Eye of a master

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Many photographers will hold off having a retrospective of their work for as long as possible, often out of fear that looking back on their career will in some way spell the end of it. Stephen Shore – whose work has been exhibited many times in various ways over the years – is one such photographer, but even he has given in to a retrospective, although he is making work as fervently as ever.

Simply titled Stephen Shorethe current exhibition at Madrid’s Fundación Mapfre claims to be the first retrospective of the American photographer’s work. Featuring some 320 photographs, many of them original prints, the exhibition stretches across two levels in the gallery and is loosely divided into themed sections encompassing the photographer’s earliest work, his most famous colour photographs, images from his lesser known black and white, and conceptual periods, right through to his most recent digital colour work shot in Ukraine, and in Winslow, Arizona, some of which has barely been seen.


The show, which continues in Madrid until 24 November 2014, and is due to tour to Arles, Berlin, Turin, and Amsterdam, takes what it refers to as the ‘core concepts’ of the photographer’s work as its starting point – namely, Shore’s fascination with the aesthetic of amateur or ‘snapshot’ photography, his sensitivity to colour, and constant need to innovate and try new photographic approaches.

Curator Marta Dahó, who worked on the exhibition with Victoria del Val and Pedro Benito, opted for a chronological approach as befits a retrospective. Shore’s entry into the world of photography has been well documented, (at the age of 14 he approached MoMA’s Edward Steichen asking to show him his work), and the exhibition begins with Shore’s early photographs, several of which are taken from bold, abstract angles, (peoples’ heads are cut off, or they are photographed from behind), while others – seemingly banal street scenes – hint at the photographer’s later interest in urban landscapes. All of the early works possess a youthful charm and fearlessness – a hunger to try something new – something that has remained with the photographer throughout his career. It’s quite an experience to look at the prints up close and to reflect on the audacious beginnings of what has become (and continues to be) a phenomenal life in photography, and is a great way to begin the show.

The exhibition leads the viewer through Shore’s conceptual period where we see images arranged in grids and series, taken between 1969 and 1971. These large-scale works playfully explore the idea of repetition, and are a welcome reminder that there is far more to Shore than his most famous colour photographs.

The conceptual works cleverly lead the viewer in to what is one of the most impressive parts of the exhibition – the display of photographs from Shore’s American Surfaces (1972-73), and Uncommon Places (1973-81), which are positioned opposite one another in the space to great effect. It’s wonderful to see the images from these canonical series side by side in this way, the smaller 35mm prints contrasting nicely with the later large format work.

We arrive here via the Road Trip Journal work (1973), which saw Shore embark on a month-long trip across America, photographing, and collecting postcards, tickets, and receipts, among other ephemera as he went. In American Surfaces, which stretches out impressively across a long central wall in the gallery, Shore (now famously) used a 35mm camera to explore ordinary scenes, employing a snapshot approach – photographing as an amateur might – but in a very deliberate, neutral way. The work is well-known of course, but it’s nice to be reminded of just how ahead of its time it was, and to savour the intricate details of each photograph on the wall.

Shore’s arguably lesser-known large-scale colour landscapes taken in the 1980s look impressive in the space, but, while pleasant to see, pale in comparison to the aforementioned work. A weak link in the exhibition is the black and white work from the early to mid-1990s shown on the lower level of the gallery. Here, we see bark and boulder studies, images of archeological digs, and street shots taken in New York City, not nearly as engaging as his previous work, but necessary in a retrospective (Shore spent the best part of a decade working in black and white, we are told). The exhibition redeems itself, however, by showing a selection of Shore’s print-on-demand experiments from 2012; Shore published more than eighty books this way, including re-workings of earlier works, and images from more recent travels.

The exhibition finishes with the photographer’s recent work, taken between 2012 and 2013, which includes images of items belonging to Holocaust survivors in the Ukraine. Although shot digitally, these colour images stylistically hark back to Uncommon Places (deadpan, depicting nothing of note yet somehow pregnant with meaning). It’s intriguing to see Shore revisit past visual tropes, and the images neatly bring the exhibition full circle.

Any mid-career exhibition or retrospective cannot of course show every image by a photographer, (and nor should it); rather, a good exhibition will guide the viewer through carefully chosen work in an engaging way. Fundación Mapfre’s offering does this with great skill, intelligently taking visitors through a lifetime’s worth of Shore’s work, and presenting the edited highlights in a thoughtful way. It’s not perfect, but serves as an ideal way into the master photographer’s oeuvre.

An accompanying catalogue with an introduction by the curator, an interview with Stephen Shore by David Campany, and essays by Sandra Phillips and Horacio Fernández, (published in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German), is available to buy.

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