on photography vs instagram
photographer, New York
interview by ALEXIS DAHAN
portrait by BAPTISTE GIROUDON
All images copyright Stephen Shore and courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York
ALEXIS DAHAN — You started photography about 50 years ago, when you had to know about both chemistry and physics to be a photographer. Today, pretty much everybody can take a photograph with their phone. Do you think the evolution of technology has improved the nature of photography?
STEPHEN SHORE — Well, first of all, photography always had a technological aspect to it. And while its technology has changed over the past 150 years, the medium has changed with it. The invention of a new camera or faster film changes what an artist can do. For example, when cameras became miniaturized in the early 20th century, a different kind of photography could be made; when high-speed films were developed, a different kind of photography could be made, and so on.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Do you mean that it’s in photography’s nature to evolve and change?
STEPHEN SHORE — Absolutely. When color film came out, new things could be done. Today, we are going through a very dramatic period of change.
We now have high-end digital cameras that are the size of a 35mm single-lens reflex, but can take pictures that rival the quality of a 4×5 view camera.
ALEXIS DAHAN — How does that affect your practice?
STEPHEN SHORE — It allows me to take a picture that is more spontaneous but with the resolution, the detail, and the tonality of a large-format camera. This picture couldn’t have been made 10 years ago. If I understand what the camera and the process can do, I can make different aesthetic choices.
ALEXIS DAHAN — The technological evolution influences the aesthetic decision.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes, exactly. In fact, as I’m saying this, I realize that this is very much like the structure of the educational program at Bard College where I teach. As a student learns a new technique, this allows him or her to expand their aesthetic vocabulary. And this is exactly the same as what happens to all photographers on a global level as technology develops.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Does new technology replace what existed before?
STEPHEN SHORE — No. It adds to it. One of my projects for the summer is photographing my garden. I love my garden, and I spend a lot of time working in it. I’ve been photographing it using one of the oldest techniques: a 4×5 view camera with black-and-white film. But at the same time, I’m also photographing it in color with my phone and posting the pictures on Instagram.
ALEXIS DAHAN — That’s another aspect of technological progress: the nature of the actual physical photograph has changed. Most of the photos we look at today are on a backlit screen rather than on physical print.
STEPHEN SHORE — Which is beautiful, by the way.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Could you characterize and talk a little bit about how this affects our relationship with the photograph as an object?
STEPHEN SHORE — Well, I think there are a number of things that change with that, especially the size of the images we’re looking at. If you look at Instagram, you’ll see that the most successful Instagram pictures are visually fairly simple. Whether the photographer is conscious of it or not, they are taking photos with the understanding that the picture will be seen in a relatively small size (the size of an image on a phone or iPad). If the same picture was taken with film and considered too dull or too flat, on a backlit screen it will have a wonderful luminosity to it.
ALEXIS DAHAN — It is very forgiving in some ways.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yep.
ALEXIS DAHAN — And at the same time, it creates a movement from the image to us, the viewer, because the light is coming out of it as opposed to only being reflected by the print.
STEPHEN SHORE — Well, we’ve had this in photography for years with transparencies. It’s not the same as seeing it on a monitor, but still! I remember the first time I saw William Eggleston’s work. I was at his home in Memphis in 1973, and he projected his slides on a screen, which also means having light being pushed through the medium. In a similar way, it had this incredible luminosity to it. And he used Kodachrome, the finest-grain film Kodak ever made in color. The physical quality of his images was just
ALEXIS DAHAN — Is there another technological change that interests you?
STEPHEN SHORE — The constant improvement of cameras in phones, which means that every single person in the world who owns a phone carries a camera on them at all times. I remember, say 20 years ago, seeing something and thinking, “I wish I had my camera with me.” Well, I never have to think that again, and it’s not just me! No one ever has to think that
ALEXIS DAHAN — I’ve been following you on Instagram. I’m not saying that to a friend, but I’m saying that to Stephen Shore, someone who had a real impact on the history of photography. You are publishing daily, and you are also embracing the autobiographical aspect of it. I’m very curious to hear what you think of it and how it affects your own artistic practice.
STEPHEN SHORE — What we are talking about is only a natural consequence of our earlier discussion about technological changes. We are seeing the improvement of digital cameras, their miniaturization, and how that changes the dissemination and availability of photographs.
ALEXIS DAHAN — The invention of a new space that is accessible to all.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes. All these factors have changed what an artist can do, or what anyone can do with the medium. And it’s something that interests me. I realized something very early in my development as an artist about some photographers I admired tremendously, such as Atget or Bernd and Hilla Becher: they have spent a career pursuing one idea.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Monomaniacal artists?
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes. I may not use the word monomaniacal about my friend Hilla Becher, but yes. I realized that is not me. As soon as I feel like I’ve mastered a problem, I want a new challenge.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Yes, your work always mutates.
STEPHEN SHORE — I am always open to technological development because it presents a new challenge. Take Instagram again: what are some of the new challenges? One is that the pictures are square. Now I know how to post a rectangular picture, but square pictures look better: they’re bigger on the screen. If you post a square picture, it comes out larger on the screen of the phone than if you post an oblong picture. It’s as though Instagram is asking me to do a square picture, and I had not shot squares in 40 years! So, this is a challenge. The size is a challenge. A challenge makes it sound like it’s a monumental hurdle.
ALEXIS DAHAN — A new variable.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes. A new variable, that’s better. It’s an issue that has to be dealt with. I’m figuring out how to use the square, and I’m figuring out what kind of picture works in this small size, and often I’m pushing it and seeing how complex a picture I can post, how detailed a picture will still work in such a small size.
ALEXIS DAHAN — What other challenges do you play with?
STEPHEN SHORE — I’m also playing against Instagram clichés. I will occasionally post a stupid pet picture, but I know that I’m posting a stupid pet picture with a medium where millions of pet pictures are posted every day. I will, on very rare occasions, post a selfie, knowing that I’m doing this in a context where millions of selfies are posted every day. I’m exploring it in isolation and also in terms of its own context. Having fun with that context.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Another important variable is the followers aspect. “Followers” is the same word used in a cult! The recipients, the followers, that are somewhat contained in the photo-making process. Instagram is like sending a postcard to whoever wants to receive it.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes, it’s true, but I never think about the followers. I’m not trying to satisfy their expectations.
ALEXIS DAHAN — There are a few photos of American crossroads in your feed, though. Maybe that is what people are expecting when they follow you.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes, or who knows what. I post many different kinds of pictures, and there are some people who like my flower pictures and don’t like my crossroads.
ALEXIS DAHAN — What is most successful in terms of likes? The throwbacks with Andy Warhol in the Factory?
STEPHEN SHORE — No. It’s often the most graphic pictures. Which is actually an aspect of a picture that doesn’t particularly interest me. I haven’t been able to figure out commonalities. But even if I were to figure it out, it wouldn’t affect how I am photographing because that’s one thing that has always been with me: I’m not photographing to please an audience; I’m photographing to please myself. But I think the followers thing is very interesting, and the liking aspect is, too.
ALEXIS DAHAN — What about the comments?
STEPHEN SHORE — When people use my feed to post comments for advertising purposes, I take it down immediately. But if someone says something bad about one of my pictures, I always leave it up. I’m not trying to censor what people are saying. But if I read something crude about my wife, that comes down immediately. I also find it interesting that my wife has a wonderful feed. She loves Instagram as much as I do, and she has a fraction of the number of followers I have. However, she has a much larger percentage of those followers liking what she’s doing. She might have, I don’t know, 10% or 20% liking a typical picture of hers, whereas I might have 1% or 2%.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Is the fact you have no problem playing with the autobiographical aspect of this medium the result of always having subtly integrated you life into your work?
STEPHEN SHORE — I’m trying to stay away from the really personal autobiographical work for a couple of reasons. One is that I felt I already did that with the series American Surfaces, in 1972. And the second reason is that when I see some of the more continually autobiographical feeds, like Facebook, I find myself thinking: I don’t want to know all this about my friends. I really don’t want to know what my friends ate! And when I did American Surfaces, it wasn’t so people would know what I was eating, or what television shows I was watching — who would care?!
ALEXIS DAHAN — You were talking about America.
STEPHEN SHORE — Exactly, I was using this as a way of talking about America. But when people are telling me — or the world — what movie they went to yesterday, not because they’re recommending it, but because they just want to tell me what they’re doing, I am not interested. I like the idea of privacy.
ALEXIS DAHAN — What would be the main difference with photography’s traditional means of distribution, such as the exhibition, the book, or the magazine?
STEPHEN SHORE — Instagram is just more like language, like we’re talking now. We’re using language and not in a way a poet or a novelist would use it. We’re just using it to communicate. And so some people are making art on Instagram, and some people are using Instagram the way they would use Flickr, but there are a lot of people who are using Instagram just as a visual communication. And I find that fascinating and refreshing.
ALEXIS DAHAN — The fact we can communicate with a photograph?
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes. It’s a cliché to say that art is a universal language. But if it’s a universal language, it may not be a universal practice. For example, music may be a universal language, but it doesn’t mean I can go out and start composing. There is a learning curve before I can start composing music or make a painting.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Yes.
STEPHEN SHORE — However, the learning curve in making a photograph with an iPhone is very, very slight.
ALEXIS DAHAN — With smartphones, that photo-taking muscle gets exercised at a very early age, and you can take a skilled photograph as early as six years old!
STEPHEN SHORE — Oh, even earlier! Absolutely. There is a camera called a CatCam that is made in Germany. A little plastic, digital camera that you can set to take a picture every minute, so lightweight that you can put it on your cat’s collar. The cat walks around all day long, and every minute, he is taking a photograph. And they’re surprisingly good! They are not random, because they’re always aimed at what the cat is looking at. But obviously they’re unconscious. The cat has no awareness of that.
ALEXIS DAHAN — It would be nice to have a cat taking photos of other cats.
STEPHEN SHORE — It happens. If you go online and search for CatCam pictures, you’ll see it. So anyone can take a picture, even a cat.
ALEXIS DAHAN — But that doesn’t mean every cat is a photographer!
STEPHEN SHORE — No. Everyone is a photographer, but not everyone is a skilled photographer. Everyone is using the language. We learn to speak early on, and we actually absorb grammatical rules very early in our life. But that doesn’t mean everyone is skilled in using language, and it doesn’t mean everyone has something interesting to say with the language.
ALEXIS DAHAN — What is the difference between a skilled photographer and everybody with a telephone?
STEPHEN SHORE — I think it is a number of things. It is the intention because framework is part of the intention. But it is also the understanding of visual grammar. Let’s compare it with verbal language. You can take a picture that is in focus, well exposed, with content, a picture plane, and four edges, but even my cat can do this! And I mean that literally. Formally, it’s a complete photograph, even though it has been made without any sense of visual grammar or visual structure. On the other hand, while a photograph can be made without any sense of structure, in order to produce language you need a basic understanding of the structure of language.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Everyone can take a photograph, but not everyone can make a living off photography. I believe that the ability to make a living out of anything has to do with the essence of that thing. When you started 50 years ago, making a living out of photography was a very different thing than today.
STEPHEN SHORE — It was impossible.
ALEXIS DAHAN — There was no photography market?
STEPHEN SHORE — For commercial photography, yes, but not for artists using the photography medium.
ALEXIS DAHAN — How would you describe what’s new about the capitalization of photography today?
STEPHEN SHORE — Well, all of the things we have been talking about up until now are fascinating and expand the possibilities of photography, but at the same time there is always a downside.
ALEXIS DAHAN — What is the downside?
STEPHEN SHORE — I see some photographers, students of mine or other photographers, who shoot in a very intentional and thoughtful way with film, but when they pick up a digital camera, they lose all their intentionality. There is nothing about the camera that forces that, and you can use a digital camera with as much concentration, awareness, and intentionality as a film camera. Nonetheless, I see there is this downside where some people use it with less mental focus. So you have the positive aspect of less inhibition and the negative aspect of less intentionality.
ALEXIS DAHAN — And what about this new market for art photography?
STEPHEN SHORE — There was an innocence and purity to the photography world 50 years ago. It was like being a poet. No one decides to be a poet because they want to make a ton of money being a poet! And no one became a photographer because they wanted a gallery show and to become famous. In New York, the largest city in the United States, there were two photography galleries in the mid-’60s. And being famous meant that a few hundred people on the face of the planet knew your name. You could sell your pictures for $35. I mean, there was no money, there was no fame, and the people who did it did it because they were drawn to it. That has changed. There may be a loss of purity, but I am also able to pursue my art in a way I couldn’t before. Now I can make a living at it. Ultimately, I see that as a positive thing. I think it’s great that I can make a living off of my photographs.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Is there a negative side too?
STEPHEN SHORE — I see some people who have prevented their own work from evolving because they want to satisfy their market.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Once you enter a market, the demand becomes a variable of creation, and you have to calibrate your offer accordingly.
STEPHEN SHORE — Well, you don’t have to. Some people do, but you don’t have to. You can do stupid things like I do and spend the last year doing Instagram, for which there’s no market.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Doing so, you have surrendered full usage rights to Facebook.
STEPHEN SHORE — I didn’t know that.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Yes! When you register, you sign a contract that informs you that you retain ownership of your images although you grant them the right to do whatever they want with them, with no royalties.
STEPHEN SHORE — Oh really? I didn’t know that. [Laughs]
ALEXIS DAHAN — Sorry!
STEPHEN SHORE — It won’t stop me, though.
ALEXIS DAHAN — In commercial photography, a client with the intent of selling goods decides what will be the framework of your photograph. You have been accepting fashion and commercial commissions for a long time.
STEPHEN SHORE — I could say that I like doing commercial and fashion work just because I like challenges. For example, to have an art director in London do a drawing of what they’ve conceived and then to figure out how in the world I will manifest it is a fabulous challenge. Furthermore, I like the collaborative aspect of fashion work, where there are a lot of people who are all putting creative energy into this event, and it can get very exciting and very pleasurable.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Sometimes it feels like you simply put the model inside a photograph of yours. I’m curious to know more about your process.
STEPHEN SHORE — Well, for both fashion and commercial, people don’t come to me and say, “Do something that looks like someone else.” If they hire me, they want me to do what I do. I always have a conversation with my client in which I say: “Don’t feel embarrassed about telling me what you want.” I know that I have a reputation as an artist, and sometimes they are hesitant about saying what their needs are. But what interests me as an artist is satisfying their needs. They’re giving me the aesthetic problem, and that’s fun for me to solve. I don’t feel like I need to express myself in my fashion work. My sensibility simply comes across because this is how I see things.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Do you look at other fashion photography?
STEPHEN SHORE — Sure.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Do you feel like there has been some advancement in the last 30, 40 years? Or is it getting worse?
STEPHEN SHORE — I haven’t thought about it in those terms. I’m looking at it in terms of questions I have. For example, I know how to structure space in a picture, but how do I use the picture not just to clarify the space, but also to clarify the clothes? I look at other fashion photography as a visual resource, not to judge it, but to see how other photographers are bringing their sensibility and understanding to what this venture is about: the perception of the clothing.
ALEXIS DAHAN — To see how they solve the same problem.
STEPHEN SHORE — Different photographers in different periods are leaving their footprints so that we can follow and learn from them.
ALEXIS DAHAN — You are constantly learning and evolving, the same way the medium is constantly evolving.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes. That is what’s fun for me.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Is this tension — framework for visual content versus visual content that embodies an idea — still present in today’s photography?
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes, but again, it’s a language, and it’s used in many different ways. There are photographers who simply go out and see what they encounter during the day, and there are others who work with varying degrees of intentionality. I don’t think there’s one right way of working.
It’s just what people are drawn to.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Technical evolution continuously adds possibilities, but the original tensions inherent in the medium, the problems of visual concepts and frameworks, these remain the same.
STEPHEN SHORE — Yes, I believe so.
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