book review Modern instances Photographs by Stephen Shore Reviewed by William Boling “In Modern Instances, Shore’s knowledge, ideas, and teachings are on full display. With over 170 photographs and illustrations, the book is a feast for the eyes and a “sine qua non” for any photographer, curator, or collector. interested in a deep exploration of how great photography (and photographers) are made…”
Photographs by Stephen Shore
MACK, London, UK, 2022. 224 pages, 6¾x9¾”.
Stephen Shore’s Memoirs Modern instances is a modern masterpiece. Shore is a renowned photographer and one of the most innovative and prolific creatives of his generation, as anyone lucky enough to have seen his retrospective at MoMA in 2017 knows. With too many exhibitions and books published worth mentioning, and more than 40 years as a teacher and head of Bard College’s prestigious photography department, Shore knows something about the photographic medium worth sharing. Much of what we consider photography today stems from his legendary work.
In Modern instances, Shore’s knowledge, insights and teachings are on full display. With over 170 photographs and illustrations, the book is a feast for the eyes and a must-have introduction for any photographer, curator or collector interested in an in-depth exploration of how photography (and photographers) are made. But all this is not what makes this book a masterpiece. After all, the Shore classic, The nature of photographyfinally back in its third edition, also offers a masterclass on the nature of the medium.
Which makes Modern instances truly unique is his personal, intimate even generosity, and the extent of sharing. Shore lets us in. We are shown the alchemy of the craft alongside the wonder of his extraordinary life. The full title of the book is, after all, Modern instances: the profession of photography. A Memoir. The book is lavishly illustrated and uses vignettes, short essays, and even a lengthy email conversation with friend and colleague, George Miles, in Shore’s own open and free-flowing style to show and tell. Shore invites us to walk with him through the thoughts, images, influences and experiences that inspired him to develop his craft and ultimately become the Stephen Shore we know and think of today.
Few artists have the temerity or the ability to effectively share such a journey. But Stephen Shore was born to share and teach. From his teenage days hanging out with Andy Warhol and the crew of The Factory, to losing his parents too early and his first-hand experiences with some of the great and lesser-known actors in the art world, he weaves, thread by thread, the tapestry of a long and fruitful life in photography. We learn how his work has evolved from classic black-and-white street style to the groundbreaking vision of instant color style of American surfaces and on the extraordinary 8×10 documents of Unusual places. Shore’s story uses his varied affinities with fly fishing, baseball, Vermeer, Shakespeare and beyond to illustrate how it all came to fruition in his transformation into a “full-fledged photographer”. It is impossible in a short review to share more than a few examples of what makes this book so special. Here are two.
The first vignette of the book and the discussion after the introduction is simply titled “Dead Cowboy”. We see a photo that is precisely that. This is a forensic photo of a murder scene given to Shore by an Amarillo, Texas district attorney in 1971. A shadow of the deputy taking the photo is cast across the ground and on the body of the dead cowboy. Shore talks about the intrigue and power inherent in this vernacular image, which was taken for non-aesthetic reasons, to open up thinking about why there is such magic in photography and how we use it. Speaking of the image, he says: “…while it shows little, it explains even less. It asks more questions than it answers. And that could be said for Modern instances. He refuses to give simple answers, grand summaries or conclusions about how he found his calling in photography. Instead, he shows us. The memoirs meticulously and clearly lay out the people, experiences, and artistic and literary influences that led Shore on a journey from 8×10 to iPhone Photos and back. A real Marco Polo of the medium, with Modern instanceshe brings us back graciously and with great affection on the great path he has traveled.
In a section titled simply “1970”, Shore shows a diptych portrait of his father and writes about the experience of becoming the third living artist to receive an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shore was 23 at the time. He writes: “At the entrance to the show, there were double portraits of my parents, a photo of each dressed and another in their underwear. My dad dressed as pictured dressed to go to the show, waiting for visitors to recognize him. More than proud, I think he was also relieved. After dropping out of school, spending three years at The Factory and experimenting with various drugs, I now had a show at the Met.
Finally, it must be said, the writing, layout and design of this book are elegant, clear and perfectly appropriate for the purposes of Modern instances. The publisher, MACK, had the good sense to create a platform that grew out of the work. So the maestro shares his story with nothing between him and the reader except the author’s wit and good lights.
Modern instances is the story of a truly remarkable and enduring artist journey; Shore’s is certainly one of the great photographic journeys of the last half-century. And it’s told and presented in a brilliant and ultimately illuminating way.
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William Boling is a photographer and editor for Fall Line Press and was a student of Stephen Shore in 2005 and 2006. He publishes a weekly art and photography newsletter at patientletters.Substack.com and a longer essay at Modern instances can be found there.