New York

Stephen Shore

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

In 1972, aged twenty-four, Stephen Shore got into his car with a 35 mm Rollei camera and began a nearly two-year drive around the country taking pictures of an American culture at an impasse between abundance and ugliness. Back in New York, he had the film processed by a Kodak camera shop and showed the resulting color shots taped to the wall. They were apparently not much appreciated. Reprinted as slightly more precious five-by-seven-and-one-half-inch C-prints, uniformly matted and framed in white, 243 of these images were shown recently at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. Collectively titled “American Surfaces,” they ratified Shore’s growing reputation as a pivotal figure in twentieth-century documentary photography.

It’s easy to see how Shore’s fragmentary, deadpan road-movie stills—with their modest scale, encyclopedic scope, skewed angles, and abject subjects—would have looked weird in the early ’70s, uncomfortably bastardizing Ruschaesque conceptualism, Vietnam-era fury, and Pop glam. But the lack of depth that “American Surfaces” records is of course as much emotional and political as it is physical or stylistic. Formally, Shore’s pictures are deceptively simple, composed along rigorous orthogonals and pulsing with saturated but dreary color. Their persistent mode is a sultry and somehow viscous emptiness, in which places, people, and objects seem to be decomposing before the camera into a mishmash of unnatural textures.

At the same time, the photographs openly court narrative. The subjects include gas stations, motel beds, hipster drinkers, bungalow facades, made-up girls, paunchy men, dogs, toilets, and TV dinners. Literally, the surfaces depicted include Formica, plate glass, metallic wallpaper, mirrored sunglasses, plaid wool, flowered nylon, and shag carpet; spiritually, the veneer is equal parts ennui, suspicion, and a sort of desperate, claustrophobic gentleness.

Sheets, sinks, and magazines are equally dirty. The sign outside STRANGE DRUGS speaks for itself, as does the placard proclaiming in existentialist bad grammar NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY ‘EVER.’ Latent violence, or intimacy, hovers. In the overhead shot of a red carton of Borden milk on a blood red lacquered table, or the portrait of two beefy old men sprawled on a loud green sofa—even in the snap of a laughing blonde in a blue shirt, her hair tousled on yellow pillows—Shore’s America is unhealthy and distant, as if a nicotine-stained plastic screen stood not only between the photographer and his world, but between every American thing and all its neighbors.

For contemporary viewers, the young Shore serves to connect visionaries of the street like Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand with raffish, fashion-conscious chroniclers of tribes like Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, and Wolfgang Tillmans. In this key position, as exhibition curator Bob Nickas points out in the catalogue and wall text, Shore is frequently mentioned vis-à-vis his generational cohort William Eggleston. But Shore has a grungier palette, and his attitude is druggier, quieter, wordier. Warhol is present as a constant refrigerator-like hum in the background of “American Surfaces,” but there’s a flicker of gonzo journalism here too. And in the reflective flatness and disorienting perspectives of Shore’s compositions, as in the stupefied yet wary stares of his subjects, one might even think wildly, fleetingly, of Manet. Both artists cast a jaundiced eye on modern life from the perspective of a flâneur-participant seduced by surface, defending himself only with his status as observer. Photography was famously important to the Parisian cynic, after all, and Olympia or the Folies-Bergère barmaid could turn up in Shore’s Durango, Colorado, or Oklahoma City and fit right in.

Frances Richard