July 2008, Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1969-1979

 Stephen Shore,
 Trail's End Restaurant Kanab Utah August 10 1973
 courtesy Kemper Museum
Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1969-1979
Kemper Museum

As I surveyed Stephen Shore’s now-legendary photographs at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, I couldn’t help but notice their striking similarity to those from my recent cross-country road trip. It would seem that the American vernacular landscape has changed very little in the past thirty years. On July 7, 1973, Shore began a road trip across the United States and maintained a drifter lifestyle for the next eleven years. Uncommon Places, Shore’s groundbreaking 150 color photograph display at the Kemper Museum, documents this decade-plus journey across the United States.

Captured with a 35 mm Rollei camera, Shore’s collection offers a glimpse of everyday life in the American city. But these images are not your typical “wish you were here” postcard photos. These are not sunsets over beaches or Ansel Adams knock offs. Instead, Shore’s photography suggests the banality of passing through Anytown, USA, and correlatively, life on the road. A sense of staleness pervades the photographs, which depict the faded mundaneness of such road trip familiarities as cheap motel rooms, roadside diners, desolate byways, and deserted street corners. Nevertheless, upon closer observation, Shore harnesses an impressive ability to simultaneously convey both the tedium and the marvel of ordinariness. The yellowed, antiquated colors reflect the times and age of the photographs; in fact, Shore was one of the first photographers to bring color past the media’s domain and into the realm of artistic photography. His experiences in Andy Warhol’s infamous New York City ‘Factory’ from 1965 to 1967 sensitized him to the aesthetics of pop art and photography. In 1971, Shore became the second living photographer with the honor of a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today, Shore is considered a pioneer in color photography, as well as one of the most prominent twentieth-century artists.

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

 courtesy Kemper Museum

 Stephen Shore
 Room 125 Westbank Motel, Idaho Falls, Idaho,
 July 18, 1973

 courtesy Kemper Museum

In general, the photographs from Uncommon Places feature very few people, focusing instead on the suggestion of human life. Any modern gypsy knows these images well. One of the more striking photographs is Room 125, Westbank Motel, Idaho Falls, Idaho, July 18, 1973. Sunshine pours into the interior of a dull, modest motel room; a suitcase is thrown haphazardly onto a writing desk and a television screen reflects the sun’s glare. Shore is draped lazily across the bed with only his crossed feet visible. In Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973, a typical diner breakfast, complete with tacky placemat, sits untouched on a wood grain table. In Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975, a Chevron gas station billboard provides a sobering reminder of the times: gas was only 57.9 cents to the gallon.

Capturing such “forgettable details” whilst in transit often provides more insightful memories than the “expected” shots. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), Shore’s imagery lends a sense of timelessness to the American landscape, and encourages restless vagabonds to explore the open American road. Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1969-1979 is on display at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri through May 16, 2008. The exhibition will then be showing at the Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from July 24 through September 28, 2008.

Rachel Bateman

Rachel Bateman is a writer in LA.

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