A Fluttering Knuckleball: Lunch with Stephen Shore and Tim Davis
published in Blind Spot, No. 26
In the waning days of 2003, Stephen Shore and I met for lunch at Tabla, a Goan bazaar in one of New York's art deco masterpieces. Art is all about errands and it was a pleasure, on this mild, flat, gray day, to take time from the regime and sit and talk about Stephen's work. I had a pile of prints due to the mounter and Stephen had a magazine interview lined up immediately after. In the meanwhile we had two hours of oasis to talk about the latest developments.
Tim Davis: Your best-known pictures, the view camera landscapes from Uncommon Places through the Hudson Valley, Texas, Montana and Scotland projects, possess, above their other qualities, a deep and fathomable resolve. The pictures feel whole, all their nuances present and accounted for, as if the photograph was a great galley ship with all hands straining toward a unified goal: the depiction of photographic space. Most photographs are technically "whole"—made in a single lens-centered instant, they deal overwhelmingly with fragmentation—but your view camera images bestow a thoroughgoing and sensual wholeness on an American landscape devoted to flux and fragment. They stare through the social landscape to a vein of visual pleasure and truth. These new books you're producing, made with a small digital camera and edited on the computer seem less interested in resolution. What has taken its place?
Stephen Shore: All of this new work you refer to is intended to be seen as small books. These are limited edition books, produced with print-on-demand technology and made with Apple's iPhoto application. Each book has between nine and fifteen pages of pictures. I'm approaching each book as a unified group of images and playing with different ways the images can relate to each other. One aspect of these books that interests me is the weight each image is accorded. They don't demand the completeness you've described. They have a light touch, not unlike that seen in SX-70 pictures. Also, they are fun to make.
Tim Davis: You refer to this "light touch" as the license an artist gains at some point in his career to make something frivolous; almost as if the weight to make a pointed argument with each picture lessens as you go. You mentioned Evans' Polaroids and I was thinking of Philip Guston's decision in the late sixties to turn from his passionate abstractions to what is called "crapola"—or even a baseball pitcher learning to throw the fluttering knuckleball. What interests me is that your career as an artist began with similar serial images. Do you feel the new books relate to the older more conceptual projects?
Stephen Shore: Yes. I think the new books relate to the conceptual work you refer to. In fact, I've made several books of some of the conceptual projects from the late sixties. They are small sequences that fit perfectly in this new form. There are also images in the new work that have the same notational quality as the pictures in American Surfaces, a group of my 35mm work from 1972. At that time I was thinking about how to make photographs that look "natural", i.e. unforced, like seeing. I've seen my work go through several formal cycles: after American Surfaces I moved to a view camera and my images became progressively more formally complex until, at one point, I again began a process of making them transparent (but now reflecting the new formal understanding) and there have been more cycles since. One other thing occurs to me. When I teach, I have to put myself in each student's shoes and get a sense of where their work should head. I do this each semester for twenty or more students, each with different interests and inclinations. It's possible that my doing this for years has led me to have a range of photographic ideas that are not bound together externally by a single style. For the past ten years or so I've been putting these different ideas into play. I've been doing color work with a 6x7cm camera that aims at some of the completeness you referred to in your first question. I've been making black & white New York street photographs with an 8x10 camera (masked to 4x10) and now I've been making these books. A few months ago, an art critic asked me about my "signature style." Well, this question startled me. I've never thought in those terms. My work from the seventies, which to this critic exemplified my "signature style," was made by me in response to certain questions and problems I needed to pursue. I never thought in terms of style. The style was a result of my exploration.
Tim Davis: I've been reading about the creation of the hydrogen bomb and how the development of the first electronic digital computer enabled physicists to solve the hundreds of thousands of calculations needed to turn atomic theory into devastating power. Photography is also a kind of calculator, a way of solving problems of awareness with thoroughness and aplomb. A photograph is a problem-solving machine. Of course each photographic image, no matter how proscribed, contains a huge amount of unintended information the "dark matter" of photography. I'm wondering if some of your new books, such as the one reproduced here, are ways to back away from "signature style" by pointing out elements in your own pictures that might have been beyond your awareness at the time they were made?
Stephen Shore: I agree with what you said about a photograph being a problem-solving machine. A photographer may have questions and problems that he or she brings to a picture-making situation. At the same time, the specific situation can generate new ideas, possibilities, and problems. I'm not sure that "Jigsaw Puzzle" has to do with "dark matter." It's more simply a response to the puzzle photograph in terms of the possibilities and constraints of the book form.
Tim Davis: I still maintain that photographers generate this astounding paper trail of thorough works, making it very rational to go back to images and reassess their place in the world. Is part of that reassessment for you the thrill of generating a photo book out of thin air? Before the gallery binge on photography in the nineties, it was the apotheosis of a photographer's career to publish a book. Now photography books are a healthy handful of dimes a dozen. Is it thrilling somehow to sneak these books into the marketplace?
Stephen Shore: I think that's part of it. But, with an edition of 20, which is what they're printed in, it's hardly putting them in print. However, I think there's something aesthetically very satisfying about these books and some of that may derive from my past experience with other books. There's the way the image sits on the page. There's the intimacy of looking at the book. There's simply the experience of seeing the images in a book as opposed to, say, a portfolio: it recalls past book experiences; it is a cultural object. And, in these small (short) volumes, there's the mind's ability to hold the whole book at once. The book becomes a single, unified work. The ease of making these books allows for experimentation: trying out different approaches, different strategies. One thing I found interesting is that when these books were exhibited at 303 Gallery this past fall, five were sold and they were all different ones. Blind Spot is reproducing a sixth one, again no duplication. The Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany will be showing this winter all 17 books that were in the 303 show and in a catalog will be reproducing five of them. One of these five was one of the books purchased from 303, otherwise again no duplication.
Tim Davis: Photographers are like fundamentalists. With so much uncertainty at the heart of their practice, they tend to overplay the certainty of their decisions. I'm thinking particularly of print size. Most photographers I know are adamant about the size they choose. I suppose they are saying "size does matter," and the market agrees, saying you can charge more for a larger print. All are of course flattered to have their work reproduced in books (and magazines I might add) at whatever size. I think the variability of the photographic image is an essential part of its power: it is surfaceless, filmy and barely materializes as an object. It can change size. It is fleeting and alterable, like a memory. The book is the perfect form for the photograph for all the reasons you cited and also because it destabilizes the ability to grasp at any one image. It invites us to see the image as the artist did, as something plucked from a continuum.
Stephen Shore: Painters are used to seeing their works reduced in scale in reproduction as well as seeing the surface neutralized. Photography in reproduction is, as you suggest, different. Even in ordinary reproduction it verges on facsimile. The surface is similar and the close scrutiny a book allows blurs the scale issue (with some exceptions in extreme cases). I like your phrase "plucked from a continuum." It is, of course, what a photographer does. Photography—straight photography—is an analytic activity.
Tim Davis: Making a book is analytic but it is also additive. Your new books remind me of something the filmmaker Robert Bresson said of film-making: "Don't strain after poetry; it penetrates unaided through the joins." In other words, expression is achieved (in film, anyway) through the sheer conjunction of images and doesn't need to be overstated in the images themselves.