‘Uncommon’ America relevant decades later

Book: ‘Uncommon Places: The Complete Works‘ by Stephen Shore, Aperture, 180 pages, hardcover

By LAURA KLEGER
Contributing Editor

Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places
Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places

Stephen Shore‘s Uncommon Places was originally published in book form by Aperture in 1982, a slim monograph with 49 plates that came to define the body of work in the public imagination. I first encountered his work in the 1990s as an undergraduate at Yale University, when my photography TA recommended that I view Uncommon Places. Hunched over the book on the library floor, I found sparse landscapes populated by interesting old things and consistently captivating light, whether high noon or creeping dusk. The places photographed by Shore took on a diorama quality, not due to perception of scale but rather the gnawing sensation that these places existed unchanged, time utterly suspended down to the people waiting for a green light to cross the street.

Shore’s work has deeply influenced contemporary photography’s core. Due in part to Shore’s extensive teaching at Bard College and elsewhere, his legacy is not only his own work but also his impact on countless other photographers, both in America and internationally. Shore is irrefutably in the cannon. Much has been written about Shore’s place in the pantheon, and while The Complete Works pleases that audience with excellent new texts and reproductions of interesting ancillary works, the book also allows the core material — over twice as many images as the first version — to act its graceful, subtle magic.

By the time I saw the first Uncommon Places, the places and things in the photographs already had a patina, an older-than-now feel that couldn’t be pinned to a precise moment in time. The newly released version also has a strange relationship to time. For example, Shore didn’t marry Ginger Cramer until 1980, but in captions for images made prior to that date she is listed as Ginger Shore. Beyond such temporal ellipses, Shore’s work occupies a fuzzy terrain between being created in a nostalgic impulse and perpetuating the nostalgic impulse in others — 1970s cars look so lovely on an 8 x 10 inch negative.

Full of out-of-date cars, interior decorating, fashions, and signage, the pictures in The Complete Works remain relevant. Outside of the mega-metropolis, outside of the new suburbs full of McMansions and traffic, outside of a cultural landscape of glossy magazines and Apple stores, America is not terribly different than one Shore photographed over thirty years ago. The landscape still sprawls with an occasional big-box store interrupting a flat plain; an apple tree blooms; an older couple lovingly endures; the water in a Florida swimming pool sparkles crisply over the skin of a young woman in a bathing suit; the textiles in a motel room scratch the skin; young people long to be anywhere but here; the poor creatively reuse in architecture and décor; late-afternoon light falls across a house with a peculiar mix of foreboding and welcome; people and objects populate the landscape with an aching disconnection from each other. Life winds on, a series of non-events and everyday places, repetitive events like triggering a camera shutter, that mark the path from cradle to grave.