Heroes & Mentors: Stephen Shore and Gregory Crewdson

© Stephen Shore/Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York
"Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975," by Stephen Shore.

For many photographers, conversations with other photographers—be they heroes, mentors or friends—are an important part of their professional lives. They critique and inspire each other creatively; share information about technique and craft; debate the future and rehash the past; commiserate about challenges, perhaps argue; and they learn.

We asked a handful of photographers whom they would like to meet and talk with. We wanted to let PDN readers listen in on these conversations between some of the most influential people in photography, whose work spans generations and genres. We think these exchanges offer insights into the past, present, and future of photography.

Stephen Shore’s color photographs were first exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971 when he was just 24 years old. In 1982 he published his groundbreaking book, Uncommon Places (Aperture). American Surfaces (Schirmer/Mosel) was first published in 1999. Among his many awards, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in 1974 and 1979. Since 1982, he has been the Susan Weber Soros Professor in the Arts and director of the photography program at Bard College. His work has been exhibited at museums and galleries all over the world.

Gregory Crewdson received an MFA from Yale University’s School of Art in 1988. Best known for his elaborately staged, cinematic color images of small town America, he has exhibited his work in museums and galleries internationally. He published his first book, Hover (Artspace), in 1995. His other books include Twilight (Abrams, 2003), Beneath the Roses (Abrams, 2008) and Sanctuary (Abrams, 2010). Crewdson was awarded the Skowhegan Medal for Photography in 2004, and has received National Endowment for the Arts (1992) and Aaron Siskind (1991) fellowships. Since 1993, he has been an adjunct professor in the graduate photography program at the Yale School of Art.

Crewdson interviewed Shore on May 5, 2011, at the International Center for Photography 
in New York City.

Gregory Crewdson
: When did you first understand the magic of photography?
Stephen Shore: The magic of photography began in the darkroom when I was six. I was given a darkroom set made by Kodak for my birthday. I wasn’t taking pictures; I was just developing my family’s negatives and making prints. When I was eight I got a 35mm rangefinder camera and started taking pictures. Within a couple of years I knew this was what I was going to be doing.

Crewdson: When did you become conscious of photography as art and as a tradition?
Shore: I was living in New York and our upstairs neighbor gave me for my tenth birthday a copy of [Walker] Evans’s American Photographs, so that was the first photography book I owned. Evans’s work really stood out, as it still does.

Crewdson: Would you consider him a central early influence?
Shore: Yes. In fact, I would say it was more than an influence. Emmet Gowin once came to Bard and referred to feeling a spiritual kinship to someone. There’s something in my temperament that just connects to [Evans]. The word that comes to mind is classical, in terms of an understanding of the relationship of structure and content, and an empathetic distance.

Crewdson: How did you move from smaller format cameras to the large format?
Shore: I spent a couple of years making conceptually based sequences using 35mm. This led to exploring the vernacular uses of photography. One of the projects I did was making snapshots with a camera called a Mick-A-Matic, which is a big plastic head of Mickey Mouse. The following year with the 35mm I did a series called “American Surfaces.” They were exhibited as snapshots, but as time went on I became less interested in them as snapshots and more interested in some visual questions I had. I wanted to make bigger prints and needed a larger negative, so my intention was to continue “American Surfaces” but with a larger camera.

I got a [4 x 5] Crown Graphic thinking I would hand-hold it. Some of the work I was doing was architectural, so when I did that I put the camera on a tripod and I opened up the back and looked at the ground glass. And I got so involved in that way of working that the project totally changed and I gave up the idea of continuing “American Surfaces.” I became fascinated by this other method of photography, not just the 4 x 5, but also working on a tripod, because then the camera is not an extension of your eye, it just stays there. That process led to the work that I did over the next few years.

: Was “American Surfaces” the first time you ventured out into the American landscape and became more directly fascinated with that iconography?
Shore: Yes, but it had been brewing for a couple of years. I became friendly with a group of young people from Amarillo who all were living in New York, and every summer they would go back to Amarillo to spend the summer. I started going with them in 1969. It was an eye-opening experience. To spend two months in the Texas Panhandle and use that as a base for travel, I experienced part of the country I hadn’t experienced before and it made me want to explore the rest of the country.

Crewdson: Were your pictures making a commentary of any kind or was it more of a formal investigation?
Shore: Any artist can deal with both content and structure at the same time and have two paths of exploration, so I think they were both going on. In formal terms I wanted to make pictures that looked—the way I put it at the time was “natural.” Today I might use: “less mediated by visual convention.” What was it like to look? What was it like to see the world? And how is that different from the way people photograph? This was part of my interest in snapshots. Every now and then one would come across a snapshot that had this raw, unmediated spontaneity and I wanted to use the form of the pictures to refer to that. At the same time I was also taking pictures that you would never see in a snapshot and so it plays against the form.

Crewdson: When you moved on to the larger format 8 x 10 pictures, did the nature of the enterprise change dramatically?
Shore: Yes. Certain structural questions began to take over. If I look back on all the work from the Seventies, almost all of the content that I would explore most of that decade was really staked out during “American Surfaces”—intersections, houses, still lifes.

: So it was like you were location scouting for the next body of work in a certain way?
Shore: Yes, but I explored [the question of] how to put the picture together in a different way. I started making the pictures more and more structurally complex, and then making them less [complex] and more and more natural, more and more transparent, so that after four years I was attempting to take pictures with the 8 x 10 that that did in fact feel like “American Surfaces,” but having gone through this whole process, following a spiral and coming back to the same point but on a different level.

: Were you aware of a coming together of form and content that seemed defining at the time?
Shore: Yes. In fact, by coincidence this is something that has been on my mind for several months. [Book dealer] Markus Schaden put together a project where a group of six German photographers are taking pictures in America that are somehow influenced by a picture I took in Los Angeles in 1975 at the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Le Brea Avenue.

That picture was one of the two most structurally complex I [had] made at the time. As I was taking it I realized to what extent I was imposing a seventeenth century classical landscape vision on a twentieth century street corner. I couldn’t help myself, I had to make the picture, but as soon as I took it I felt how far I had come from this idea of the natural. Here is this one-point perspective going down the center. Like [French landscape painter] Claude [Lorrain] would have a classical pediment [on the side of the frame], I had the Standard Station. It bothered me the degree to which I was imposing a visual convention on my experience. So I went back to the same intersection the next day and took a different picture that didn’t have any of those qualities. This is what was on my mind: How much am I imposing an order and how much am I imposing a different kind of visual convention on the world? And is that getting away from communicating the experience?

Crewdson: Color at that time was a radical departure, particularly in this tradition of landscape photography. What were your thoughts on it?
Shore: Before “American Surfaces” I was doing these snapshots with the Mick-A-Matic, and all snapshots were in color. It’s really as simple as that. You couldn’t get a black-and-white snapshot then. You couldn’t take film to your corner drugstore and get black-and-white processing. Also, all postcards at the time were in color. When I was traveling with Amarillo as my base I would collect postcards, which would be of a motel or a diner or a main street—something an art photographer might not have thought of photographing. They were often made without any kind of artistic pretension, and they were in color and the color added a layer of information. Why is this room painted this color? What does that mean? It’s as resonant with meaning as the form of things and so fascinating to me.

: What kind of ambitions did you have towards photographic beauty and transcendence?
Shore: That’s a very good question. I’m going to separate [beauty and transcendence]. The only time I ever heard Evans speak was at the Modern [Museum of Modern Art], at the time of his big retrospective in the early Seventies. He talked about his photographs being transcendent documents. I took that to mean that he understood that the pictures existed on a level that had deep psychological resonances that were not simply a matter of cultural reference, as well as a level of cultural reference.

I didn’t think about beauty a lot. During “American Surfaces” I was photographing every meal I ate and what art on walls looked like. I saw myself as an explorer. I was thinking about the structural problems in the photograph, [about] photography as a technical means of communicating what the world looks like if you see it in a state of heightened awareness. The subject matter that interested me for various other reasons was the perfect subject matter for this exploration, because if the subject matter is too highly charged, a viewer can become involved in those aspects of the picture and be less open to the subtler aspects of it.

: Do you see the images as invested with any kind of personal narrative or an aspect of your own psychology?
Shore: I think it’s inevitable. Even in trying to rid the picture of it, it inevitably expresses it. This goes back to my kinship to Evans and having kind of a classical temperament. There was something in me that, when I look at Robert Frank I bristle at it. I have the highest respect for his work, but in terms of that aspect of my personality it just seems so pointed. Sometimes people compare my work to his because we both traveled around America, but at the time I was seeing what I was doing as almost anti-Frank. That’s another way of saying that what I’ve chosen to do and the coolness of it is an expression of my personality.

: Your body of work “Uncommon Places” has become iconic. How does it feel now to see those pictures being so influential, not only to younger artists, but you see the references in movies and throughout our culture?
Shore: It’s hard for me to answer. I see what you are saying and it makes me feel good. On the other hand, I know that in Europe some curators are making a big thing that I influenced the [Bernd and Hilla] Becher students and some of the Becher students are uncomfortable with this. I don’t understand that because it doesn’t take away from their achievement that they have been influenced any more than it takes away from what I’ve done to talk about looking at Evans and Ed Ruscha and postcards—we all have influences. How can you be an intelligent artist in our culture and not have influences and not work on a basis of things you’ve seen?

: That’s part of the condition of making art in a certain sense. You absorb traditions and attempt to reinvent and make them your own and then the next generation does the same.
Shore: Have you ever read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn?

: A very interesting book. He’s the person who really popularized the word “paradigm.” Talking about science, he said for something to be a paradigm it has to have two qualities: It has to be sufficiently unprecedented and sufficiently open ended so that people can continue the exploration. If it’s not open ended it’s not a paradigm. And in terms of photography, someone could take a picture based on one of mine and it’s not a copy of mine because one is my vision and the other is their vision.

Crewdson: Both of us are very invested in the role of being a teacher. Why is being a teacher important to you and how do you see it in relation to your role as an artist?
Shore: Those are separate but connected things. In terms of my art, as I have a new idea I can put it out in the teaching and it becomes a testing ground for an idea or perception. But I see teaching as a separate activity where—this may be too much mystical thinking—for a person to progress in their own evolution it’s necessary for them to bring other people to the place they were. I feel that I have a duty to do it.

Crewdson: I feel that same obligation. I always find that it’s important to have that connection to the next generation of artists that are coming up. It keeps you vital in a certain way.
Shore: My goal as a teacher is to help [my students] find their own voice, so if I have ten people in class it means I have to think like ten different people and that has proven to be an interesting mental exercise because then when I go out to take pictures, it’s like I’ve been flexing my esthetic faculty and I simply see more potential or see more opportunities, and wind up taking pictures that don’t look like my pictures. This whole process, this whole endeavor of teaching has pushed my own boundaries.

Crewdson: What words of advice would you give a young photographer?
Shore: Don’t try to please anyone else, unless you are going to Bard or Yale.


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