To fully understand and appreciate Stephen Shore’s The Book of Books, launched by Phaidon this week, it’s necessary to take a moment to consider what makes this legendary New Yorker so important in the realms of art photography.
At the age of six Shore received a dark room kit as a present from an uncle, keen to encourage his young nephew’s burgeoning interest in chemistry. At 10 he was given a copy of Walker Evans's book, American Photographs, which proved to be a huge early influence. His career began in earnest at the tender age of 14, when he made the precocious move of presenting his photographs to Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
“To be honest I didn't know any better,” Shore says now. “I called him up and he had a free appointment and he agreed to see me. I was obviously very lucky.” Recognising Shore's talent, Steichen bought three of his works. Just three years later the photographer was hanging out in Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory in New York. “For a long time I rejected my Factory years,” he says. “For so many of the people involved, it was the pinnacle of their life. It wasn't for me. It was just the beginning, though I couldn’t have gone on to do what I've done without having experienced that period. At the time there was no way of knowing what an important figure Andy would become.”
In 1971, at the age of 24, Shore became only the second living photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By now, he was proving that a colour photograph, like a painting, could be considered a work of art. In the years since, artists as varied as Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Martin Parr, Joel Sternfeld, and Thomas Struth, have acknowledged his huge influence on their work. Looking back at the early days and the development of his style in our video above he brings a unique perspective to his work.
“I was looking for a less mediated experience of the world in a photograph,” he says. “I felt that the decisions I was making as a photographer were so influenced by my conditioning that if I removed myself in certain ways from the decision-making process I would arrive at a less mediated experience. And I think to some extent it’s true.
“I felt that I ought to be able to understand an image in a certain way, understand the visual, artistic conditioning that I’m imposing on the image and eliminate it as much as possible from the picture.” Shore describes much of his ground-breaking work as “taking a screenshot of his field of vision at various moments, to “see what it’s like to look, to stand back from seeing and really observe what I’m looking at and how I’m looking at it.” Phaidon's Editorial Director Amanda Renshaw calls it "photography at its most honest."
The pinnacle achievement of these approaches comes with the aptly titled The Book of Books, a two-volume image set based around the iPhoto books Shore photographed between 2003 and 2008. In 2003 Shore began making a series of books using Apple's iPhoto service. Each book was a visual record of his activities on one particular day. The project shifted in emphasis from August 2005, when Shore determined to make an entire book wherever he was in the world on days that The New York Times deemed an event newsworthy enough to bestow one of its six-column, full-width banner headlines to it.
Produced in editions of 20 and sold at his galleries, these books have naturally become coveted collector's items. They were exhibited as part of Shore’s show at New York’s International Center of Photography in 2007 and The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought a set for its permanent collection.
The Book of Books is a highly collectible, two-volume book – limited to just 250 copies worldwide - containing a complete collection of these 83 print-on-demand books. The original layouts, including blank pages, are reproduced at actual size and organised chronologically. In this way, the collector experiences each book, and the entire book project, as Stephen Shore originally intended. The photographs are as fascinating as they are varied and over the coming weeks we’ll be bringing you a select few of them as well as more video interviews with Stephen. For now, watch the introduction and take a closer look at The Book of Books.