock. Almost all the photos have a distinct foreground, middle ground, and background like this, as a means of orienting and disorienting the viewer. Many look into or out of a car or diner, daring one to distinguish inside and out.

Nearly ten years ago, for a Whitney retrospective, I singled out a work in the series for the same dynamics. It shows an airplane tray with a colorful drink swirling in a plastic cup, the hand of an otherwise unseen passenger, and the view outside the window. Everything is up in the air. The entire series took him and, sometimes, Hopps from Memphis to Vegas, back to his native South in 1971, and finally to Southern California, with Santa Monica as its land's end. While Lee Friedlaender photographed America by Car, Eggleston is always in transit.

He invites one to zoom in on the details, without necessarily finding them. A man could be stopping for a smoke or just raising his hand to his head, and almost anything could be lurking in the shadows. The ubiquitous road signs add labels but also further disorientation, as an ongoing picture of America. The arrows in No Parking signs invariably point elsewhere. Prints from those same years in black and white stick more closely still to automobiles and highways. Jeff L. Rosenheim, the curator, places them along the corridor just outside, as both part of and not part of the show.

People come and go, too, but the signs, cars, and buildings win out. The sole photograph without any of these is also the only one in New Mexico. Its clouds are not mushroom clouds, but there is no denying the association. Elsewhere, though, Eggleston avoids the obvious puns, because he wants the signs and the pictures to speak for themselves. (He claims never to have photographed anything more than once, despite the size of his files.) They root photography's perfect moment in what has been lying around for years.

The signs also carry much of the color, which does indeed come as a shock—a shock that liberated Shore, Meyerowitz, and so many others after that. Later prints of a girl's dress or a single car take saturated colors to epic proportions. Already, though, deep reds and bright yellows clash with sky blues and the muter surfaces of people and things, in one case screaming across the sky. Dye-transfer prints and long exposures heighten them or submerge them in gray. They convey a sense at once of immediacy and the absurd. And that, too, is America.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Stephen Shore ran at The Museum of Modern Art through May 28, 2018, and at 303 through February 17, William Eggleston at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18. Related reviews look at Shore in the Ukraine and the Middle East and Eggleston in retrospective.

 

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