“The Transparencies book published by MACK is also significant in its design, the essay within and sequence of the work, which is chapterized by annual progressions through the 70’s American dream in banal (good word, word of goodness) detail”
It is not often that a re-examination of the periphery of a significant body of an artist’s work lends to completely re-addressing his or her greatness. Often, the books that re-examine or that are re-published of a noted body of work with outtakes and new, if small variations are doomed to the dustbin of secondary footnoting-the imagined purpose of which is perhaps an undeclared economic venture or an improperly handled re-shuffling due to an out of print status by a no longer functioning publishing house of the past. A number of significant photography book re-issues from the past have undertaken a change of form and have been offered in new formats that in some ways exceed the originals, but break with their tradition leaving questions unanswered to why one would change the formula of something cemented in the historiography of the medium.
What challenges the existing greatness of a noted body of work re-published or re-examined in the margins of its epochal value is nuance. Nuance can change the framing of how we view the periphery of an artistic creation and its management. It gives way to alternate appreciations and readings of significance and provides the audience with a re-dressing of the artist. It questions how he or she created something bigger or more cohesive than previously thought with the celebrated publication that had been acknowledged previously as stand alone and great. Nuance in re-examination challenges the very idea that the previously exulted body of work of note is pinched from the ether and given grace by audience observation for its singular greatness. The idea of said project and how the artist’s drive manufactured its greatness are almost always imagined as being book-ended, forthright and clearly intentioned as opposed to an aggregate summation of parts that were instead co-opted to produce something less specific.
In the case of Stephen Shore’s Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 (MACK, 2020), the re-envisioning of significance is declared in the images themselves-offshoots and previously uncollected notes from around the periphery years of American Surfaces. The Transparencies book published by MACK is uniquely significant in its design, the essay within and sequence of the work, which is chapterized by annual progressions through the 70’s American (mostly) dream in banal (good word, word of goodness) detail. These chapters purposefully ignore the years 1972 and 1973 when Shore was making what would become American Surfaces. That book was first published in 1999 and has had several additional iterations, each slightly different and each slightly less interesting for it. American Surfaces is an interesting and cautionary tale about how re-publishing can sometimes take away from the potent form of the original. It is important to note this for several reasons in relation to the book format.
I wish to examine Transparencies by comparative analysis. It is important to consider the design, essay and general book object in detail as American Surfaces has also been re-published this year by Phaidon with an added amount of unseen images (40) and a new essay by Artist/Writer Teju Cole. The noted essayist describes the American atmosphere of the 70s, builds some backstory to the editions of American Surfaces and describes his personal relationship to Shore, which is illuminating, but at one quarter of the essay adds little to the importance of the work itself other than a historiographical interlude in Shore and Cole’s own careers that has already (in Shore’s case) been previously outlined.
This is not to suggest that Cole is not one of the more gifted writers on photography at present, which he is. However, in the American Surfaces text, I find myself more bemused with anecdote than I do with deriving information about the legacy of Shore. This necessitates an opaque dis-invite to re-evaluating the importance of the book’s re-printing and its significance in adding images and text outside of the original edition from 1999 and later Phaidon editions. The significance of Cole’s essay relies on me knowing of Cole’s significance, which can frankly create a draw away from Shore’s work. This is how Cole writes and I understand the point of view and I understand the methodology that he customs his writing to. I am just not confident that it adds to American Surfaces, which itself has a looming and gigantic legacy. Is Cole writing on that legacy or writing himself into that legacy? Is it appropriate?
“The significance of Cole’s essay relies on me knowing of Cole’s significance, which can frankly create a draw away from Shore’s work… Is Cole writing on that legacy or writing himself into that legacy?
The reason that I am starting with the essays in each book is that they are different in style and importance and offer vast differences when exploring why a book like Transparencies leads to a greater examination of Shore’s legacy. Britt Salvesen’s historically conscious and dynamic essay explores the layers of Shore’s work and the semantic use of American “vernacular” and the cult of myth that surrounds such a term. She then applies it to the work. She examines what Shore photographs in terms of architecture and where his historical antecedents lie within the tradition of the never-evaporating ghosts of Walker Evans and John Szarkowski-the giants of Twentieth Century American photography. This methodical and precise form of essay is what is needed to examine the troubling terms of what the “vernacular” image means and represents, which both books are full of. Salvesen takes time to elaborate the concept through historical underpinnings and applies it to Shore’s work thus giving greater insight into the genre of image-making that Shore is in part responsible for.
Salvesen also brings into focus how Shore’s work in Uncommon Places exemplifies the discussion between how Shore envisioned the American Landscape and how the difference between formats of camera re-organized the vernacular aesthetic in minute detail and how we as an audience perceive his camera work and how the choice of 35mm Leica manages to link the dialogue of the vernacular to Shore’s interest in photographing in the manner of how people speak, thus creating something more akin to an oral tradition in images of 70s America. To be fair, you can see this in American Surfaces as well in a number of images that seem to describe something as perfunctory as photographs of Shore’s breakfast and the haunting (if I’m #niceaboutit) interior spaces of the refrigerator from where the foodstuff had been sprung for the pan.
Further, as in Transparencies, we see descriptive elements of cities such of Los Angles and Las Vegas shrouded in signage, some hand-applied and ephemeral and some with all the glory and glitz of the Golden Nugget within American Surfaces. This is also how the vernacular tradition is built between the “language” Shore wishes to employ and the American architectural elements that speak more broadly of the vernacular semantic use creating a clear path to Evans in particular. Salvesen is able to tie these functions together seamlessly while also addressing the historical footnoting of Shore’s postcard Polk Street, 1971 etc. This postcard tradition was evident in Evan’s work and its function as the building of the quotidian aesthetic of the vernacular tradition is important to address in Shore’s work as well.
“To be fair, you can see this in American Surfaces as well in a number of images that seem to describe something as perfunctory as photographs of Shore’s breakfast and the haunting (if I’m #niceaboutit) interior spaces of the refrigerator from where the foodstuff had been sprung for the pan”
Further, Salvesen’s essay exceeds in dissecting how we calibrate the medium of photography after Shore’s work. Another example of this is illustrated by her references to studies of Shore’s 35mm and large format pictures of Miami, Florida from July 28th, 1975. Salvesen details the difference in seeing through the camera’s respective individual optics, but also emphasizes the reason for these technical choices by giving the audience significant insight into Shore, his eye and how we are to assume the details of medium-specific technical functionality to the photographic output itself. This is another example of where the essays differ greatly and Transparencies functions in a more critical and historical, if less poetic state for this. I understand Cole’s need to make grand eloquent gestures when writing a new essay for a book like American Surfaces, but Salvesen’s essay is the one that actually illuminates and builds into Shore’s legacy thus making the publishing of Transparencies something more unique and fresh and additive to Shore’s career. Salvesen’s essay also makes specific reference to Shore’s lasting importance.
In terms of design, the two books are completely different. With Transparencies, designed by the inimitable Morgan Crowcroft-Brown (MACK) you have nothing less than pure opulence. The size, baroque lavender endpapers and format, though they exceed what we think of when we think of snapshots and vernacular imagery, best exemplifies the focus on Shore’s eye and the details within. Though “blown-up” after a brilliant introduction series of images reproduced at the “correct” photographic size, the decision has been made to elaborate on the nuances found within Shore’s images of architectural detail and their vernacular examples-think of the up-sizing as something more aloud to a pitched or raised voice than a whisper, which does change some of the point of the utilitarianism of 35mm drugstore processing and slide film, but does so with the foreknowledge that we are aware of American Surfaces already and thus offers, like the views of Sicily in Transparencies a new and consistent way of re-examining Shore and his eye through the production of something slightly larger. This function of course makes the book singular in its emphasis becoming a true monograph in its own right.
Transparencies by way of design, is uncluttered and elegant and retains the important function of serving as a stand-alone object within the career of Shore. The level of small details from the line drawn at the page numeration to the carefully constructed front cover photograph elaborate the condition of Shore’s images and gives the reading of his work an extra level of sophistication and nuance not found in American Surfaces (2020). That particular new publication is complete design chaos. Perhaps it is necessary, but I can’t find a reason for the extra images within the 2020 version other than the re-packaging of a slightly different version to appeal to the people who bough the 1999 version etc. American Surfaces by proxy of its counterpart found within Transparencies borders on the crude and unimaginative. The front cover being the most alarming design difference and the general stock and thickness from the extra pages making the overall object looking more like am early 2000’s photographically-illustrated BBQ cookbook left in a South Dakota Air BNB. I am possibly being a bit mean here, but I am not being incorrect in my assertion. Afterall, the power of Shore compels its necessity as “ok”, but…
With Transparencies what I have persuaded myself to focus on are differences for the pure and simple reason that they are not the same book and that in suggesting a co-ordinated reading of the two publications, we can look for answers that surround Shore’s legacy outside of his arguably most known body of work. The differences are vast in terms of production, which I have already outlined. The chronology between the two books clearly holds them together to be discussed as well as the year of publication.
In terms of the photographs themselves and their selection, further differences can be seen in the reduction of images as mentioned above in terms of “chaos” and how the images are arranged. There is a big de-emphasis on people in Transparencies that if I were to guess has little to do with Shore shooting people less, but instead offers a better edit for a more concise and concentrated appeal to the vernacular as it has been highlighted with Salvesen’s essay. The lack of people places emphasis on description/”spoken image” without the human element weighing in heavily here and co-opting the edit away from text, architecture, etc. (Editor’s Note: The press pack favored people pictures)
In Transparencies, there is also less of a concentration on Shore’s breakfast and slightly less images of products that we find in American Surfaces, which in fairness to that title does give some extra license to speak on vernacular images and signs. However, in Transparencies, the gravitation is towards vernacular readings of text, architecture and image-making, but it breaks tradition with America by adding images of Sicily from a trip Shore took in the later part of the decade. This is important as it breaks Shore and his lineage from the grip of America, if only marginally planting his output and legacy as being something more universal or at least European. This selection of images therefore completely breaks the stranglehold of being quarantined by indebtedness to American Surfaces and puts the book into its own totemic reaches by way of edit and selection. This is important. It shows Shore’s diversity at the time and expands on the era he made American Surfaces during, thus allowing for a much wider reaction to his ability and his practice. The European emphasis in particular places a small European counterweight to his oeuvre, which in turn opens up the dialogue that would proceed in the 80’s with German artists in particular finding Shore’s work. This is not to suggest that a European would react to the European images any differently, but it does place a casual emphasis on a shared discourse and the re-imagining of Shore’s work as being more universal and not only boxed in the American landscape of diners and petrol stations.
“However, in Transparencies, the gravitation is towards vernacular readings of text, architecture and image-making, but breaks tradition with American by adding images of Sicily from a trip Shore took in the later part of the decade. This is important as it breaks Shore and his lineage from the grip of America…”
Though it may have been slightly unfair to review both books in one go, somehow pitting apples against pitiable oranges, I do think the summary of their timeline in Shore’s history makes this more than feasible. I am left with a much deeper appreciation of Shore’s work and ability by seeing it handled in a proficient manner both in design and edit as mentioned. For my two cents as it were, American Surfaces opens up with the fumble that can be created by publishers who are not specifically oriented to the medium of photography. I also want to call into question why nuance with some publishers is always left at the door of volume sales as seen with American Surfaces.
I’ll keep my copies of all of Shore’s books knowing that each has its own merits, but there will be a big difference between which of the recently published titles I pull off the shelf more often and how I review Shore’s career in publications. At this point, I can safely say that Transparencies is possibly my pick of the year in terms of object and image. If you do not have a copy, you should get one before it becomes economically prohibitive. Thankfully, if it were to be re-published in the future, I am pretty sure MACK would have the good god damn sense to keep the mold. Highest Recommendation.
THURSDAY 23rd JULY, 7pm
We are thrilled to announce an exclusive and in-depth conversation between Stephen Shore and LACMA curator Britt Salvesen, discussing Shore’s distinctive photographic work: from pioneering the aesthetic of the great American road trip, the new vanguard of Instagram photography, and how he practices the act of seeing. Tune in via the Mack website (mackbooks.co.uk/live).
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Stephen Shore.)