Q&A with Stephen Shore

Details, an exhibition of new work by the American photographer, is on view at Photo London through 19 May

By Fi Churchman

Stephen Shore, New York, New York, March 11, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers, London Stephen Shore, New York, New York, May 19, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers, London Stephen Shore, Three Forks, Montana, August 6, 2017, 2017. © the artist. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York Stephen Shore, Los Angeles, California, February 4, 1969. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers, London Stephen Shore, Los Angeles, California, February 4, 1969. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers, London

American photographer Stephen Shore is best known as a champion of colour photography, elevating it to an art form during the 1970s. The now iconic images of the banal details of everyday life in America, taken during roadtrips across the country, were published as two well-known series American Surfaces (1972–3) and Uncommon Places (1973–8). Shore’s unique vision and tireless pursuit of new forms of photography and technologies, from large format cameras to digital photography and Instagram, have earned him exhibitions at major institutions around the world, including the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Fundación Mapfre in Madrid and, most recently, a survey show at MoMA, New York.

In recognition of his contribution to the field of photography, Shore has been named Photo London’s Master of Photography 2019, and will present an exhibition of new work at the fair at Somerset House, London, through 19 May. ArtReview catches up with him...

Should we start with the photographs on show at Photo London?

I’m showing two bodies of work and both series have not been seen in Europe before. Details is my most recent project, and there are exactly 50 years separating this from the works in Los Angeles from 1969, where I did 60 pictures in one day; this is everything without editing, in one sequence. The Details are obviously very different; one thing you may not get from looking at JPEGS or reproductions is what they physically look like because the prints are roughly 4 feet by 5.5 feet and so the objects in the pictures are much larger than life size. It’s not about the gimmick of it, those objects almost become three-dimensional. The pictures are highly detailed because it’s a very sharp camera and so you go into the pictures and find they’re just full of little details.

Apart from the time difference, why did you decide to show the LA photographs?

Well there was a smaller gallery as pat of the exhibition space and I was thinking about what to include in that, and those photos were a body of work that I hadn’t shown before. A selection of them were included in the MoMA show ­– that was the first time they were ever shown ­– and coincidentally a small American publisher just did a book of this series. So it was a project that was on my mind and I like the work a lot. I thought it would serve the other end of my career.

Having seen some of the pictures that will be in Details I’m reminded of what you’re posting at the moment on Instagram. Is that an extension or a working out?

Yeah they’re very similar – that’s where they came from! So the camera I’m using is a Hasselblad X1D, which is a very high-end digital camera that has a touch screen. It’s obviously a lot larger than a smart phone, but it’s used in somewhat the same way. With that, I’m often doing just the same kind of pictures that I do on Instagram. When I take pictures for Instagram, I’m thinking about how they’re going to look on the display on the phone. But I’m also aware that if you take that same picture and blow it up large – that as long as you maintain a level of detail that the camera is capable of maintaining – something almost surreal happens to it. But the same kind of formal play – like keeping the almost random order of things within the frame, and understanding that arrangement within the frame – that still holds, even if they’re large. You’re absolutely right – in some cases, they are the exact same kind of picture that I would take for Instagram.

Do you ever go back and take the same picture? 

I mean I go out with my camera and take pictures that happen to be the same kind of pictures I might post on Instagram, but in fact the only time I’ve ever redone a picture with the good camera was this past week where I was out walking my dogs ­– that’s why I have so many pictures of the ground! I have a Shih Tzu and a Havanese, so I’m always looking down at them as I’m walking, and as I’m walking them on the street in New York I want to multitask and make art so I’m taking pictures of what I see with my phone. I saw something I really liked that I posted a couple of days ago, and so I went back again the next day while walking the dogs, with my good camera, and took the picture again. And that’s the only time I’ve actually taken something with my phone and literally reshot it. 

Do you look at those pictures differently?

Well yes, because when I’m taking a picture with the phone, I’m really thinking about how it’s going to look when it’s 2 x 2 inches. And when I’m taking a picture with the other camera – even though the pictures are very similar – I’m thinking about how it’s going to look 4 x 5.5 feet.

It’s just a matter of keeping in mind what tool you’re using and what it’s capable of, and what the final result is going to be. But if you’ve done any discipline enough, you get a sense of what the results are going to be. When I was a teenager and first started listening to Beethoven, people would tell me about how he was deaf at the end of his life, and say ‘Wasn’t this amazing?’ And maybe for me as a 12-year-old it seemed amazing that he could compose so well when he was deaf, but now it doesn’t seem so amazing to me; it seems pretty simple that if you’ve mastered a discipline, then you can make the translation from a mental image of what you want to what the result would be.

What I’m saying is, I can pick up my Hasselblad and look at something in the world in front of me and know how it’s going to translate to a print that size, and make decisions that are based on that translation. It’s not a hit or miss process. Maybe the first couple of times I did it, but once I saw the results, the translation became pretty clear.

Can you tell me what led you to start Details now?

The kind of high-end digital cameras that are made today are doing exactly what I was looking for 45 years ago when I switched from 35mm to 4 x 5 and then 8 x 10. But it didn’t exist then, and so now I can take a picture with a camera that looks like a 35mm. I can use it quickly and make a casual shot, and then come out with a highly resolved print. I’m now using the Hasselblad X1D for Details – and I had my lab do comparisons: the prints that I’m making now are sharper than they would be had I used an 8x10 view camera, which I previously used to achieve highly detailed pictures. And again, I’m not interested in this just as a technical thing, or to rest on its technical qualities, but rather for the aesthetic door that was opened by those technical qualities. I was interested in an aesthetic territory that was then laid open in front of me. When I started using it about two years ago, it had only just come out a couple of months before that. I was taking pictures that literally couldn’t have been made half a year before! 

Right, and that must have been exciting because I guess it’s about pushing the medium to see what it can do, how far it can go.

Yes, so for me that’s the issue with this work: seeing what I can do when that door is opened.

What’s next?

Details is evolving, but I don’t have a plan for what’s next. I’m still doing it. I’m going to have a show in LA at Sprüth Magers of this work, which will be larger than the show at Photo London – and it includes a picture that I shot about two weeks ago! So I’m still in the midst of it.


Stephen Shore: 2019 Master of Photography is on show at Photo London, Somerset House, 16–19 May

Online exclusive 14 May 2019