June/July/Aug 2008

Highways, Hamlet, and Pancakes

Stephen Shore talks with Bookforum

Darius Himes


Thirty-five years ago, Stephen Shore set out from Manhattan on a road trip to photograph America. In addition to taking photos that would begin to form his series Uncommon Places, he recorded the details of what would become a near-legendary journey. On the anniversary this summer of the six-week expedition, Phaidon is publishing A Road Trip Journal ($250), a limited-edition facsimile of Shore's documentation, photographic and otherwise. (The press has also just released an engaging and thorough survey book on the photographer as part of its Contemporary Artists monograph series.) The work featured in this new volume was made with a 4 x 5 view camera and, as such, acts as a bridge between the body of work known as American Surfaces, made the previous year, in 1972, with a 35-mm camera, and Uncommon Places, made in 1973–78 primarily with an 8 x 10 view camera.

The first half of the book reproduces the journal, a work in which the twenty-five-year-old Shore recorded his exploration from the road: mileage, what he ate, where he stayed, what he watched on TV. Each fact is itemized in Shore's handwriting alongside pasted- in postcards, memorabilia, receipts, and a handful of his 35-mm snapshots. The second half consists of the photographs themselves, and each of the 256 exposures Shore made on his trip are reproduced in the elegant plate section of the book; the vast majority of them have never before been published.

In April, I spoke with Shore about revisiting this project thirty-five years after its creation. —DARIUS HIMES

BOOKFORUM: The American highway is a mythical motif, not just in photography—Walker Evans and Robert Frank, for instance—but in literature and popular culture. In your text for A Road Trip Journal, you talk about films and songs from when you were young that contained "a magical litany of place names," including Saint Louis, Joplin, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Winona, and Barstow. These are all secondary midwestern and western cities, yet they were places that you wanted to experience firsthand. Was the idea of a journey strictly an outward movement for you? Did you experience any inward movement accompanying the freedom you found on the road?

STEPHEN SHORE: I'm not sure it was a metaphor for me. I played the role of explorer. It was meant to be an external journey, and I was more in love with driving and the road than thinking about Evans and Frank. I may have been attracted by the same things they were, and maybe I was attracted by the same things that anyone who gets in a car and spends a couple of months driving is. It was for the pleasure of it and the sense of exploration, and also it was perhaps coming from my background in New York, where, until two years before, I didn't even have a driver's license. For my friends in Texas, who grew up in a car culture, it wasn't such a big revelation.

BF: The journal isn't diaristic. What, then, was its role?

SS: It was meant as an artwork. The year before, I had kept a photographic diary, which became American Surfaces. When I switched to the 4 x 5 view camera from a handheld 35 mm, my intention was to continue American Surfaces, with a larger camera. When I switched over, I found that I loved using it on a tripod, which I wasn't expecting, and I loved using a ground glass, which I also wasn't expecting. So I gave up the idea of continuing American Surfaces, because the whole nature of my exploration changed. When it became clear that I wasn't going to be doing a visual diary, I wanted to have some other kind of journal. As I drove around, I gathered postcards and all these other pieces of paper. Even prior to that, in New York, I was a collector of printed matter. Every piece of printed matter that would come to me, even form letters, I would save and then send out to people. I wasn't interested in preserving them forever, but I was interested in preserving them as cultural artifacts.

BF: Photography critic Gerry Badger has described your work as a "heroic articulation of the real." This seems to carry connotations of the work as a support for contemplation. What do you think he means by this?

SS: For me, it has to do with the nature of the view camera. In the original edition of Uncommon Places [Aperture, 1982], there's a picture of a red and white Volkswagen van sitting on a side street in Easton, Pennsylvania. I made that photograph on the first day that I used the 8 x 10. (All the work in A Road Trip Journal is made with a 4 x 5, and then I took one short trip in '74 with the 4 x 5, before borrowing a friend's 8 x 10.) As you're looking at the photograph, you realize that there is a boy sitting in the window of the building across the street, on the far side of the van, and that you can even see his breath on the glass. It was this photograph that made me realize that with this camera I don't have to walk across the street and photograph him. I can let him be a tiny little thing to be discovered in the picture. This was a very different technical approach from American Surfaces, for instance, and a realization that I didn't have until I had moved from the 4 x 5 to the larger-format 8 x 10. So that changes both the relationship of the viewer to the picture and the function of the picture. It's not just a window directing your attention but is itself the object of attention, some­- thing to be explored. I think that's similar to what Badger is saying.

BF: What Uncommon Places shares with American Surfaces is an interest in the incidentals of American popular culture: restaurants, cars, signage, and the main streets of Middle America. This observer-explorer mode is evident as constant movement in American Surfaces, but with the 4 x 5, everything slows down—you can't maneuver as quickly with a view camera as you can with a 35 mm.

SS: Exactly. So when I photographed the pancakes [at Trail's End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah] with a 4 x 5, I had been there, to that same restaurant, the preceding year for the American Surfaces project. It's a very different thing to have the food in front of you and take a picture with a 35 mm—just like that. With the 4 x 5, I was standing on a chair, and the camera was over here, and the food was cold by the time I took the picture.

BF: As a viewer, there is a tension between feeling directed and feeling free to interpret the contents of an image. The framing, the subject, the amount of detail, the depth of field—all of these decisions feel very deliberate. On a certain level, I want to know what you want me to think about this scene, or this town, or this plate of food. As viewers, we almost always want to pin a judgment to something. Do you consciously try to avoid incorporating such meaning into your images?

SS: Yes, and I'll go even further. People often talk about my work in relation to, or in some way as an outgrowth of, Robert Frank's . . .

BF: Only in the sense that you both got in cars and headed west.

SS: Yes. Definitely not in visual terms. But I would say that my work at that time was a reaction to Frank's. To my temperament, his work is too pointed, too directed, in just the way you're talking about. If his work was present in my mind at all on the trip, it was that I wanted to go in a different direction.

BF: That makes me think about something Garry Winogrand once said, about wanting to see what things look like photographed. The ability to withhold judgment for an extended period of time is difficult. Roland Barthes talks about the photograph's "arrest of interpretation." On one level, we know that you, as the artist, are making dozens of minor decisions all along the way—where you stand, what you include, what photographic process you're employing, etc. And yet, it doesn't feel like you're interpreting what's in front of you. Rather, your photograph simply mirrors it.

SS: First, let me say that there may be a difference between "withholding judgment" and an "arrest of interpretation." There can be interpretation without judgmenteven though everyone knows that an artist can't be fully objective and that my framework of understanding governs what I find and therefore what I show you. But accepting that, there's a difference in emphasis with a judgment. It has to do with a couple things. One, as I said, is temperament: I tend to back off from critical stances that I feel are judgmental. The other is that most judgments dismiss the complexities of reality—at least to my eyes. To use an analogy, I'm talking about the difference between a journalist interpreting factseven defining facts—to describe an event and an editorial writer passing judgment on the same event. A debate presents a binary view: for or against. It doesn't capture the greater com- plexity of a continuum. But I'm also deeply interested in showing something of our time, so that I'm not just aiming a camera at the world. There is an interpretation; I'm looking at things and thinking about them. There's a quote from Hamlet that, as the decade progressed, took on more significance for me. Hamlet states that one of the purposes of acting is to show "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

Let me put it in a slightly different context. Look at this [Beverly Blvd. and La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA, June 21, 1975, from Uncommon Places]. After I took this picture—this goes to interpretation and structure and the "form of our time—I realized that I structured it in a very classical way, with one-point perspective, with forms that set up the frame and the fore­ground. I was going through a period of seeing how densely I could structure a picture and how far back into the picture I could look. At the same time, I'm thinking, show "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." Is this it? Or is this a structural understanding that I'm bringing to it that isn't inherent in the scene? I went back to the same intersection the next day and took this picture [Beverly Blvd. and La Brea Ave., Los Angeles,CA, June 22, 1975, from the 1982 book Uncommon Places: 50 Unpublished Photographs 1973–1978], which is looking toward the other part of the intersection.

BF: It's a completely different picture—hardly even recognizable as the same intersection.

SS: And it feels like the photographer is barely doing anything.

BF: One seems like a very complex structure, and the other less so, like a casual snapshot. Do you think a contrast such as this illustrates the form and pressure of the time?

SS: I do. At least that was the direction my thinking went for the next year or so.

BF: What do you hope people will gain from seeing the journal and this first chapter, if you will, of Uncommon Places, now that we are thirty-five years out from its making?

SS: Well, the journal itself I love as an object. It's hard for me to be objective, because it's also very personal, even though there's nothing personal about it! As for the inclusion of all the pictures, it just kept growing as an idea. It's a little weird showing all of your exposures.

BF: It's like a book of contact sheets.

SS: I'm a little concerned that it's self-indulgent. I don't know if people will be interested in seeing all my pictures. But I know that when I see other people's contact sheets, I find it highly illuminating. In fact, there is a great book of Walker Evans's work in the Library of Congress, in which every 8 x 10 that he shot that is in the library's collection was published. As a photographer, that's fascinating. It gives me a taste of his visual thinking.

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