Aspen

Stephen Shore, Abu Dhabi, 2009, color photograph, 16 x 20".

Stephen Shore, Abu Dhabi, 2009, color photograph, 16 x 20".

Stephen Shore

Aspen Art Museum

Stephen Shore, Abu Dhabi, 2009, color photograph, 16 x 20".

Sometimes a quiet, understated image demands equally unfussy discourse, which is why it is difficult (if not counterintuitive even to try) to articulate the vernacular magic within Stephen Shore’s photographs: scenes that are familiar yet rare, static but pregnant with energy, at once immediate and strangely drawn out. In Shore’s work, even a title can say too much, so it seems appropriate that the thirty-two prints (all works 2009) exhibited at the Aspen Art Museum this summer share the same title: “Abu Dhabi.” Produced during the artist’s first visit to the capital emirate, this series depicts a peripheral Abu Dhabi by way of its unoccupied thoroughfares and cast-off junk piles, its measured suburban skylines and neatly arranged personal articles, its printed signage and generic public space. In short, Shore approached the Arab landscape as he has other parts of the world: with a slow, concentrated gaze that lingers on the seemingly banal details that document the peculiarity of “normal.”

Shot entirely outdoors, these images are illuminated by an intense coastal sunlight that tempers the blues and toasted hues that dominate them. In one photograph, the blue of a distant ocean meets the faded blue of a tiled sundeck, creating an artificial horizon line that cuts across some unremarkable shrubbery in the foreground. In another, pieces of flatbread lie on a tan blanket spread over the ground, so that we’re shown not one but three earthen layers of material. The photos are sharply focused, yet their palette seems bleached by the sun. Although Shore’s camera remains trained on the Arab cityscape’s exteriors, the American photographer was careful not to situate himself as a cultural outsider. Consequently, his portrayal of Abu Dhabi gives us a kind of unassuming access to the region, just as his notable “Uncommon Places” series allowed us entree to a ’70s-era Middle America. Like those earlier works, this new series is also deliberately cohesive and even metered, with no individual photo taking precedence over any other.

Accentuating this leveling effect were the material conditions of the pictures themselves. For this uniform series of 16 x 20" prints, (installed without variation across the museum’s three upstairs galleries), Shore used a medium-format digital camera that yielded an image quality with a noticeably flattened-out depth of field. (This same image quality is also evident in the print-on-demand books the artist has been producing with Apple iPhoto software.) Perhaps counterintuitively, such flatness further complicates the sometimes disorienting articulation of pictorial space. For example, in one image focused on a rug—printed with a leopard-skin pattern and slung over a balcony railing—real and depicted objects are conflated, generating an illusory picture within the picture. In another frame, a photo of what appears to be two seated men is, in fact, only their likenesses printed on a large banner wrapping a temporary wall.

The presence of actual people is rare in Shore’s “Abu Dhabi” series, and when figures do appear, they tend to be partially obscured or shot at long range. One man is seen crouching by his truck, covered mostly by his kaffiyeh; another, at some distance, is shown standing at water’s edge; elsewhere, a man stands, barely visible, in the sliver of shadow behind a great metal sliding door (illusionistically embellished with suggestions of traditional Islamic architecture). These figures are nearly as incidental as the other objects confined within Shore’s still-life-esque arrangements. Yet the general absence of real bodies in this series creates an almost more intense human presence. And isn’t that precisely what photography is—the trace evidence of what is no longer at hand as it just was? In revealing the slow, fixed ordinariness of life, Shore embraces his medium’s raison d’être, letting both life and its representation speak for themselves.

Catherine Taft