Uncommon Places is a book by Stephen Shore, originally published in 1982 from a series of photos he shot during multiple road trips across North America. He revisited the work in 2004, expanding the 49 plates in the first edition to 156 images that in his words more accurately reflected the breadth of the project. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works was again revisited ten years later and expanded with another 20 additional images with the latest republished version in Feb 2015.
It is this 2015 edition being reviewed. Uncommon Places is a good size book at 13″ x 10.5″ with 188 pages in landscape format and 176 images. The quality of the pages and printing is excellent, which is to be expected from the publisher Aperture.
Shore wrote “until I was twenty-three years old, I lived mostly in a few square miles in Manhattan”. The series of photos in Uncommon Places are from his journeys from 1973 to 1979 leaving his home and exploring the country and the changing of culture in America.
For his first road trip across America, Shore brought a Rollei 35mm camera with a desire to capture and communicate his experience through the eyes of an everyday tourist. He titled this first work “American Surfaces” and was exhibited and published in 1972, but it was not well received.
The work received criticism for the aesthetic being too conventional, the subjects being too mundane and even his artistic method using a semi-automated camera was called to question for the camera being responsible for the work and not the photographer’s own artistry.
Fine art photography at the time was almost all black and white. Shore was one of the first artists to attempt taking color beyond advertising and snapshots and into the fine art world.
The criticism made Shore more determined and forced him to work harder to refine his message and improve his quality, focusing on hand printing. For this he needed bigger negatives and switched to an 8×10 view camera and set out on the road again.
The body of images he created for Uncommon Places still received doubts and criticism and still does to this day. The criticism is understandable, Shore’s work, as well as similar artists William Eggleston and Martin Parr, receive some of the same comments; the subject matter is mundane and many people exclaim, “they don’t get it”
The subject matter in Uncommon Places are parking lots, hotel rooms, people’s homes, street corners, gas stations, meals. There are few, if any, what you would call majestic scenes. Nothing is glamorous or shot in magically light. It is all presented rather matter of fact.
Fine art photography is often about the singular image, about wowing someone with beauty and the magnificence of the single scene. It is very different then presenting a photo of a pancake breakfast (pg 33), its not too awe inspiring.
However, I do think the criticism is missing the point Shore is trying to communicate. He is not trying to inspire awe, but to paint a portrait of what life in America is really like, not just the amazing beauty of the landscapes, but how do Americans live, what do their homes look like, their stores, and even their breakfast.
When I went to Yosemite, I didn’t see it as Ansel Adams shot it. Adams made it more grand and magical, capturing it on perfect days with perfect light and crafting majestic shots. If I travelled to the scenes Stephen Shore shot, they would look just as he shot them.
This is Shore’s intention, a photo in the book practically tells us this, on page 151 he shows a photo of a sign, John F. Kennedy said “Art is Truth”
Using the large format view camera, Shore was able to capture the detail and sharp unwavering precision that gets at the truth he is trying to express. The detail is in each photo, but also Shore gives us the detail in subject from city streets down to a simple jigsaw puzzle being put together.
It’s not about the single photo, but the entire series tells the truth, the portrait of America that Stephen Shore visited.
Uncommon Places: The Complete Works is available at Amazon for $40.