Most photographers use the camera as a tool of memorialization. They choose which moments to rescue from the enormous trash heap of everyday existence, by referencing some sort of defined visual hierarchy, a scaling of what scenes deserve to be immortalized. A “good” photograph happens when reality lines up in a way that is more valuable than other arrangements (see Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”), and a good photographer, therefore, is someone with a knack for recognizing that value and clicking the shutter.
That is not how Stephen Shore uses a camera, and his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art makes this apparent. The exhibition casts a wide net, including the anomalous periods when Shore worked abroad, but its main focus is his many photographs of hyper-quotidian America, our stalest shades of red, white, and blue. These quiet and straightforward pictures—of food, buildings, cars, and toilets—show that Shore is best understood as a photographer uninterested in photographing what is agreed to be worthy of capture.
But the true subject of Shore’s work cannot be found in the contents of his photographs alone. When Shore frames a very American breakfast spread at a restaurant in Utah, we may ponder the scene, and what our country’s particular styles of consumption say about us, but to focus entirely on the reality represented would be to miss what makes this extraordinarily ordinary photograph profound. Shore shoots the table from above, from the familiar perspective of someone who has walked away, maybe to go to the bathroom, and returned to find their food served. The silverware is haphazardly placed, the cantaloupe sits askew, the edges of the frame seem to include and exclude details at random. The photograph, a kind of highly intentional accident, is a reminder that when it comes to Shore, it’s not always about what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.
Read more at The New York Review of Books.