Stephen Shore - 'People would chase me off sidewalks!'
The veteran street photographer remembers the unwanted attention he got shooting American Surfaces in the 1970s
Back in the early 1970s, the young photographer Stephen Shore worked on America’s small towns in two, distinct ways. Initially he took pictures with a conventional 35mm camera, loaded with colour film; you can see many of the best from this series, alongside previously unseen images, in our newly updated edition of Shore's classic book, American Surfaces.
Later he returned to those streets with a larger camera, at first a 4’x5′ press camera (the kind you might see news photographers using in a 1920s movie) and later with an even bigger 8’x10′ view camera (picture a cumbersome, bellows-style contraption, which you might imagine a school or wedding photographer using in a period drama).
These bulky, hard-to-move tools allowed Shore to shoot very large negatives, offering a very high level of definition. Yet, interestingly, they didn’t raise too much suspicion on the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, or many of the other places he visited. And surprisingly, they attracted very little reaction from passers by.
“No one seemed to care at all that I was standing there, maybe six feet away, waiting for the light to change so I could photograph them,” Shore tells the Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan in a new interview.
However, when Shore got a little closer, with his smaller, 35mm hand-held camera, reactions changed. “Often, they were more concerned when I was wandering about with the Leica,” he says. “People would often chase me off their lawns and sidewalks.”
In the early 1970s, before street photography gained popular attention, the notion of someone wanting to photograph ordinary folks and places in small-town America must have seemed quite strange.
Indeed, when Shore himself spoke to one of the leading proponents of 20th century fine-art photography, Hilla Becher, the co-founder of the Düsseldorf School, he had to offer a few explanations.
“She looked at them and said: ‘So, Stephen, you want to photograph every main street,” Shore tells O’Hagan. “I replied, ‘No, Hilla, that’s what you want to do. I want to photograph the quintessential main street.’”
As O' Hagan recounts, Shore's depiction of the ordinary was both singular and thoughtful. “I have always been interested in everyday experience,” Shore says, “It relates to an idea I had back then of what it might be like to pay attention to the average moments in your life, rather than just the dramatic moments. Attentiveness is self-awareness – you are aware of yourself paying attention. It was a different experience and I was nourished by it. I still am.”
“I wanted to somehow get to my perception of the underlying quality of the American landscape,” he goes on. “To see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.
"No one seemed to care at all that I was standing there, maybe six feet away, waiting for the light to change so I could photograph them. Often, they were more concerned when I was wandering about with the Leica. People would often chase me off their lawns and sidewalks.”
To appreciate that quality and to see many more of these photographs, get a copy of our newly updated edition of American Surfaces. This 2020 edition includes previously unpublished photographs and a new introduction from the novelist, photographer, and art historian, Teju Cole. You can read Stephen's interview with Sean O'Hagan here.