Kunstler, Venturi and Stephen Shore

The subjects of Shore’s images in ‘Uncommon Places’ could well illustrate architect Robert Venturi’s seminal ‘Learning From Las Vegas‘ as they represent Venturi’s comments on the highway-dictated landscape to a tee.


Below I have pulled a few quotes from ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘ as well as James Howard Kunstler’s ‘The Geography of Nowhere‘ (more concerned with urban sprawl than PoMo architecture). I think these quotes really highlight the importance of Shore’s work in elevating and evaluating the everyday and ordinary in America.

(Of interest – Venturi wrote a few words on Uncommon Places which are featured on the back cover)

– Matt

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

“Acting as symbols, the signs and building identify the space by their location and direction, and space is further defined and directed by utility poles and street parking patterns.”
– Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown/Steven Izenour

“Ever-busy, ever-building, ever-in-motion, ever-throwing-out the old for the new, we have hardly paused to think about what we are so busy building, and what we have thrown away.”
– James Howard Kunstler

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

 “On the commercial strip the supermarket windows contain no merchandise. There may be signs announcing the day’s bargains, but they are to be read by pedestrians approaching from the parking lot.”
– Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown/Steven Izenour

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

“Americans are doing almost nothing to prepare for the end of the romantic dream that was the automobile age.”
– James Howard Kunstler

“The freedom to get up and move is a premise of the national experience. It is the physical expression of the freedom to move upward socially, absent in other societies. The automobile allowed this expression to be carried to absurd extremes.”
– James Howard Kunstler

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

“Service stations, motels and other simpler types of buildings conform in general to this system of inflection toward the highway through the position and form of their elements. Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned towards the front and no one sees the back.”
– Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown/Steven Izenour

 

Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ and Geography

Perhaps this is a little geeky, but I hear that geek is the new black so I shall proceed…
I was keen to look at the locations of the original images in the 1982 publication as I had been noticing so many Texas, Florida and California locations that I wondered how the spread of images fell across a map. I plotted all locations from the original map into a google map which is placed below.


View Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ in a larger map

You can see from the spread just how many States are left unrepresented by Shore’s democratic camera. And while I am not suggesting each State and town should be represented equally, I find it interesting that so much of middle America was ignored in the original.

The Bay Theater

For those counting, the States with the most images are:
Texas…7
Florida…6
California…4

– Matt

An Interview with Chris and Jack

In preparation for this month looking at Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’, I revisited the 2009 Steidl publication ‘New Topographics‘ (a great representation of the 1975 exhibition, or as much as I can imagine without having been there). Just after the director’s preface is a great little interview with two viewers at the exhibition; A man (Jack) and his wife or girlfriend (Chris).

Jack’s comments sort of some up my own feelings on the work featured in the exhibition, and in particular of Shore’s images, it’s also a lovely little interview with great characters itself and so I hope you enjoy it here:

– Matt

CHRIS: I just don’t like this at all; [I prefer] people, pictures, something that tells a story. Route 66, big deal, it doesn’t mean anything.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the photographer had any intent?

CHRIS: He must have, for a layout like this. He couldn’t have been doing this for his enjoyment, because they are very dull pictures in my opinion. Jack, what do you think?

JACK: They mean something to me because I’ve never seen them before. I think he’s trying to get at…I’m still working on it…

INTERVIEWER: Do you think these pictures really capture the feeling of the places?

JACK: They really do, very much so. At first they’re really stark nothing, but then you really look at it and it’s just about the way things are. This is interesting, it really is.

CHRIS: Look at this picture. I just…why? What is he trying to show?

JACK: You said there are no people here, but there are people, all over the place. Everywhere you look there’s people.

CHRIS: Okay, you look at this you can imagine somebody checking out of the hotel, but it’s gone, there’s nothing for you to identify with except, what, dirty sheets? I don’t like it. I’m sorry! I don’t care for that kind of…Are you a photography student? What kind do you prefer?

INTERVIEWER: Do you think there’s any difference between the [photographers] in the show and what they were doing? Do you like anyone better than the others?

CHRIS: I really can’t comment because we’ve only been in just this one area [Shore, Schott], looking at just these, so I can’t say as to what I prefer.

JACK: I found my truck. I can’t believe it, it’s my truck, right there.

INTERVIEWER: Robert Adams, got your truck.

JACK: Just interesting. You know I think there’s a lot of people, I really do, there’s people, it’s a way of life. It’s how it is. It’s interesting.

CHRIS: I don’t like them. They’re dull and flat. There’s no people, no involvement, nothing. Why do you like them?

JACK: Because I’ve been there. This is what people have done. [The pictures are saying] ‘This is it, kid—take it for its beauty and its ugliness.’

CHRIS: I don’t like to think that there are ugly streets in America…but when it’s shown to you, without beautification, maybe it tells you how much more we need here. What do you think, Jack?

JACK: Try not to, it hurts.

CHRIS: You’re the one who enjoyed them.

JACK: I enjoy everything.

Havn’t seen ‘Uncommon Places’ yet? Have a look…

Simen Edvardsen: Uncommon Places, On The Road

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)
– Matt

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.

Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975

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.

Presidio, Tex., Feb. 21, 1975

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.

Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, Aug. 10, 1973

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.

Ginger Shore, Causeway Inn, Tampa, Fla., Nov. 17, 1977

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.

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979

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.

Cedar Springs Road, Dallas, Texas, June 5, 1976

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.

– Simen Edvardsen

Synopsis: Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’

Before writing this synopsis and heading into the month long look at Shore’s book, I should point out that there are two books called ‘Uncommon Places’ by Shore, although to give the second it’s full title ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’.
The original 1982 publication would set you back between £6-900 for a book in good nick and so there will be no book-bias here. Whichever copy you have, we would love to hear your thoughts.
– Myself, I will be looking at a copy of ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’ and occasionally the original from my local library

Title
Uncommon Places/Uncommon Places, The Complete Works

Author
Stephen Shore

Publisher
Aperture 1982/Aperture 2004

From the publisher:

Published by Aperture in 1982 and long unavailable, Stephen Shore’s legendary Uncommon Places has influenced a generation of photographers. Among the first artists to take color beyond advertising and fashion photography, Shore’s large-format color work on the American vernacular landscape stands at the root of what has become a vital photographic tradition. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works presents a definitive collection of the original series, much of it never before published or exhibited.

Like Robert Frank and Walker Evans before him, Shore discovered a hitherto unarticulated version of America via highway and camera. Approaching his subjects with cool objectivity, Shore’s images retain precise internal systems of gestures in composition and light through which the objects before his lens assume both an archetypal aura and an ambiguously personal importance. In contrast to Shore’s signature landscapes with which “Uncommon Places” is often associated, this expanded survey reveals equally remarkable collections of interiors and portraits.

As a new generation of artists expands on the projects of the New Topographic and New Color photographers of the seventies—Thomas Struth (whose first book was titled Unconscious Places), Andreas Gursky, and Catherine Opie among them—Uncommon Places: The Complete Works provides a timely opportunity to reexamine the diverse implications of Shore’s project and offers a fundamental primer for the last thirty years of large-format color photography.

At age twelve, Stephen Shore’s work was purchased by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. At twenty-four, he became the first living photographer to have a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Other one-man show venues include the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts Grants and a Guggenheim Foundation Grant, and has been the Chair of Bard College’s photography department in upstate N.Y. since 1982.

 

John Edwin Mason on ‘Coke and Controversy’

The following is John Edwin Mason’s response to the post ‘Controversy: Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

I’m generally sympathetic to Brent Staple’s critique of “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue” (now, as I was in 1994). He’s right to insist that the book can’t be properly evaluated without situating it within a society and culture that has been shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by racist ideologies and practices. It does seem to me, however, that the general thrust of his argument misses the most essential point.

Yes, it’s a problem that the faces in the book are overwhelmingly black and brown, although the cocaine problem — contra Richard’s self-defense — wasn’t confined to African-American and Latino communities. Drug use by whites may have been hidden — harder to see and to photograph because of the defenses that social class and racial privilege can erect — but it was a major element in the crisis of the mid-90s. Richards (and the writer Edward Barnes, with whom he worked) certainly should have foregrounded this fact. Not to do so was to reinforce ever-prevalent racist stereotypes about who uses illegal drugs and who doesn’t.

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Staples alludes to, but does not develop, a much more important critique when he says that “Photographs can shock and dismay, but are useless to explain such complicated matters as economic decline [which underpinned the demand for drugs].” This is the heart of the matter.

Photographs, as every theorist and most photographers will tell you, are very good at showing us how things look, but very bad at explaining why they look that way. Documentary work, however, must be as much about the “why” as the “how.” Pretty pictures, scorching pictures, gut-wrenching pictures aren’t enough. Context and analysis are just as important. And this is where Richards fails utterly. Or, perhaps, “fails” is the wrong word. He doesn’t even try.

I’m tempted to say that it was rashly irresponsible for Richards to have published the book without attempting to explain the crisis he captured in his images. This was not, after all, an exercise in fine art photography. It’s documentary, and its purpose is to help us to understand the world in which we live.

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Instead, I fear, many readers came (and come) away knowing less about the drug crisis, rather than more. In the absence of analysis and explanation from Richards, many people would have fallen back on ideas already circulating in the culture. A great many — not all — of those notions would have been deeply racist.

It’s not so much that Richards’ images are decontextualized, it’s that their context would too often have been America’s reflexively racist culture, rather than its history and political-economy. As a result, the photos reinforce, rather than undermine, stereotypes of black and Latino depravity and criminality.

– John Edwin Mason

Controversy: ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

It is fair to say that upon it’s release, Eugene Richards’ ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ had a mixed reception from both the public and critics. Richards’ depiction of a predominantly black, poor, deprived community was seen by some to ignore the bigger issue of drug use in 90’s America, which was not exclusive to any class, or race.

Those who argued that Richards’ portrayal was biased, and that he was using sensationalism to sell photojournalism cited Richards’ use of cocaine as well as the fact that he had reportedly provided one subject with clean syringes as reason to doubt the validity of the images.

The arguments of bias, drug use and sensationalism in ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ are best represented in two NY Times articles, along with both a letter from Richards to the article author, and one in reply to Richards.

Links to these articles and letters can be seen below, along with select quotes from each piece of text

– Matt Johnston

Coke Wars
The original article from the New York Times, By Brent Staples
Published: February 06, 1994

‘Like most of his kind, Mr. Richards is a voyeur, obsessed with the grisly. He is a master of the brutal image, though his is a cold, distant brutality that whispers instead of shouting.’

‘Take note of the needle; it could well be one of those that Mr. Richards says he bought Mariella because the ones she owned were too dull for proper use. Note also that Mr. Richards smoked his share of crack to get a feel for the subject.’

‘Reading and looking, I couldn’t help wonder: why are nearly all of the people in these photographs black? The vast majority of drug addicts in America are white. This could be said of any phenomenon in the United States, of course, but why is the white aspect of drug addiction so consistently invisible?’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Richards to Staples – Letter to editor
Eugene Richards responds to Staples original article, addressing his use of cocaine, the clean syringes and his choice of subjects to document


‘Brent Staples’s review of “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue” (Feb. 6), my book on hard-core drug addiction, is a continuation of the ancient tradition of trying to kill the bearer of bad news. Mr. Staples’s weapon of choice here is the charge of bias.’

‘when I had completed my photographs, I delivered disposable syringes from a diabetic friend to Mariella. I did so after witnessing her jamming a bent needle first into her arm, then her neck. I knew that this woman I cared for would soon be using the syringes of others in that AIDS-plagued neighborhood.’

‘I did indeed reveal to Richard B. Woodward, the author of that article, that I had tried crack back in 1986, long before working on “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue,” but never again.’

‘Look, “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue” is quite obviously not a treatise on all drugs and drug users in America. It is not about a monthly snort of coke or casual marijuana use. From cover picture and title to the final paragraph, it is concerned with family- and neighborhood-destroying, racism-engendering, hard-core cocaine addiction.’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Staples to Richards
At the end of Eugene Richards letter to Staples, you can find Staples’ response

‘I share Mr. Richards’ horror at the drug-related carnage in our streets. But he misstates the case when he says I accused him of “bias.” My review contained no such accusation; I worked especially hard to avoid that.’

‘I regret causing Eugene Richards the anguish and ill feeling represented in his letter. I respect his photographic eye and his considerable skills as a journalist. As my review said: “His works cannot be called picture books. He arranges his images to make what amount to visual novels, which he augments with pungent stretches of reflection, dialogue or description.”’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Review/Photography; ‘Cocaine True’: Art or Sensationalism? By Charles Hagen
Published: March 11, 1994

‘Mr. Richards presents his powerful study with the impassioned anger of a biblical prophet. Many of his pictures seem intended to shock his audience out of any complacency it may feel about the scope or severity of the drug plague.’

‘But the real problem with Mr. Richards’s project is not the story it tells, but the ones it doesn’t tell. The pictures fit within the traditional functions of photojournalism, in which photographers, as surrogates for a middle-class audience, look at the problems of the poor.’

‘That may be too much to ask from any group of photographs. And despite the project’s limited scope, Mr. Richards’s pictures throw a harsh light on a world that is usually hidden from public view and give voices and faces to some people trapped there.’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

The arguments raised by these articles is just as prevalent with the role photojournalism plays in today’s fast paced, seen-it-all-before media audience. If you have anything to add to this discussion of Richards work, or the modern equivalents, drop us an email or leave a comment below.


– Matt Johnston