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Stephen Shore, Isaak Bakmayev’s Medals, Berdichev, Ukraine, July 29, 2012, C-print, 16 × 20".

Stephen Shore, Isaak Bakmayev’s Medals, Berdichev, Ukraine, July 29, 2012, C-print, 16 × 20".

Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore, Isaak Bakmayev’s Medals, Berdichev, Ukraine, July 29, 2012, C-print, 16 × 20".

With William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, and others, Stephen Shore was one of those who established color photography as an important aesthetic medium in the 1970s. (Before then, in sympathy with a famous dictum of Walker Evans’s—“Color photography is vulgar”—serious photographers had worked mainly in black-and-white.) Beyond the applause he won for this formal shift, Shore is equally acclaimed as a documenter of the American scene. Although he has occasionally worked abroad, he took his best-known photos in the United States, many of them on cross-country drives; he relishes motel rooms and gas stations, urban intersections and small-town Main Streets. He is a poet of the mundane, which he views with both affection and a dry ironic rigor.

In recent years, though, Shore has been working in distant parts of the world, Israel and the West Bank and Ukraine. The change of scene that the two regions offered him may have presented him with no more than an incidental challenge; he has shot in widely various American landscapes. But the fact that both have been troubled by intractable and long-standing conflicts would have given pause to any photographer sensitive not just to the physical appearance of a place but to its culture and history.

Some devices in the recent photos are familiar: Shore’s habit, for example, of photographing his meals, though McDonald’s and pancakes have given way to hummus and olives. Pictures within pictures are another trope. In Lviv, Ukraine, October 14, 2013, a painting—a chromatically subdued landscape of river, mountains, and forest—stands on a patch of bare ground, its lush picturesqueness, somewhere between folk art and kitsch, contrasting with the dark earth around it. A scattering of golden fallen leaves inserts a pattern of color around the photograph. The work recalls earlier pictures such as U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, 1973, in which the play between the mountain landscape pictured on an advertising billboard and the empty country and dramatic sky around it sets up a back-and-forth meditation on our dealings with our environment. Likewise, the unseen maples that have dropped their leaves into the Ukraine photo point up the role of the painted landscape as a psychic construct—sentimental, potent, take your pick—rather than an actual place, and suggest a history of human and natural interaction. The two photos are related in effect (surely Shore had the first in mind when he took the second), though the Ukrainian one may be more melancholic. Sderot, Israel, September 14, 2009 and Jerusalem, Israel, January 1, 2010 are also picture-within-picture images, but more clearly loaded ones in political terms, the first showing a man’s hand pointing at a place on a map, the second a printed souvenir, a panoramic view of Jerusalem, laid out on a table. Both photographs subtly but explicitly index ideas of territory and its ownership.

That may make them more obvious, in a way, than Lviv, Ukraine, and this quality may generally be true of the Israeli photos, although they include wonderful images. But when we see a photo of a finger pointing at a map, or of newly constructed apartment buildings, we immediately wonder how that image relates to a fraught social context that we almost inevitably know at least something about. The context for a photo of children selling mushrooms by a Ukrainian roadside is less familiar to American audiences, and perhaps in part as a result, the Ukrainian images overall may be more haunting than the Israeli ones. Working around the homes of Holocaust survivors, Shore was trying to rise to the occasion of a tragic history. Military medals laid out on a carpet point directly to World War II, so we should have some sense of the historical context, yet the images surprise, most often through the shabby yet dignified humility of the surroundings. Elka Seltzer’s Front Door, Ovruch, Ukraine, July 31, 2012 is almost abstract, a grid of interlocking rectangles, which we register as such almost before we see it as a doorway and wall, covered with worn and faded blue and yellow paint, and a front step made up of what looks like shards of soiled cardboard or linoleum laid down as a shield from the mud. Pictures like this seem quite different in mood from Shore’s American work.

David Frankel