An uncommon eye

Legendary American photographer Stephen Shore is training his lens on digital media with his first eBook

Photography Q+A
094 Ginger Shore Stephen Shore
Ginger Shore Stephen Shore / Courtesy of Sprueth Magers

To say that Stephen Shore's career is era-spanning is putting it lightly: at 17, he fell in with the Warhol crowd and photographed Andy, Edie Sedgwick and the other bright young things of the Factory; in his 20s, he photographed his road trip from Manhattan to Amarillo, Texas in 1972 and pioneered the use of color in fine-art photography while doing so; now four decades into his career, he has just released his first eBook on iTunes, a moving image iBook that captures New York as only Shore sees it.

Something + Nothing, his first solo show in London for over six years, opens at Sprueth Magers, incorporating classic images from his early career as well as work from his new series, Ukraine, which captures Eastern European Holocaust survivors in their homes, villages and cities. As always, Shore always has his eye trained on the constantly moving, mutable future. Dazed speaks to the legendary photographer about the digital medium and his ever-evolving work.

“Everyone thinks they’re making photographs, and in a general sense they are – but there is a language of visual thinking that an experienced photographer can see"

Dazed Digital: New York Minute is the first e-book you’ve published – what attracted you to this medium?

Stephen Shore: All the eBooks I’ve seen are just books in electronic form, while newspapers are now incorporating video. They understand that the electronic form expands possibilities and doesn't have to be limited to the print model. I wanted to make a book that could only exist in electronic form, playing off the idea of a very traditional book. So the layout is a single picture in the center of the page surrounded by white – a very conservative photography book layout – except the picture moves. It’s like a still photograph but with two edges in time – a beginning and an end.

DD: The images have quite a hypnotic quality – you’re almost compelled to spend more time dwelling on them than you would with a photograph.

Stephen Shore: You’re right, it holds your attention; some have very little movement so any movement at all becomes very noticeable. A person can take in a still photograph in a fraction of a second; you can watch people looking at photographs and they’ll often spend more time reading the label because it takes time to read a label.

DD: An e-book is also a much more democratic medium in that it’s more immediately available than a big, heavy art book.

Stephen Shore: Oh, absolutely. The last book of mine that Phaidon did was The Book of Books, which is 2400 pages and sells for something like £1700. I never wanted to do an extraordinarily expensive book, it was just the economic necessity of publishing something that large and so it felt right to do a book that sells for as little as this does. I knew it was on my mind that the last book was prohibitively expensive and I’ve been interested in contemporary media possibilities for a while.

DD: Given your interest in new media technologies, what do you think of today’s notion that anyone – armed with an iPhone or cheap DSLR – can be a photographer?

Stephen Shore:  I don’t think it means anything more than the fact that everyone knows how to write. Everyone writes every day, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is a novelist or a poet.  I have a little plastic digital camera that I made to attach to my pet’s collar; she’ll go walk down the street and it automatically takes a picture every two minutes. The pictures are formally complete: they have content, four edges, they're in focus – my dog couldn't do a painting or write a sentence that was as coherent.

“I just try to get a sense of what’s essential about a place and take photographs that could only be taken there, without taking the obvious picture"

I can take a point-and-shoot camera, close my eyes and take a picture that's a photograph, but that ease has always masked the intentionality behind a good photograph. Everyone thinks they’re making photographs, and in a general sense they are – but there is a language of visual thinking that an experienced photographer can see when they’re looking at someone’s work. Hundreds of billions of photographs are taken every day, but not all of them show intentionality and visual thinking. 

DD: You’ve recently photographed Holocaust survivors in their homes for your newest work, Ukraine. It’s quite a departure from your previous work.

Stephen Shore: This is very different for me because I’ve never done a project where the subject matter has the kind of built in emotional resonance. The aesthetic challenge is to take photographs that are both observant and sensitive to their situation but don’t depend on this outside knowledge to carry this picture. I found being there and meeting them a pretty amazing experience. 

DD: You’ve gone from photographing Andy Warhol’s Factory and the American landscape in American Surfaces to Abu Dhabi and Israel. Is there any challenge in going from photographing domestic landscapes to abroad?

Stephen Shore: I don’t see this as that different; I just try to get a sense of what’s essential about a place and take photographs that could only be taken there, without taking the obvious picture. In a certain way, that was what I was doing in my work in America in the 70s – although I grew up in America, I grew up in an East Coast city, which is very different from Nevada – this was all culturally very new to me and I thought of myself as an explorer. It just happened to be my country.

Stephen Shore’s first ever digital project, A New York Minute, is available now for purchase from iTunes for £6.99. Something + Nothing opens tomorrow at Sprueth Magers and runs until 11 January. 

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