Take a road trip back to the 1970s with Stephen Shore
Travel in retro style with Shore, via his newly updated book, American Surfaces
Back in May 2015, the writer Teju Cole had breakfast with the photographer Stephen Shore. “We talked about all sorts of things: our shared interest in photography and writing, and also about Bard College, where I was teaching at the time and where he has been a professor since 1982, and still is,” says Cole in his introduction to the new edition of Shore’s book, American Surfaces. “It was a lovely morning. After breakfast, which he insisted on paying for, I realized to my chagrin that I had just had breakfast with Stephen Shore and had failed to photograph it.”
Why? Well, Cole (who is a pretty decent photographer, himself), knew that snapping a picture of breakfast was just the kind of thing Shore did while shooting American Surfaces. The groundbreaking series of colour photographs, and subsequent book, was shot on the road, in the US, beginning in 1972, “when Stephen Shore was twenty-four” writes Cole. “He went from New York City to Amarillo, Texas, and back. The project was large––Shore visited nineteen states in all, plus the District of Columbia.”
It is, in essence, a road trip, “and roads are everywhere in it,” writes Cole. “Not primarily the open road of the drive, but rather the elevation view of streets in towns and cities, in gray horizontal bands. These roads, like plinths, anchor the lower third of many of the pictures in American Surfaces. The streets below, the skies above, and between them, the flow of time––in the form of buildings, cars, people, and early 1970s culture.”
The next best thing to making the trip yourself might be to take a look at Shore’s pictures, which kind of wash over you in the same unfiltered way the landscape comes at you through the windscreen of a moving car.
“Shore has said about American Surfaces that he set out to ‘take a screenshot of his field of vision,’” writes Cole. “The resulting project is certainly as free and nonjudgmental as that statement suggests.”
Of course, no one can quite recreate Shore’s trip, even if they had the opportunity to retrace his steps exactly. One of the joys of leafing through this newly updated book, which includes forty previously unseen shots, is how you can freewheel through a time and a place – parochial America in the 1970s – that really doesn’t exist anymore.
“A breakfast Shore photographs in the morning is by that evening in the toilet,” writes Cole. “The beds are made and remade on a diurnal cycle. The clothes will be out of fashion in a couple of years, and the cars will be obsolete in five or ten. Many of the people we see will be alive half a century later, many not. The buildings on those numerous ribboning roads might last dozens of years, or hundreds, or be demolished to make way for other buildings. As for the mountains on the horizon: they’ll be there long after everything else passes away.”
To take such a trip, to read Cole’s essay in full, and to see all of Shore’s pictures, order a copy of our newly updated edition of American Surfaces here.