There are few photographers as well versed in the theory and history of the medium than Stephen Shore. The New York photographer and Phaidon author, whose work was first added to the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection when he was just fourteen, has taught, written about and continued to practice in the medium, significantly extending his skills with each project.
Last week, Shore spoke with Jeff Rosenheim, Curator of Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of a capacity crowd at Manhattan's International Center for Photography. The ICP event was staged in part to introduce his new book, From Galilee to the Negev.
The title draws together Shore's extended project, shooting in both the Palestinian and Jewish communities in Israel and the West Bank. During the talk and subsequent interview, conducted exclusively for Phaidon.com, Shore admits that the subject matter was much more charged than the quotidian US landscapes he has shot in the past.
“It was a challenge for me to make photographs that had meaning as photographs,” he explained, “that did not depend on the political charge of the situation. Life there includes the conflict but is far more than the conflict and that's one of the things I wanted to reflect in the book.
In this video (see below), Shore describes how he applied his technique of observing the ordinary, in a place where some aspect of conflict imbues almost every area of everyday life. Whether shooting a deserted, sixth century monastery, or a bustling road junction, the Holy Land's present-day difficulties added a subtext to this series of photographs.
To make a point, Shore alights on a shot he took of a ladies hat-store window. He says that, had he seen the picture a few years ago, he would have classed it as a simple work of nostalgia. “The hats are kinda dowdy, maybe 1940s looking,” he explains. Yet he goes on: “living in Jerusalem, I knew that these hats were worn by ultra-orthadox women, and the picture had a subtext that wasn't immediately clear.”
Indeed, the book serves as a useful jumping-off point for discussing Shore's wider thoughts on the uses photography. When asked he admits that “photographers understand only too well the limitations of the medium."
"It [photography] doesn't explain things as you can with words, it just describes.” Shore expands on these descriptive powers. "I think some people just feel like there are things in the world that mean something to them visually, that there's a resonance that can't be put into words, or they can't put into words but still recognise this important, visceral connection.”
Perhaps we should bear this in mind when leafing through the images in Shore's new book which, while lacking any didactic message, reveal something about the region no text could convey. Watch the full talk above. For more on Shore's thoughts and advice on how anyone can enjoy photography, consider his book, The Nature of Photographs; and to see his pictures from Israel and the West Bank in full pick up a copy of From Galilee to the Negev, here.