In 1972 a then twenty-four year old Stephen Shore began a series of road trips across the United States, setting out to photograph the country that he had not previously had much direct exposure to, having seldom left the city of New York where he had been raised. Prone to the lures of nostalgia and custom as a photographer taking such a trip might otherwise be, Shore had been galvanized for this highly self-conscious investigation of the American vernacular by having spent several of his teenage years hanging around no less a cultural initiator than Andy Warhol’s Factory. In time—quite specfically in retrospect, it should be noted—the culled results of several trips made between 1972 and 1974 became a discursive series that Shore called American Surfaces.


By way of simple description, it consisted of hundreds of color photographs depicting a wide variety of subject matter, including but by no means restricted to signs, people, portraits (as differentiated from mere photographs of people), buildings, toilets, food, refrigerators (occasionally empty), interiors, cars, and several dogs. There was structure, but no apparent order, and content, though it refused hierarchy. Rather than messing with the intensive handwork of a darkroom, Shore had dropped the original film off for development at regular retail stores, much in the way one might with pictures from vacation. He then mounted the first exhibition of the series by simply taping the small machine-made prints he got back from the stores onto the walls of a gallery in a large grid. He had borrowed one of Minimalism’s more rigorously established visual forms, though something else was clearly afoot.

Photographs © Copyright Stephen Shore, from American Surfaces
Courtesy Phaidon and 303 Gallery, New York

What Shore had in fact precipitated was a bottleneck of historical photographic practices. He melded the medium’s capacity for seemingly infinite factuality to his own age’s preoccupation with the detritus of Pop art and culture. He crashed photography’s hallowed black and white preciousness with throwaway prints of subject matter that many considered unworthy of monumentalizing, much less wasting film on. If this wasn’t the exact birth of the snapshot aesthetic, it was certainly one of its earliest and most salient appropriations within a formalized artistic context, and its critics, then as now, continue to be appalled. It was a benchmark.

Photographs © Copyright Stephen Shore, from American Surfaces
Courtesy Phaidon and 303 Gallery, New York

Influential upon future generations yet symptomatic of its own time, the material is likewise deeply referential to its forebears: its eclectic span is a rebus in the Rauschenberg sense, and a roadmap, both literally and metaphorically. There are frequent nods to Eugene Atget and Walker Evans, as well as Warhol and Ed Ruscha, but Shore’s contemporaries are also included. The presence of Bernd and Hilla Becher is felt throughout, and in a wry mode of disclosure, Shore concludes the new book version of the series with a portrait of William Eggleston that makes plain the wider allegiance to that photographer that arises in so many other images. To see the whole however is to know that it is definitively a work by Stephen Shore, imbued as it is with his particular sensitivity. As a spectacularization of the banal, it reads like Pop, but is too clearly warm-blooded to be limited by that label.


The series was first put into book form in 1999 and contained no accompanying text, either as introduction or captions. This new and wholly redesigned edition accompanies a similarly reconstituted exhibition of the photographic prints, curated at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York by Bob Nickas, who also contributed a new essay. All of these facts bear further thought within the context of Shore’s rebus. The newer prints are now digitally processed, and hung in the gallery with deluxe frames and eight-ply window mattes, a reversal of the original installation towards a more apparently conventional format. The newer book contains many more hundreds of images; the earlier version had only seventy-two. They are now arranged not only chronologically, but by state (the inclusion of a chapter devoted to England is either a further subversion of documentary cohesion or a surplus digression, depending on your bias). Even the book’s packaging is considered and clever: it comes in an oversized Kodak-yellow envelope, a facsimile of one that Shore received back with his original film on June 26, 1972 (“Jaydee Camera Exchange Inc., 764 Third Avenue,” total price for processing, $11.80).

Courtesy Phaidon

By geographically and chronologically charting the photographer’s original footsteps, the book becomes a supra-documentary, re-centering its focus with each new form of the work, making the larger undertaking its own best subject. Shore has referred to both this and the expanded re-issue of another of his books as the equivalent of “director’s cuts”, but that single metaphor shortchanges the larger implications at hand. To begin with, this reincarnation of American Surfaces as a kind of meta-work might be read as positioning the book questionably within an educational or service function, rather than as a sui generis aesthetic form. Considering at least part of its origin within a conceptual milieu, this becomes doubly problematic. What such a book might benefit from as a historically corrective omnibus version becomes its liability as a less potent incarnation of original art. This is not a fault of this edition specifically however, so much as the larger trend towards photography book re-issues, as one might consider the case to be with the latest edition of Walker Evans’ Many Are Called, among others.


Alternately, to say that the new edition amounts to revisionism on Shore’s part is to beg a point pre-empted by the nature of the project from its beginning, which had always been somewhat ad hoc in form. With the admitted benefit of hindsight, one can suggest that none of the constituent parts that now make up the American Surfaces phenomenology rightly ought to be considered outside of the others. It has at this point become a motile and fluid architecture for photographic meaning: simultaneously conceptual, documentary, formalist, art historical and (paradoxically for a photographic series) atemporal. In its most radical orientation, the project breaks through the conventions and limitations of photographic practice not by attempting to perfect its documentation of life, but by positioning its execution, in all of its fractious non-linearity, as an exercise in life.


© Copyright Gil Blank

Stephen Shore: American Surfaces
Published by Phaidon 

Originally published in Issue magazine, Number 9, 2006
Gil Blank
Misc Fields