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On The Nature of Photographs

Stephen Shore, West Third Street, Parkersburg, West Virginia, May 16, 1974, from Stephen Shore: Survey (Aperture, 2014) © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

The following excerpt comes from a conversation published in Aperture magazine in 2007 (#186) between writer Luc Sante and Stephen Shore, on Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (1998). Today the book is considered a primer for those who wish to read the visual language of a photograph, from negatives to found Polaroids to images on a screen. Their conversation provides an insight into Shore’s thinking behind the original publication with Sante, one of photography’s foremost critics. The photographs that accompany this interview appear in Stephen Shore: Survey, published by Aperture in 2014, which features more than 250 images from Shore’s six-decade-long career, one that serves as an important reference point in the story of photography. This article also appears in Issue 1 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app. 

Luc Sante: I want to ask you about a particular sentence on the first page of the book: “The print has a physical dimension; it is not a true plane.”

Stephen Shore: What I mean is that it’s a piece of paper. The image has a picture plane—but a true plane exists in only two dimensions, and a piece of paper has three dimensions. I wanted to emphasize that it is an object, and that on the object there is an image. The image is an illusion that’s embedded in a physical object.

LS: At one point in the book, referring to Nicholas Nixon’s image Friendly, West Virginia, you write that Nixon solves a picture, rather than composes one. Could you elaborate on that distinction?

SS: “Composition” seems to me to be a term borrowed from painting. A vocabulary was developed in the critique of painting, and then along came a new medium that also takes place on a flat rectangle—and so photography borrowed those terms. The word “composition” comes from the Latin root componere, which means “to put together.” It is the Latin complement of the Greek root of the word “synthesis.” With a painting, you’re taking basic building blocks and making something that’s more complex than what you started with. It is a synthetic process. A photograph does the opposite: it takes the world, and puts an order on it, simplifies it. It is an analytic process.

LS: The propositions in this book are a bit like Zen koans, and sometimes they make me want a little more—as when you contrast an Eggleston picture with your picture of El Paso—and you talk about how one is an open composition and the other is enclosed.

SS: I am talking about framing. In some images, the frame acts as the end of the picture. I may want to take a portrait of you, and I decide where your face is going to go in the picture, and then I’m aware of the frame. The picture simply has to end somewhere, and I make a decision about where that is. But often with the view camera, the frame is not the end but the beginning of the picture. It’s as though the photographer starts with the frame and builds the picture in from the frame.

LS: You include a Japanese print in the book. I’ve been thinking about the Impressionists, specifically Degas, and how he learned from Japanese prints. . . . The Impressionists’ use of the frame seemed to anticipate photography. But obviously, the camera apparatus itself taught photographers with no background about the semi-arbitrary nature of framing.

SS: Degas was also taking photographs—so as an artist, he could have learned both from the Japanese print and from photography. John Szarkowski talks about the Japanese and Chinese scroll tradition: you turn the scrolls to see the image pass by, so you see an infinite number of framings—the way a photographer going out in the world sees an infinite number of framings.

LS: I was surprised by the picture by Thomas Annan in the book—of the alley with the small black square. It seems so startlingly modern: it’s about that small black square, about geometry and texture and plane as well as volume, in a way that’s astounding for a mid-nineteenth-century image. It brings to mind another picture in the book, by Berenice Abbott, Department of Docks, New York City, 1936, which, you say, “uses structural devices to emphasize deep space but has a shallow mental space.” Are you referring to more than simply this kind of imaginary refocusing that we do when looking at certain photographs?

SS: The Abbott is an interesting example, because it clearly depicts deep space from the foreground, maybe eight feet away, to the sky. But when I look at it and, let’s say, move my attention from the man in the suit in the foreground to the building behind him, I know that I’m looking at something farther away, but I don’t have that physical sensation of my eyes changing focus. Also in the book, there is a photograph by Frederick Sommer. The space it represents is only a few feet deep. When I look at that one, I have a tremendous sense of refocusing with my eyes. With Sommer, I would guess that that is a deliberate effect. With the Abbott, I don’t think it’s necessarily deliberate. I think that some photographs, simply by chance, have that quality of refocusing. I also use the Walker Evans picture of the gas station in the book. He’s so conscious of what he’s doing—he’s thinking about how this pole in the foreground relates to this gas station behind it in deep space in the real life, and how they also relate to each other sitting right on the picture plane.

LS: The Evans picture gets me thinking about metaphysics. This image is truly remarkable—it looks like a collage. The sky appears to float on a different plane, as though it were cut out from a different picture. You write: “This collaging appears when there is a difference in the degree of attention a photographer pays the different parts of this picture. For this to happen, the photographer needs to pay intense, clear, heightened attention to one part of the picture but not to another.” Which suggests that something in the physics of the photo-making process responds to desire, or to a kind of telepathy.

SS: I would put it in more matter-of-fact terms. Let’s say you’re going to take a picture of me. You’re aware of my face and my head and shoulders, and you’re deciding where you’re going to put the frame—the frame relates to what you’re paying attention to. But what if you realize that you weren’t paying attention to the room behind me? As soon as you’re aware of what’s behind me, as well as me, you make a different framing decision. The frame resonates off of what you pay attention to. So it’s not exactly metaphysical.

LS: Can you explain what relationship “mental modeling,” as you call it, has to what one might call the “signature style” of an artist?

SS: If the signature style is something genuine, something inherent, as opposed to a stylization imposed on one’s work, mental modeling is simply the natural inclination of that photographer. There has been this idea in photography of pre-visioning (to use Weston’s term), which is having a mental image of the picture. The image an experienced photographer has in mind, whether it be conscious or unconscious, can guide all the little decisions that go into making a picture. It becomes the coordinating factor. With “mental modeling,” I’m talking about making that conscious, becoming aware of it as an image, and not simply seeing out your eyes like out a window.

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