The longest standing branch of the Photobook Club based in Barcelona and run by Jon Uriarte has just had it’s 7th meetup held at Foto Colectania, a big thanks to Markus Furgber for sharing this report and also the images of the event shared below;
The seventh meeting of Photobook Club Barcelona took place on Tuesday, 9th of October. This time we moved to Foto Colectania, a private foundation, dedicated to collecting, conserving and exhibiting fine art photography. The collection is specialized in Spanish and Portuguese photographers from the early fifties up to now.
About 30 enthusiastic photobook fans gathered together around the large white table. Jon Uriarte hadn’t given us any theme for this meeting, so everyone was free to introduce one of their favourite photobooks. The selection was great and very interesting. The variety of authors and themes was impressive. One of the highlights was “Lisboa, triste y alegre“, a first edition, presented by Pepe Font de Mora, president of the foundation.
Thanks go to photographer Adele Reed for sharing her thoughts on Paul Graham’s ‘A1: The Great North Road’. If you would like to share your own thoughts on this book, do so in the comments section below or to me via email.
Graham’s portrait of this historically endearing straight-forward British system is poignant in many ways. The moments he captured and brought away from the culture along the road are portrayed in a candid, sympathetic and honest manner, serving tribute to working class Britain, their collective apathy of the eighties, and the despondent neglect the road suffered during these times. Rupert Martin wrote in an essay published as an introduction to the series that Graham illustrated the ‘kind of self-sufficient melancholy’ of the people – who somehow seem downtrodden but proud of their society.
For me it’s a heartfelt and warm testament to the salt of the Earth, the genuine, honest members of our nation who keep the cogs turning, who support the road, and who the road supports back. Cafe interiors crumble into decay but a charm withstands: vibrantly painted walls and garish patterned curtains reflect fashions and a flamboyancy our country should be proud of. I feel a deep affection for our provincial towns whilst viewing the images.
“I have always loved her art and more so since being a mum.
I’m not photographic art critic and my words here are from the heart, only.
In a way I am torn about how I felt watching the film and Sally Mann’s unwavering vision, her dedication and the fact that she is seemingly consumed by photography. I would love the ability to be that focussed and am envious that she has a husband and family that are so supportive of her ‘work’ even though her work or art has always involved them.
I feel for the children, too. When I am consumed with my photography I would love to follow that train of thought or action to completion but I cannot because of family demands. Im not saying that Mann’s actions are selfish but I feel that she is fortunate to have the unerring support of her family. I’m guessing that her work supports them very well and so they appreciate that if she may be at times emotionally unavailable when working they appreciate that what she does pays the bills.
I don’t think that her being so consumed doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her kids. She is an artist and to work efficiently she needs to be in the right head space to work, though at times it is a the expense of family time. I met Trente Parke in 2003 and he was at that time very similar, saying that almost his every thought was of photography and he is an amazingly talented and successful photographer, too. In think it goes with the territory.
I did note that her son spoke about ‘Sally Mann’ not ‘mum’, but what to make of that I cannot answer.
Some people may see as what she has done as exploitative but I don’t. As a mum to a young boy I am fortunate of our close relationship that he allows me in and doesn’t mind being the object of my focus. To me their lives growing up being part of their mother’s vision was amazing. They were willing participants and I love the fact that many of the images they appear naked. Some of their portraits are so direct and raw, something only maybe possible if it’s your mother photographing you.
However, I feel it’s always good to question any portrait and look deeper. Some of the childrens’ looks in their portraits could be deemed as affected. Or was it that they had got to the point after numerous ‘takes’ that they were actually past that point where they were fully consenting. Who knows?
Mann’s images, art and consuming passion for photography make her an icon of our time and we need to thank her family for that, too.”
Thanks to Daniel Milnor who runs the always-worth-a-bookmark blog ‘Smogranch’ over here for offering this personal reflection on Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’. If you would like to add your own reflection, please do so in the comments below or by emailing email@example.com
I have very distinct feelings about this book because I discovered “Immediate Family” in the very early stages of my decision to become a photographer. I was NOT of the “art” mind at the time because the photography that gave me reason to pursue this endeavor was the photography of the Vietnam War. I found Larry Burroughs and felt a way I’d never felt before. I would go through old copies of News Photographer Magazine. I found “Deeds of War” by Nachtwey and again felt a way I’d never felt before. And then I found “Immediate Family,” and once again I felt something I’d never felt before but in a different way.
I’m not sure you can find two more different genres than war photography and what Sally Mann was doing, but I felt like they were both putting out similar emotion. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what to think when I found Sally Mann’s work. It froze me in my tracks. Since that time, all those years ago, I think her work had more of an impact on me than the work of the photographers in the photojournalism world, and I am still doing documentary work today. Years ago i was asked to do a portrait of my neighbor’s kids and I said “no.” The neighbor brought her kids over anyway and for the following seven years I photographed kids full time.
I never tried to copy Sally Mann but I surely had her emotional impact in mind every time I put my camera to my eye. She also made me realize I have a responsibility when it comes to my own family. I’m the guy. I’m the photographer in the family. If I don’t document my family there will simply be no record of them. When you walk in my house, the first picture you see is not an image from my 20+ years of doing documentary work. The first image you see is a 40×40 black and white portrait of my 8-year-old nephew. And on a sidenote….years ago, when I worked for Kodak, my phone rang and the voice on the other side said, “Hi Dan, this is Sally Mann.” Having the kind of friends I do, ones that would try to trick me any chance they had, I ALMOST hung up on her. Turns out it was the “real” Sally Mann. I’ve lived in LA many years, have never been starstruck by anyone but in this case I was almost speechless. In my office I have a portrait of Sally Mann, made by my New Mexico photographer and friend Karen Kuehn. I keep it there as a reminder to never forgot what this pursuit of photography really means. So, in short, if you don’t have this book…..get it.
Here is the fourth and final extraction from an extended piece of writing by Kurt Easterwood of Japan Exposures. Kurt produced a fantasticaly rich deconstruction and analysis of Shore’s‘West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974’ featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and you can find the full PDF underneath the image or right here.
At most, Shore probably spent about 30 minutes standing at the corner of Fifteenth and Vine, framing the scene, adjusting the focus, measuring the light, preparing the ﬁlm holder, and tripping the shutter. We can be fairly certain he did all these things blissfully unaware of Over-the-Rhine’s German immigrant antecedents, trends in outdoor advertising, or pawn shops as economic indicators. Nor is it likely that Shore took the inverted image he found on his camera’s ground glass and ﬂipped it over in his mind, ruminating on what sociological discourse the graphical elements contained within his frame’s borders might conspire to conjure up for future travelers on his tour of uncommon places.
Thus there is a very real possibility that readers will bristle at my deconstruction of this photo, and the introduction of what may seem like incidental history and tangential politics in an attempt to locate the photo within a much broader context than Shore ever intended. Seeing as I’m likely guilty as charged on that count, in my defense let me stipulate that I see the tour I took of “West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974” less as a deconstruction of an image and more a construction of a separate image, akin say to Mark Klett’s rephotography projects. Like the spirit in which those are undertaken, the aim has not been to bring Shore’s original photo kicking and screaming into a context imposed from outside, or to re-align it to ﬁght some rhetorical battle, but to merely have it in hand like a trusty map as I negotiate its spaces nearly 40 years later. It’s my hope that the new topography I have constructed as a result informs the old, much as Shore’s two-dimensional photographs in Uncommon Places built upon and informed their physical counterparts. READ MORE
Here is the third teaser from an extended piece of writing by Kurt Easterwood of Japan Exposures. Kurt has produced a fantastic deconstruction and analysis of Shore’s‘West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974’ featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and you can find the full PDF underneath the image or right here.
In this installation Kurt looks at Shore’s presence in the scene itself….
As our last stop on this exploratory journey, a ﬁnal sightseeing viewpoint as it were, let’s ponder for a moment one more spot at the corner of Vine and Fifteenth, the spot Shore placed his tripod and set up his view camera to capture this scene. Shore’s presence, and the position of his tripod and camera, is referred to, if not exactly reﬂected in Lee Friedlander-like fashion, by the out of focus “Bus Stop: No Standing” sign that could be nowhere else but directly in front of where Shore was standing. We smile at the sign like we do at other occasional ironical signage in Uncommon Places — e.g. “MECCA” (p. 129) or “John F. Kennedy said: “ART IS TRUTH”” (P. 133) — as if Shore were thumbing his nose at the municipal establishment that would deign to tell him where he could or could not stand his tripod.
But telling people where they can or cannot stand in the form of municipal anti-loitering ordinances has long been a tactic used by city governments and police forces to exert undue control over citizens in lower-income areas. Three years before Shore took his photo, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down Cincinnati’s own anti-loitering ordinance as unconstitutional. The ordinance had held that “It shall be unlawful for three or more persons to assemble, except at a public meeting of citizens, on any of the sidewalks, street corners, vacant lots, or mouths of alleys, and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by, or occupants of adjacent buildings.” In a footnote to his opinion, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, “The alleged discriminatory enforcement of this ordinance ﬁgured prominently in the background of the serious civil disturbances that took place in Cincinnati in June 1967,” by which he was referring to race riots in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale that spread over into Over-the-Rhine.
The sign can then be read not just as a joke of Shore’s own making, but as an ironic and not necessarily unintentional questioning of Shore’s right to be there, assembling these elements in a manner annoying to persons passing by, “an alien element impeding the activity on the street.” READ MORE
The second teaser from an extended piece of writing by Kurt Easterwood of the awesome Japan Exposures. Kurt has produced a fantastic deconstruction and analysis of Shore’s ‘West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974′ featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and you can find the full PDF underneath the image or right here.
A huge thank you to Kurt for opening this great piece of writing up to the Photo Book Club community.
Fifteenth and Vine is in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (or OTR) neighborhood, one of the oldest parts of the city. It came to prominence — and indeed acquired its name — from the many German immigrants who worked there in the 1800s and later settled in the area and built many of the homes and buildings that stand to this day. By the turn of the century, Cincinnati, along with cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, was home to one of the largest Germany immigrant communities in the United States. However, while already in a long, slow decline in the ﬁrst half of the 20th century — in particular, its many breweries were hit hard by Prohibition — OTR’s fortunes declined rapidly after World War II as so-called “white ﬂight” began to take hold, with residents moving to outlying suburbs and retail businesses following them shortly thereafter. The deteriorating structures became a source of cheap housing for a successive wave of ﬁrst poor whites from Appalachia and then African Americans displaced from the historically black neighborhood of West End that had been demolished in part by the construction of an expressway — an expressway that if not a literal escape route was at least a ﬁgurative thoroughfare that helped pave the way for whites’ exodus to suburbia.
At the time when Shore took his photograph, the population of OTR was only around 15,000, a signiﬁcant drop from a population of 45,000 in 1900. One-third of these remaining residents were African American. By 1990, less than 10,000 people lived in the area, 71% of them African American. 5 In 2001, Vine Street and the surrounding areas were the scenes of a race riot when an African American teenager was shot and killed by a member of the overwhelmingly white Cincinnati police force. As of this writing, Vine Street and various other places in OTR are part of a massive urban renewal project, and indeed most of the land and buildings in the 1400 block of Vine Street, which comprises much of Shore’s photo, are now owned by a tax-exempt, private, non-proﬁt corporation called The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., or 3CDC, which has renovated or is in the process of renovating the structures for loft apartments or retail spaces. READ MORE
Kurt Easterwood of the awesome Japan Exposures has produced an extended piece of writing on one of Shore’s images featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and as well as finding the full PDF underneath the image or right here, this is the first post also featuring an extraction from the full article, this time an extended introduction to the full article.
A huge thank you to Kurt for opening this great piece of writing up to the Photo Book Club community.
I would like to explore Uncommon Places: The Complete Works by looking at a single photo, a photo that like all the photos of Uncommon Places can only be referred to by its caption, “West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974”, which appears on page 43. This photo was not included in the original publication, and while it would certainly be a useful exercise to discuss why not, I would rather take Shore’s inclusion of the photo in the revised edition to mean that for him the photograph is an important part of the complete work.
It is tempting to be self-deprecating on the photograph’s behalf and acknowledge that it’s true there is nothing particularly compelling about this photo that would cause it to stand out in relation to the other photographs in the book, but saying that would imply that Uncommon Places: The Complete Works contains stand-out photographs. It does not, which is precisely why it is such a wonderful book to look at. The power of Uncommon Places is not the sort where each turn of the page knocks us back into a sublime revelry. Its power rather results from an accumulation of what Gerry Badger has called “quiet” photographs 3, and it is this quiet tone that allows us, if we are so willing, to journey along with Shore, and occasionally to step off and linger a bit at stops along the way, to explore further.
Several years ago when I got my copy of Uncommon Places: The Complete Works, this ordinary, dare I say nondescript, photograph taken in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1974 caused me to dwell and ponder a bit longer than the others. For personal reasons (I had a suspicion I had once been on this section of Vine street during a visit to Cincinnati in 1987), and for graphic, visual reasons (there was something in the denseness of the signage on the left side of the photo, and a single, dominant sign on the right side that visually appealed to me), I felt compelled to explore the photo further. What follows is an account of this one stop on Shore’s larger journey — my journey within a journey, we could say — and what I found at West Fifteenth and Vine in Cincinnati. READ MORE
Super excited for this ‘mini-series’ which will be posted over the last week of our Stephen Shore month. Kurt Easterwood of the awesome Japan Exposures has produced an extended piece of writing on one of Shore’s images featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and as well as finding the full PDF at the bottom of the post or right here, there will be 4 posts coming up with little sneak peaks.
A huge thank you to Kurt for opening this great piece of writing up to the Photo Book Club community.
“A few years ago when I got Stephen Shore’s revised Uncommon Places book, I couldn’t get over how familiar the places looked to me, though surely most of the towns and places he shot I’ve never been to. But one image was more familiar than any other — a street scene from Cincinnati. “I’ve been here!”, I remember exclaiming to myself, and I started to take notes about the image. Now five years later, I’ve used Shore’s photo (and my notes) to visit that photo, that place, one more time.”
Thanks to Simen Edvardsen who runs the blog ‘Enthusiasms’ here for this post comparing and relating Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ with the moods and thought’s of Jack Kerouac in ‘On the Road’. This is a fantastically rich article which I hope will be enjoyed in it’s entirety.
(And if you still have not seen Uncommon Places, the video is found at the bottom of this post)
On the Road is the fictionalized account of a number of road trips Jack Kerouac took across America together with his friend Neal Cassady and an assorted menagerie of other characters in the late 1940s; Uncommon Places is the photographic account of a number of road trips Stephen Shore took, chiefly alone, through the 1970s, armed with an 8×10 camera and color film. I promised earlier that if I could get over myself, I would describe these two together, as I think they are in many ways similar and in some other ways dissimilar, but in almost every way illuminating in light of each other. Well, I got over myself and besides, I only finished reading On the Road recently, so here are some thoughts.
On the surface, the one thing that ties these together is the road, but I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, they both take a particular interest in the unparticular, the mundane, the scenes that we pass through every day without consciously registering them. On the Road is written in a streaming way that is by turns impressionistic and quite frankly incoherent, with little to no meaning but with a certain poetic beauty, and an almost photographic depiction of the little things, which we can see as the literary analogue of the super-detailed scenes of everyday life in Anywhere, USA that Shore would later depict with his large format 8×10 camera. The characters, and especially Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, have an exaggerated but sincere fascination with everything, large and small, significant and insignificant. Kerouac was inspired by and tried to incorporate the free-flowing and vividly detailed letters Cassady wrote to him and to other of his friends — his wife described him as having a photographic memory — and this kind of raw curiosity and visual sponging-up of every detail is both analogous to the mega-negatives that Shore later exposed to the everyday world he passed through and captivating to read (for me, anyway). Here’s a wonderful little passage from Part Four of On the Road, which describes a trip from Denver to Mexico City — it’s an exalted overfascinated curious little monologue by Dean:
Oh! This is too great to be true. Gurls, gurls. And particularly right now in my stage and condition, Sal, I am digging the interiors of these homes as we pass them — these gone doorways and you look inside and see beds of straw and little brown kids sleeping and stirring to wake, their thoughts congealing from the empty mind of sleep, their selves rising, and the mothers cooking up breakfast in iron pots, and dig them shutters they have for windows and the old men, the old men are so cool and grand not bothered by anything. There’s no suspicion here, nothing like that. Everybody’s cool, everybody looks at you with such straight brown eyes and they don’t say anything, just look, and in that look all the human qualities are soft and subdued and still there. Dig all the foolish stories you read about Mexico and the sleeping gringo and all that crap — and crap about greasers and so on — and all it is, people here are straight and kind and don’t put down any bull. I’m so amazed by this.
All this from passing a few houses on the road. Stephen Shore, decades later, found that he didn’t need to focus on anything in particular, because his film was so huge and slow that it preserved approximately every detail you could ever desire and still had room for cramming in a piece of bacon should you so desire, so instead of putting one thing or another in center his images are for the most part in focus front to back and there are these little wonderful details that you don’t notice because no one forces you to stop and look at the everyday (dare I say, the daily meh), but Shore captures them and shows them to you, if you wish to look. On a second or third look, or even a fifth or fifteenth, you can still find details you didn’t notice on any of the previous viewings. I don’t know about you, but I can’t but admire the fascination and sincere interest in ordinary stuff — I’m too much of a sucker for the extraordinary and special which we can’t have every day anyway, and if I could only learn to enjoy the simple stuff and take in the world in the way one does when visiting a truly foreign country for the first time, life would be so much more interesting and exciting. Babies have this ability and I wish I had kept it, and admire those who do.
So, there’s all this detail, and Shore lets it sit there waiting to be discovered, instead of putting it left, front, center, in the rule-of-thirds-prescribed position, or anywhere else where you might expect it. Instead, he looks at lines and perspectives and puts on these displays of composition — not just a buzzword used as a placeholder for “I like your pic” on Flickr, see — that are nigh unparalelled in photography. I think if you took a bunch of transparencies, put them over Shore’s pictures and drew out the lines and stuff, you would have yourself a textbook in composition. Stephen Shore’s uncommon pictures of common places are real marvels of lines, really formal but nice. And there, my pairing of these two books starts straining and feeling forced.
I mean, both Shore and Kerouac are on the road, and both document it in their chosen medium, and both photobook and novel eventually became landmarks in their respective traditions, both capturing the zeitgeist and signaling, legitimizing a form of expression (art photography in color and the beat, “spontaneous prose” and then-vulgar lives of the Beats, respectively). Both are concerned in some way with the ordinary. But really. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (especially the latter) are amoral adventurers who experiment with drugs, sex, breaking the law, peeking over the edge of life down to death, testing the limits of friendship, alternatively doing dirty jobs and living off momma’s grace to sustain themselves, digging the world, and generally being genuinely counterculture. They are obscure and searching. Stephen Shore, both the man and his photographic persona, seem quaint in comparison. He’s two decades too young to be a Beat, and according to interviews he once dressed up as a jungle explorer of the 1800s for the task of driving around the fucking country in a car, abiding the law, risking nothing, and taking pictures. His edginess consists of his choice of film (color) and something that would be called guerilla art today: distributing postcards he’d made of Amarillo, Texas (with nothing vulgar or interesting on them, in fact they looked like ordinary postcards) at store stands. His days as one of the cool kids are over when he turns to the road. Besides, he’s already famous, as famous as an art photographer gets, anyway.
That’s one of the important differences between Shore and Kerouac on the road, besides the obvious. Jack Kerouac was an obscure writer until he woke up the morning after he late at night had bought the freshly printed NY Times from an all-night newsstand and read its glowing review of On the Road — or so the legendarium that is the critical introduction to my copy of the book has it. Stephen Shore’s minibio up until his road trips, in contrast, looks like this: first photo kit at 6; calls up Edward Steichen, curator at MoMA, and sells three of his photos at 14; hangs around Andy Warhol’s Factory, taking pictures and getting to know Andy, from 17 and on; second living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 24; experiences the greater America outside NY for the first time on a road trip around the same time. He was a successful artist and a naive youth when he set out while Kerouac was unknown, struggling, almost as naive but probably more world-weary when he hit the road. In common, they had a search for something, anything, whatever: meaning, or another of the eternals that we humans seek and seek and have sought since the dawn of time.
Of course, my slamming of Shore is only my youthful love of rebellion, otherness, edginess, which On the Road has in spades (though it’s no longer shocking, because, well, we’re used to that kind of stuff now) — even as I acknowledge that going the other way just for the sake of going the other way is stupid, that going the opposite way of the herd is no better than mindlessly going along with it. Shore’s project is by far the most mature, but also, I suppose, less fun. Both the view camera with its hyperdetailed images and the kaleidoscopic by turns hyper-aware and impressionistic, unconscious looking at the world that happens in On the Road are examples of what Shore calls “a heightened awareness of the world.” Shore is meticulous, both because he wants to be and because his large, slow camera forces him to be; Dean Moriarty is as fascinated by the world as Shore but he has the attention span of a goldfish and rather than slowly setting out to capture everything he almost accidentally inhales it. The characters in On the Road sound like they’re high (which they often are) even when they’re not. If Shore’s hyperawareness is achieved by the equivalent of meditating calmly in a cave for a decade, Dean and Sal’s is like ODing on life. No wonder Stephen Shore is still alive and will probably live to be both seventy and eighty (random unknowns notwithstanding) while both Kerouac and Cassady, the models of the characters in On the Road, died relatively young.
I’ve mentioned hyperawareness several times now, and it’s undeniable that the technical equipment has a large part in achieving this for Shore, while Kerouac’s and Cassady’s hardly can be attributed to their typewriters. View cameras are large, tripod-operated, slow, and they produce enormous negatives/slides (I was amazed when I realized the pictures in Uncommon Places the book are just a tad larger than the film that was exposed to produce them). The fact that a tool had something to do with it sort of destroys my neat as hell ten-years-of-meditation metaphor, but it’s true. Interestingly, Shore mentions in one interview — sorry, I didn’t keep notes while researching this post, so I don’t have a link — that he was actually more anonymous and drew less attention with his view camera than with his previous small 35mms. What was a spontaneous process in the precursor to Uncommon Places, the photographic diary Shore kept on one of his first road trips (in 1972) and which was exhibited to unglowing reviews as American Surfaces (guess what subject matter he chose), where he photographed everything casually with a small camera, became an involved process in Uncommon Places. He photographed his pancake breakfast early on, and where previously he would have reached for the camera, snapped a pic and then eaten, all while sitting, he now had to put his tripod-mounted camera on a chair, set it all up, focus via ground glass and everything, and when the picture was finished his pancakes were long cold.
On the other hand his newfound anonymity-by-hiding-in-plain-sight allowed him to photograph streets without having anyone complain or act up; the long-haired kid lurking around with a not always obvious camera that he was in American Surfaces wasn’t always welcomed. But then again Uncommon Places has few people in its pages, even in the Complete Works edition I have that contains some 100 pictures previously cut to keep the price down, including some more portraits and interiors. What is more important is that it forced him to or facilitated his looking at patterns, at lines, at corners and shapes, at the picture as a two-dimensional thing, and it resulted in his virtuoso performance as a photographic composer. Everything’s almost always placed so that there’s an underlying order. Poles and cables are everywhere, perspectives recede into the sharp background and your eyes are led into the picture as you switch between looking at the shapes and colors on the one hand and the 3D scene they represent on the other. All the while Shore doesn’t actually touch the scene. He can’t: his scenes are buildings, other people’s shops or homes, the urban landscape, stuff too heavy to move or choreograph other than by moving the frame, and he has only natural light to illuminate the stuff.
The details and the composition is illustrated well by the picture of Merced River, above. In recent years Shore has been making a series of small-run photobooks with iPhoto, and one of them consists solely of crops from Merced River. While this might have been a cheap gimmick from just about anyone, from Shore it works. At least the web-size pics I’ve seen of it. The technical quality is, of course, up to par, as you’d expect from the equipment. But there are so many details and patterns in this picture that, particularly when looked at up close, or as in Shore’s little book in crops, they stand up as individual pictures.
Uncommon Places is the only photobook I own. I love the photos in it. I can praise their subject matter, their exposure and composition and light and tonalities. But what appeals to me about both Uncommon Places and On the Road, as a young person and as someone who often feels like an outsider, not an interesting outsider with a backstory and a sidekick but simply one on the outside looking in on life, is the search and the guts. Out on the road, experience things, genuinely, without scarequotes around the experiences to protect from the criticism that inevitably comes from expressing a real, honest feeling about anything, and above all, live while you’re alive and worry about death while you’re dead (which is to say not at all) — that attitude is so full of life and so much of what many aspire to be, it’s pathetic, romanticizing and awesome. And here the pairing of these two books again falters, because when Shore talks about his project he talks about solving aesthetic problems, while Kerouac says things like:
… I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’
While Stephen Shore also occasionally mentions that before the set out to do American Surfaces, he hadn’t seen much of the world outside New York and he wanted to rectify that, often he talks more about aesthetics and whatnot, maybe because his project has nothing to do with that search for meaning, purpose, a life that we find in On the Road, or maybe — and this is what I prefer, since I want him to be an actual adventurer and I want him to be someone I can identify with, even as I consider that this might be simply wishful thinking — or maybe he’s simply older and slightly embarrassed about the illusions of the road he had when he set out. In one interview he says he didn’t set out to copy Jack Kerouac or Robert Frank (another photographer who produced a seminal work documenting America, called The Americans, published around the same time as On the Road and with an introduction by Kerouac). He says that who he was really emulating was “a young painter who picks Jack up outside Cheyenne and takes him to Denver”, but “with a camera instead of a paintbrush.” That young painter did not make an impression, to say the least. I can’t even remember him, and I just read the book. So maybe his project isn’t that exciting in the meaning-of-life-searching way.
One last thing. Both books have a sad undercurrent. There’s one picture of Shore in Uncommon Places, not counting one where only his feet are visible, and it’s a self portrait taken in his apartment in New York. In it, he’s staring emptily (if not angrily) into the camera (detail from that picture). The picture doesn’t fit in with the rest at all and yet strangely does, since it exemplifies the man behind the project, and maybe a little bit of his soul. Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac, too, is a sad person. He is extremely extraverted compared to everyone I know, yet also sad and introspective (something I can more readily recognize in myself), and he has illusions of or hopes for the road that turn out to be nothing but disappointments. He is looking for something, for anything to make his life great, he’s having fun but also can’t shake the feeling that he’s been cheated out of whatever vague glob of happiness the dream promised him, and in the end, a lot is experienced (and isn’t the journey the point?) but nothing is accomplished. After his trips, Kerouac continued to seek meaning while he was struggling to write his road novel and get it published. When it finally was published, he couldn’t handle it, and his last years of life weren’t exactly characterized by the cheerful joy and hyperawareness of the best and most optimistic passages of On the Road.
In the end, we don’t know anything (except, per Socrates, the preceding fact) and especially so when we’re young. We seek but we don’t find. In fact I think the answer may be not to play the game: excessive introspection and meaning-seeking, while not exclusive to introverted and intellectual wannabes, always stands in the way of happiness. Happy people never look like the aforementioned intellectuals with big thoughts and huge doubts. Throwing yourself on the road and trying to live in the now is certainly one way to combat this, but whether or not it’s a success is a different question altogether.