Biography

Stephen Shore was born in 1947 in New York and currently lives in Tivoli, New York.

At 24, he became the first living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

He has ever since been widely published and exhibited for the past forty years and had shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; PS1/MoMA, New York; George Eastman House, Rochester; Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Jeu de Paume, Paris; Art Institute of Chicago; and Fundación Mapfre, Madrid. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Shore is the Director of the Photography Program at Bard College.

“By directing my attention to different subjects and approaching them with a range of photographic techniques, I am attempting to allude to the complexity of Israeli life.”

Biography

Stephen Shore was born in 1947 in New York and currently lives in Tivoli, New York.

At 24, he became the first living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

He has ever since been widely published and exhibited for the past forty years and had shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; PS1/MoMA, New York; George Eastman House, Rochester; Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Jeu de Paume, Paris; Art Institute of Chicago; and Fundación Mapfre, Madrid. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Shore is the Director of the Photography Program at Bard College.

Stephen Shore

From Galilee to the Negev

Stephen Shore has described Israel and the West Bank as ‘impossible to comprehend’ because of the extreme heterogeneity of the land, its history, and its population.
He responded to this challenge with his own heterogeneous approach with a range of techniques, and a traversal of photographic genres. He worked in colour and black and white and using an analog 8 x 10 inch camera and also digital capture; he photographed landscapes and cityscapes, sacred stones, street scenes, and individual people. The full range of his work is interweaved in his book From Galilee to the Negev, organised as a photographic journey through the region. This exhibition features 14 colour images made with his 8 x 10 inch camera.

Stephen Shore in conversation with Charlotte Cotton

Summer 2014

CC: What interested you in taking on this commission to work in Israel?
SS: It just interested me from the beginning, when Frédéric contacted me in 2008. Commissions are a tricky business, and it can often not be right for a person at a particular time. For a lot of us who joined the project, this came at exactly the right time in our work. A number of us really moved forward with our work and produced some of the best that we have done. I think that’s what makes the project so interesting to me.

CC: Do you think your initial interest was a response to the timeliness of the invitation to work in a new way?
SS: I think I wanted to have a more focused project, yes. I had been to Israel in the mid-Nineties, but not since.

CC: Why had you gone?
SS: I went to photograph on two archeological digs in the early 1990s. It was just an interest in archaeology, it had nothing specifically to do with Israel, I went on whatever archeological digs I could get on at the time. I went to two in Israel and one in Italy. But I don’t know why, I mean, sometimes these things just occur to me. I went on a sabbatical, decided to spend a month, or six weeks in Scotland, and I’d never been there – I just looked at a map and picked a spot, and it was perfect. But there was something about being asked to be part of This Place and go to Israel and the West Bank that for some unconscious reason connected. I wanted to do it.

“But there was something about being asked to be part of This Place and go to Israel and the West Bank that for some unconscious reason connected. I wanted to do it.”

CC: Did you make one of the first exploratory trips?
SS: I think it was in the March of 2009, over the Spring Break.

CC: What happened on that trip?
SS: I met a lot of people. I think Frédéric’s [Brenner] intention was for people to be buffeted by different world views, and I think he was successful at that.

CC: What sort of effect do you think that introduction through different narratives meant?
SS: I think it meant I had a different understanding of a country in the background. I don’t think I was seeing it in simple terms before then. I mean, so often on American television the idea of being balanced in a news report is to have two opposing views presented, suggesting that everything can be broken down to two opposing views. It doesn’t reflect the multi-valued nature of reality, especially in a situation as slippery as the one between Israel and Palestine. I think that was reinforced on the exploratory trip. It wasn’t new to me that different world views exist in one space and that they are hard to reconcile. When I had been to Israel before, I was on my own and it was at a different time. It was before the Second Intifada and I would drive in between Israel and the West Bank without even knowing I had crossed the Green Line.

CC: And did it feel different to photograph in the region from the other places that you have worked?
SS: Because of the complexity of the region, yes, and because of a number of things that begin to get personal. I’m pausing to decide whether or not I want to go into it. Without sounding too mystical about it, when I’m photographing the landscape in the American West, I position myself where I feel lines of energy emerge in the land. What I found in Israel and the West Bank is that there was a crazy web of energies, something very particular going on there. One of the people that Frédéric arranged for me to meet was the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem. My question to him was: did he think that what happened in this country over the past 3,500 years was the result of it being somehow a special site on the planet, or do we have a sense that this is a special place because of everything that happened over the past 3,500 years? For him it is the former. And that was my sense too, that there was something unique about the land. I came to think there was something very special in this land that a lot of people recognised and wanted to claim for their own.

“And that was my sense too, that there was something unique about the land. I came to think there was something very special in this land that a lot of people recognised and wanted to claim for their own.”

CC: How many times did you go to photograph for this project?
SS: I made six trips.

CC: What sort of length and times of year were you there?
SS: I don’t think I ever went mid-summer, but I’ve been most of the other times of year from September to June; a couple of trips were for a month, and other trips were for two and a half weeks.

CC: You often photographed in the desert, and the changes in season must have completely transformed the landscape. Would you go back to the same places during your trips?
SS: Yes I did. The region is so small. I had a car and an assistant who knew the country and we drove all over Israel and the West Bank. If you get up first thing in the morning and go out driving and photographing, and you do this every day for a month, you cover a lot of ground. It is three and a half hours from Jerusalem to the furthest border of Israel, so really I was just getting up every day and going driving and exploring with my assistant, Gil Bar. At the beginning, the driving was just to get an overall sense again of Israel and the West Bank. I had seen some places on my own when I was there on the archaeological digs, mostly in the central valley and in the north. On the exploratory trip, I spent most of the time outside Jerusalem in the south. So I’d gotten a sense of things and made a mental note of what I wanted to see. Then I think Gil and I became more systematic.

CC: And you were using your 8 x 10 inch camera? Or your digital SLR?
SS: I had both cameras with me, although I tended not to mix them up in a day. The 8 x 10 inch camera allows me to make a larger print, and it is a more meditative and more physical process because the camera is on a tripod. If I want to move over to my right six inches, I have to lift the tripod up and move it. There is a physical component to it, which is different than just taking a step to one side. There is something about working in the land that I like, about using this big camera.

CC: Because of the way it forces you to respond to the landscape?
SS: Yes, and also just the physical experience of walking on the land and I feel myself more physically present in the land. However, it is very hard with the quality of today’s top of the line digital cameras, with the best optics, to see a difference between that and a view camera. It is only with a much larger print that you would see a difference, and so for me the digital camera has given me a tool that, for about 40 years, I had been looking for.

CC: Can you say more about the impact of digital cameras on the way that you work?
SS: I can make a picture now that I couldn’t have made ten years ago. There wasn’t the technological means to make it. Over the years, I have learned to use an 8 x 10 inch camera in a very fluid way, and to overcome the visual rigidity that can be the imprint of the operation of the camera. In this search for transparency in my work, I can use an 8 x 10 inch camera in a seeming offhand way; at the same time, I make a conscious effort when I’m using digital to be as aware of all my photographic decisions as I am with an 8 x 10. If I’m photographing a building with the 8 x 10, I take one picture – it is too expensive to waste film. With digital, there is no cost involved but I do the same thing. Why take a second one? I’ve spent 30 years using an 8 x 10 and taking one picture of everything. I just maintain the same mindset.

“I can make a picture now that I couldn’t have made ten years ago. There wasn’t the technological means to make it.”

CC: Tell me how you think your pictures of Israel read. Is there a narrative working across the final selection?
SS: I don’t think there is a narrative. I wasn’t interested in doing the definitive book on Israel and the West Bank. I don’t know if it can be done. I always saw what I was doing as part of a wider project and I felt free to follow my own interests because of this. It would be daunting to try to do a definitive work on such a complex place.

CC: Had you worked in a group context like this before?
SS: I’ve never worked on a project where there was that same kind of sense of a group. We had group meetings once a year, to talk and see each other’s work. There have been three of these meetings and I’ve been to two of them. Two took place in Israel, and one took place in New York. The photographers and the assistants also came to the first meeting in Israel.

CC: Did these meetings impact on how you developed your project?
SS: No. Basically I just saw my work as fitting in to this larger group. I had certain intentions that manifest themselves really quickly – which is that there is stuff going on in Israel and the West Bank, in life and in the land, that may be inflected by the conflict but is not about the conflict. That is worth documenting… I remember an experience I had a long time ago in the late Sixties. I had spent a couple of months in London and it was a time of turmoil in the United States, with the Kent State shootings, and I read the Herald Tribune every day, and it sounded like the country was falling apart. And I realised it was because they are not reporting that the sun rose at 6:52am as predicted, and the laws of gravity were still in force, and the shelves were stocked with 50 different kinds of cereal. So there are some little things of life that don’t get reported in the news – and this is not a criticism, I wouldn’t read the paper if it did. But to just get the ‘news’ gives a distorted picture of what life is. And so much of what I read about Israel and the West Bank was about the conflict, which is maybe the chief feature of the country, but it is not all that is there, it is not all of the life of the people who live there. It is a place of relatable, normal lives, but in a charged place.

“And so much of what I read about Israel and the West Bank was about the conflict, which is maybe the chief feature of the country, but it is not all that is there, it is not all of the life of the people who live there. ”

CC: What did you learn about the landscape?
SS: When I went in January, I was struck by the haze of green on the desert. Also how lush the Galilee is. I got a sense of why people thought this might be the ‘promised land’. It was spectacular.

CC: When you knew your trips to Israel were coming to an end, were you looking for specific pictures?
SS: Yes. I realised I wanted to have some cityscapes. I don’t know why I felt this, but I wanted highly detailed cityscapes from a high vantage point. And so one of the trips, I did just this in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Hebron.

CC: The pictures from Hebron seem to speak most directly of the conflict.
SS: It is a place where the conflict becomes visually very manifest. You can’t photograph a conflict, you can only photograph what is visible, and so in Hebron I’m seeing children’s paintings of silhouetted soldiers, barbed wire and gates, camouflage material and boarded up buildings, proclaiming they were under new ownership.

CC: And where else did you see these visual signs of the conflict?
SS: The two sides come face to face in the Tomb of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, Sarah and Leah are buried. You look at the cenotaphs that commemorate their burial, and there is a Jewish side and a Muslim side, and they are positioned so that a shot can’t be fired from one side into the other side of the tomb. That is close to a conflict in the most profound terms. It just seemed to be a place where there were visual outcroppings that were accessible to a camera, where the tension can be photographed.

CC: What effect do you think these pictures have on the way that you read the everyday images and the landscapes?
SS: At a certain point, the book sequence takes a very serious turn: the last third, with a sequence of austere landscapes that moves into Hebron and then back into landscape.

CC: I wonder if you have any hopes about the reading of these well considered photographs of such a weighty subject.
SS: I’ve been working in Israel, Abu Dhabi, and most recently in Ukraine, and one thing that I think runs through all of it is that I want to see these places with the unbiased eye of a visitor. I try to avoid the obvious subject that a tourist would photograph, using my experience to sift out what seems essential to that culture.