Shore embarked on his first road trip in the summer of 1972 which resulted in the series American Surfaces. With a Rolleiflex 35 mm camera, the forerunner of the point-and-shoot, Shore was able to immediately capture the people, places and objects he encountered, producing a series of consciously casual and intimate snapshots. Embracing the work of the conceptual artists of the 1960s who adopted the photographic medium as a tool to make systematic, often compulsive explorations of locations, Shore too began to assemble a sequential visual record of his travels in which the singular photograph was only significant in terms of its place in the series. Shore opted for the mass-produced amateurish method of printing his color, glossy photographs at a Kodak lab in the standard 3 by 5 inch format, favored by tourists.
While Shore continued to document his travels, he wanted to explore a greater visual intentionality and, therefore, began his next series of work in 1973 entitled Uncommon Places. Here the artist focuses on the minutiae of modern life in America, capturing anonymous intersections, residential architecture, uniform drive-by diners, generic motel rooms and monotonous gas stations, all of which were shot using color film and a view camera, a combination that had rarely been put to use in recording America’s social landscape. The artist’s move towards a tripod-bound, larger format, 8 by 10 inch, view camera was fueled by the rigorous nature of the equipment which allows for ‘clarity of thought’ whilst one makes a conscious, premeditated decision to take a photograph. Furthermore, by employing this method, which immediately eliminates spontaneity, Shore could now capture every precise detail within the carefully framed scene, such as the red bicycle apparent in the distance of 4th and Main, Delphos, OH, July 6, 1973. The artist’s increasing interest in the linear construction and symmetrical organization of his motifs is evident in the work, Anderson Heating Co., 2nd St, Ashland, W1, July 9, 1973 in which the strong horizontal structure of the centrally placed building is repeated throughout the scene.
The rich, elaborate palette used throughout the series, which was shocking to the audience at the time, added the visual accuracy and heightened awareness that Shore needed to depict his ordinary contemporary subjects. In 1971 color photography was not welcome in the realm of high-art photography as it was commonly used by commercial photographers, depicted in advertising or seen on the television. Through the repetitive use of the acid yellow & vinyl red billboards depicted in Main Street, Twin Falls, Idaho, July 19, 1973, Shore is able to illuminate the generic artifacts of contemporary culture with his rebellious use of color.
Previously unpublished photographs from Uncommon Places will be assembled together in the exhibition, allowing the viewer to explore the artist’s movements and enter the specific place he has defined. In addition to his visual account of his time on the road, Shore also kept a journal with him during his first journeys for Uncommon Places, producing a daily written record of his car mileage, meals eaten, programs watched on television, motel bills and picture postcards of towns, surreptitiously marking his drive-by visits. Examples of Shore’s meticulous record of daily activities can be seen in his book, entitled Road Trip Journal, pages of which are featured in the exhibition. Through his compilation of data and bills, Shore strove for objectivity by enumerating his daily activities while recounting how much money he spent, devoid of sentiment or nostalgia. His Road Trip Journal further marks the transition from an untutored, unmediated record to a more mechanical and analytical way of presenting time.
Additional works from Uncommon Places and American Surfaces are concurrently on show at the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf as part of the exhibition Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1968–1993. The second part of the exhibition, also currently on show at the NRW-Forum, entitled Der Rote Bulli: Stephen Shore and the New Düsseldorf Photography, explores how Stephen Shore’s unique use of color film and view camera has influenced a generation of photographers including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer amongst many others, all of whom were exposed to his work by Bernd and Hilla Becher while studying at the Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf.