Stephen Shore on Certainty and Sh*t

I was in the middle of writing a post about film and how much I’ve enjoyed using it in the last two years when compared to digital. It was your typical bla bla blog post, and halfway through I came across a link into 2point8, which led me to this exhibit of Stephen Shore’s that’s currently up at the Henry in Seattle (a nice space there, an old lunchtime favorite).

The interview (35mg) of Shore by curator Elizabeth Brown is of poor quality, but there’s an interesting exchange at the beginning that I’ve quickly transcribed below. If I’m hearing/reading it correctly, Shore describes how film taught him how to develop his own sureness in what it is he wants from his pictures. In shorthand, film’s expensive, so get it right the first time. Elizabeth Brown in bold.

Q: Do you end up making a lot more pictures than you use?

SS: No.

Q: Do you end up making *any* more pictures than you use?

SS: A couple. 8×10 color is very expensive. Back in the 70s it cost 15-20$ a shot for the film, the processing, and the contact sheet, now it’s twice that. And to do good work, you can’t just take pictures that you know are going to be good, cause then you’re never going to learn anything or experiment. So the economy came in that I didn’t take two of anything. And so I realized I’m going to have to decide what it is I want. Standing in front of a building, where do I want to stand? Where in this intersection do I want to be — and not take five of them and try and figure it out later?

What I found happen was, after years of doing it, it forced me into a kind of sense of certainty. I figured out what it is I want, and so there was no reason to take more than one. And now when I take pictures with any camera, I still shoot the same way. When I look at students’ contact sheets and I see a picture of a lampost and there are five pictures of a lampost from the same place – it drives me crazy. Why would the second picture be any different from the first picture?

But anyway, I don’t take a lot of pictures. Or actually, I take a lot of pictures but…

Q: They’re all good.

Later in the interview is this gem:

SS: “I went on to flickr and it was just thousands of pieces of shit, and I just couldn’t believe it. And it’s just all conventional, it’s all cliches, it’s just one visual convention after another.”

More Shore on 2point8. A follow-up to this post here.

18 thoughts on “Stephen Shore on Certainty and Sh*t”

  1. More, from later in that audio file: “There a number of photographers who are fabulous photographers and they switch to digital and they produce a lot of crap. somehow it affects their discrimination. Somehow this knowledge that it’s immaterial, that it’s free, is sort of the opposite of the $15 a shot discipline. It somehow affects how some people use it. I don’t think it’s inherent in the medium that it affects people that way, but what I’m saying is, there’s no reason a photographer can’t make every picture count.”

  2. Interesting interview and observation. I love this digital debate and I think he got it when he says make pictures count. Sometimes film has such a heavy feeling as object that it perhaps seems better than it is because it has “weight” that digital doesn’t have. When a photographer makes the switch, images become immediatly weightless because digital offers new texture and exert themselves in a realm of new meanings. There has to be new approaches and understanding of digitial photography. The image needs to fit into a digital context that is in such an early stage and history nobody has explored it fully yet. Meanwhile people are shooting away like loose pistols, not really knowing what they are doing, not caressing their digital machines, nor feeling the image. The selection process becomes inside out instead of what Shore describes as a singular choice before the image is made, digital becomes a singular choice within a context of working images. The easy must be tamed, the eye and mind must become sharp still while understanding it is working in a digital sea of important choices.

  3. While Shore jabs flickr (it’s hard to disagree with his comment), he’s also beginning to embrace digital by using noisy Canon Exislims, and is making books in iPhoto. Via editioning (of the books) he’s experimenting with a way to monetize what’s digitally created (and initially weightless) into something his galleries and buyers can touch, mull over, and purchase.

    I like what you’re saying about weight, Mark, and I don’t think anyone’s come-up with anything that addresses the weightlessness you’re talking about. It’s easier to knock the excesses of the whole thing; digital’s fast, cheap, and out of control. It’s a big ol’ all-you-can-eat buffet.

    So, good for Shore for exploring it, I guess, but at some point, to protect your own worth, you have to publicly differentiate yourself from the hordes. (Or you have to convince your potential buyers that you’re doing something different from “Uncle Bob” who got a really great camera for Christmas! The “everyone’s a photographer now” argument.)

    I guess it’s surprising to see someone of his stature slagging a place that’s so easily slaggable. Why should he care about flickr? If he’s standing-up for the photographic art form as a whole, is the soul of photography so easily threatened?

  4. >> is the soul of photography so easily threatened?

    Well put.

    As for making each shot count, there’s much truth in that. We all know good photographers who start in digital and then switch to film and discover the important lessons in that. It’s a good influence.

    Me, I shot film for 35 years — I deserve digital.

  5. Shore’s comments are a nice juxtaposition with your previous post on Winogrand’s 31 frames on the streaker dude. I do wonder, however, if he employed the same one shot discipline when he was taking the 35mm American Surfaces photos which in many ways seem like experimental sketches for Uncommon Places.

  6. The fact that most of the images on flickr are shit has nothing to do with them being digital. The majority of images shot on film were also shit, it’s just that there wasn’t a vast global network allowed us to share them with anyone who wished to browse them. If you could go back to 1920 or 1950 or 1970 and browse the world’s scrapbooks you would find them full of equally conventional, equally cliched images. And shit is a relative, a conventional snapshot of your grandmother might mean more to you than any “important” photograph by an important artist.

    While the relative expense of the image making process certainly forces one to spend more time thinking about and setting up a particular image there is no guarantee of quality. Many a lesser photographer than Stephen Shore has shot crap with large format cameras. It’s easy for people who shoot large format for example to get away with shooting technically lovely garbage because the quality of the negative is so spectacular. Each camera choice comes with it’s own cliches and roads to sloppiness. I see the camera as neutral, the important thing is the brain behind it.

  7. I transcribed this from the middle of the interview;

    …that’s what interests me, I’m interested in exploring and playing with things and learning about things, and with the series Uncommon Places I did for seven years or so and I figured out the problems that presented themselves in the work, and then I knew that I could continue taking the pictures for decades and make perfectly good pictures, but it wouldn’t be interesting because that’s not the motive for taking the picture. I wasn’t taking these pictures to make good pictures, good pictures if they happen to be good, are a byproduct of the process, the process is one of exploration….

    I think the thing with flickr is that a lot of people are at the stage in their development where the point is to show that you can take a “good picture.” And that is a stage of development that I think a lot of photographers go through. Certainly I did. Hopefully you get past that and it does become an exploration, and in that sense, digital has a lot to offer. But it can compromise the rumination process, by being so quick, some of the unconscious gets cut out, the decisions are made, and maybe something is lost?

    Makes me think of GW again, editing negs he may have shot a year or years previously, that time-lapse creating a certain kind of response to the work. I know that even just the day or two between shooting and seeing processed film does help me react better to what I am doing.

  8. I wonder what SS was expecting to see on flickr. perhaps i need to listen to the audio, maybe i’m missing some context. I think your point is well made, “is the soul of photography so easily threatened”?

    Thanks for the heads up. myself and the kiddos will be checking this exhibit out, hopefully this weekend.

  9. Clay comes out to meet Liston, and Liston starts to retreat
    If Liston goes back any further he’ll end up in a ringside seat.
    Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right.
    Look at young Cassius carry the fight.

  10. Shore\’s comments are the same type of comments that have been spoken throughout the ages by established artists threatened by new mediums/techniques.

    The impressionists were mocked by the academy one of the major criticisms, \”it\’s so easy, a painting can be done in a day.\”

    Painters who used photography like Manet were mocked for succumbing to the \”easy pleasures\” such a vulgar medium and not using their eyes.

    Photography was not considered art at all.

    Black and white photographers had distain for the ones who used color.

    Large format guys said the same things about 35mm that Shore is saying about digital.

    And on and on.

    There is something to be said about weight though… Images seen on a screed do seem to have less weight than prints. They seem consumable and disposable in a way prints (or even a printed book) are not. I look at many fine photographs online but rarely go back to them whereas if they are in a book or on a wall I will look at them over and over again. My girlfriend bought a digital pictureframe recently. It holds something like 300 pictures. She loves it, but the images in there don\’t have the quality of memory of paper pictures sitting next to them. Perhaps it is that I know we can change the images on a whim… I don\’t know. Maybe these digital images will be all our grandchildren ever know.

    I love Stephen Shore btw. Like many artists, his ego can be occasionally full of hot air. I ignore it and just enjoy the work.

  11. “Images seen on a screen do seem to have less weight than prints. They seem consumable and disposable in a way prints (or even a printed book) are not.”

    Well, for starters, the images on a screen have a lot less resolution than a print. It does make a difference.

    And yes, Flickr is a place where people come to show they’re good, because in practice, Flickr is horrible place to show a process. It should be good — the whole photostream concept lends itself to the display of a developing eye. But what actually happens is that your stream is mingled with everyone else’s (don’t worry, I won’t go any farther with that metaphor) and whips by as a disparate set of thumbnails. Almost no one notices an image unless it has a huge hook. The temptation is only to put stuff up that works well immediately as a thumbnail so that people will bother to check you out. We all pretty much look at only the most recent stuff and rarely dip into any of the sets where, in theory, you could explore a theme with a bit of modulation in the flow of images. But the set structure isn’t very good for displaying that. Maybe if the slide shows allowed you to use larger images…

    I don’t yet shoot digital because I’m a cheapskate and I just haven’t found a digital camera that I like as well as my ancient Leica, but I have a hunch that the rumination thing is important. Lots of times I really want a picture to be good but when I finally examine it a few weeks later that hunger has diminished enough that I can — sometimes — admit it doesn’t work. But who’s to say that ability to blast away and edit more-or-less instantly won’t result in a different and interesting aesthetic that maybe we can’t recognize yet?

  12. Chuck said – “Lots of times I really want a picture to be good but when I finally examine it a few weeks later that hunger has diminished enough that I can — sometimes — admit it doesn’t work.”

    This is very true for me. I started photography shooting digital, but ended up switching to film. The change in my work flow was unmeasurable. I became so much more patient with film because I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the images for a few weeks, and when I did see them there would be enough detachment to look at them more critically.

    For me, critically examining your images will help you develop more than producing a high volume of images. Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but I think if you care about your own work and want to improve, you need to be mercilessly critical of your own work. I know it’s hard for me, but I’m convinced it’ll make me a better photographer.

    peace. bryan

  13. Thank you for the links and the quotes from Stephen Shore. Last week I bought his ‘Uncommon Places’ and I like it a lot.
    I agree with his opinion about flickr and similar stuff. I guess the problem is that most of the people forget that they are really ‘publishing’ something. In result they produce a noise even worse than commercial breaks on TV or Spam in mailboxes.
    This discussion about digital/analog equipment is somehow useless. Surely its more difficult to work disciplined with digital gear, but e. g. Alex Majoli produces good stuff even with bridge cameras.
    So it seems to be more and more a personal decision with pros and cons on both sides. Actually most of the photographers I admire work with analog stuff, but this could change in future.

  14. I find the dissing of flickr odd. Would you dis people’s photo albums. Flickr is not meant to be a place to display finished portfolios, it is a place for snapshots. And most people take it as such. I am interested in my friends snapshots, not because they make great art, but because they are my friends and I care about their lives. Technically and artistically 90% of the snapshots are nothing special, but that’s not the point. I know I’m publishing something, but I don’t expect anyone except my friends and family to care. I imagine some photographers don’t want their snapshots to be seen and will only publish finished work. I’ve notice Brian Ulrich recently started posting to flickr. From his stream it doesn’t look like he is going to be posting personal shots…… Other photographers seem to have looser boundaries. Mark Powell for example will sometimes post pictures of his family. I love those pictures, they might not work in the same way as his “fine art” stuff, but they humanize the photographer. Some people will say they don’t want humanization, finished work only… the solution is simple, only look at photography in books and shows… then you won’t have to sift through less polished work.

    Digital vs. analog is a conversation that will soon be irrelevant. I’ll bet that within our lifetime analog processes will be as archaic as say making daguerreotypes or platinum prints. Some people will still take pictures with film of course, but digital will be so good and so cheap that it will be ubiquitous.

  15. For Shore to be critical of Flickr in general is ironic In my own ignorance I came to see Shore’s work for the first time in a book at Rizzoli’s in Manhattan only after I became a user of Flickr and Fotolog and thought his work fit into its general and snapshot aesthetic.

  16. Stephen’s been shooting with small digicams for awhile now. I’m certain he has a secret Flickr account — just to prove to himself he can compete with the rest of us hacks…

    I’m not sure what to make of the digital versus film banter. I’ve shot both – and each has its uses. I much prefer film, but I’ve also seen images from nice dslr’s that are indistinguishable from film images. Whether it costs me 15 dollars or 15 cents to make an image, the process is pretty similar. I don’t like to waste my time just firing off shots without giving some thought to the final product in mind…

    Good stuff to think about though…

  17. I use Flickr because its cheap. Many people can look at my pictures and make up their own minds about them without having to go to a bookstore or a gallery. If I used galleries or isolated myself Like Stephen has unfortunately done, I could be wealthy with the pictures, perhaps, but few would see them and I think more than likely I have far more people looking at my pictures than Stephen Shore’s. I’m just not that interested in making money with them right now..I’m a serious fan of Stephen Shore’s images, but its the 21st Century now and the rules have changed.

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