New York

Stephen Shore

Too many photographers conduct their careers like big game safaris—peering down the barrel of a Nikon F, waiting for a photograph to wander into their sights and then bagging it. But when the trophy room is already full of wrinkled old men, barn doors, old shoes and lower-class individuals with manifestly less taste than the photographer and his audience, some restless souls may want to go after the big one: “Art.” The trick is knowing when you’ve got a bead on it. It oughtn’t look like the small game (photograph), and it should not look like painting. Anything that deliberately avoids these two categories will do as long as it shows enough seriousness of purpose (it helps to be shown in an expensive gallery, or better yet—a museum).

Stephen Shore brings photography’s least frivolous technology—the 8 by 10 color negative—to bear on images of the national landscape that at first seem least deserving of it, and hopes thereby to locate “Art” somewhere between the aperture and the plate. This is done fairly convincingly in most shots that aren’t dominated by a unifying color scheme or stagey composition, because outdoor shooting (often into the sun) exposes the limitations of this over-bred format as well as its built-in prejudices toward its subjects.

We are exposed most often to the 8 by 10 color negative format in glossy magazine ads because of its ability to make a product look as appealing as possible, but out of the studio it proves unable to deal with a wide range of light intensities. The highlights tend toward white and the shadows toward black, while medium-intensity color seems subtly enhanced. The manic rendition of detail, perhaps the format’s most distinguishing feature, is like a metaphor for a heightened sense of concentration that might attend an adrenalin rush, possibly brought on by fear, but is never justified by the innocuous landscape subject matter.

This is the most compelling feature of Shore’s work. We stare down an empty street in Galveston, Texas, with such intensity that even though the town’s asleep, we feel something exciting and possibly violent is just about to happen.

The dead-pan vernacular of most of Shore’s shots associates them with the work of photographers who have taken a non-photo-for-photography’s-sake cue from the photographic element of some Conceptual art. Photographs that do not present an obvious esthetic, sociological or psychological theme were first admitted to the art context by Conceptual art, where sequences of casual-looking shots sometimes embody conceptual structures. With different titles that explained a link in terms of place, time or even photographic-technical data, Shore’s show might easily have been a Conceptual piece. As it is, though, each photograph claims autonomy, and the “subject” or theme we miss can become a source of anxiety for the viewer as the low yield of traditional photographic or art content is contrasted with the highly technological realization of form, presenting a “gap” that intensifies the viewer’s awareness of both.

Ross Skoggard