How America’s Most Cherished Photographer Learned to See

The short answer: While I may have questions or intentions that guide what I’m interested in photographing at a particular moment, and even guide exactly where I place my camera, the core decision still comes from recognizing a feeling of deep connection, a psychological or emotional or physical resonance with the picture’s content.

Now, the excessively long answer: This changes with different periods of a photographer’s artistic evolution. For me, there was a period beginning in the early seventies, and lasting perhaps five or six years, when what was in the front of my mind was the exploration of every formal, structural, and perceptual variable of an image. For example, I was interested in learning how to represent three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional photograph, while maintaining a kind of visual logic so that a viewer could understand the space.

I can hint at what I mean by “visual logic” by way of an inexact analogy. I remember in the seventies thinking about an interview I had read with Howard Hawks. He said that, after years of experience, he could get a cowboy off his horse and into a bar in three shots. He wanted an economical use of time while maintaining a visual logic. He could not conceive of simply cutting from the cowboy riding into town to a shot of him at the bar; he wanted the narrative connection. Not dissimilarly, I wanted the viewer to be able to move their attention through the space of my picture. Where Hawks was after a narrative continuity, I wanted a spatial continuity. To experiment with this, I often worked at city intersections. They provided a visual laboratory. It wouldn’t have made sense for me to work in the middle of a desert.

Stephen Shore in January, 2022.Photograph by Richard Renaldi for The New Yorker

At the same time, I had issues of content on my mind. For example, there was an extended period when I was interested in how cultural forces expressed themselves in the built environment. A writer can directly describe their perception of these forces, but photographers can’t. They can access them only to the extent that these forces manifest themselves visually. Well, if this was also in my thoughts, I also couldn’t explore it in the middle of a desert. So the explorations of content and structure not only guided where I would photograph but even exactly where to place the camera.

But this is only part of the story. The question remains: why this particular intersection, on this day, in this light, at this moment? That’s more like what you’ve called instinctive. There’s the sense of something taking over. I found on my road trips that, after a couple of days of driving and paying attention to what I was seeing, I would get into a very clear, quiet state of mind.

But the answer to your question could be different at another stage of development. For example, the work I did for “Steel Town,” in the fall of 1977, came at the end of the period of formal exploration I just described. By this time, I really had a handle on formal choices, and I could think about what to photograph and not about how. The content of the pictures was guided by the needs of the commission: to go to cities where mills were closing, and to photograph the mills, the cities, and the steelworkers. I had never dealt with such immediate economic conditions before. And this raised a larger, more central question, something you referred to in your recent review of the Constructivism show at MoMA: does art that springs from political situations have a “use by” date? I understood that a societal event could exist as history, as archetype, as metaphor—or, to use T. S. Eliot’s term, as an “objective correlative.” I hoped to find that point.

The “Steel Town” pictures are formally masterful but hard to look at, their message is so painful. There’s a deep political intelligence that falls within your range, even if it’s sometimes latent. Can you see yourself as a material witness to history?

I can. While “Steel Town” deals with more of a crisis than my other work does, it’s not the only time I thought of a historical record. This has often been on my mind.

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