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Stephen Shore: Modern Instances

Stephen Shore: Modern Instances

My first exposure to Stephen Shore was not his photographs, but his book, The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. It remains a favorite. I think it is one of the most inspiring books about photography. It is similar to, in fact more accurately, it is an outgrowth of John Szarkowski’s The Photographers Eye, covering and reinforcing much of the same territory.

Both books relay on sparse, staright-forward text to explore the nature of what photographs and photography are. They are books that I regularly come back to, drawing new inspiration and insight each time I open them.

Modern Instances is a very different photography book. That is apparent even without opening it, as there is no photograph on the cover. Instead, it is an engraving of a painter inside of a massive camera obscura, drawing a scene from an upside-down projection (as all camera obscura images are).

In The Nature of Photographs Shore methodically digs deeply into what it is that makes photography a uniquely different art form, examining the core characteristics of photographs and how they influence the medium.

In his introduction, Shore describes Modern Instances as “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions. An impressionistic memoir.”

Be prepared. When Shore says it is impressionistic, he means it. The book is idiosyncratic and at times borders on stream of consciousness. The book can seem only peripherally related to photography. But, like Shore’s photographs, there is more to the book than first meets the eye. Much more.

Shore’s musings include fly fishing, Toy Story, baseball and Fred Astaire, among many others. Yet, he somehow manages to tie them all into lessons about photography, vision and life.

A digression here. I admit that I’m not sure I always “get” Stephen Shore’s images. Many of his best-known images are a mix where nothing is going on, while simultaneously a whole lot is going on. For years Shore used a view camera and meticulously composed his images. Yet, to me, they can have a feel of random happenstance. They may be as carefully composed as any Edward Weston or Ansel Adams image, but there is a lot of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand lurking in them.  

In some ways, Modern Instances is the perfect companion to Shore’s photographs. It could be easily dismissed by the casual reader as random recollections. But, spend a little time with the book and you’ll find insights and wisdom that few books written by photographers contain.

A popular genre of photography books these days are “workshop” books in which well-known photographers pair their images with stories and insights. Aperture Foundation has an Aperture Photography Workshop Series and has recently been joined by the Masters of Photography series from Laurence King. There are many books from individual photographers that offer insights and anecdotes paired with their pictures, as well as anthology books that compile commentary from a variety of photographers.

I own a lot of these books, but honestly, the value for most of them is that they serve as condensed, affordable portfolios of the photographers’ works. Photographers are visual artists. Very few are also writers. Too many of these books are filled with the standard “follow your dream. Be true to yourself” exhortations that are common in many different genres, from business to spirituality.

Shore, after a lifetime of photography and teaching, seems acutely aware of the limits of explanation when it comes to experiencing and understanding photography.

At the same time, his many years of teaching has given him an ability to tease out important lessons in seeing and thinking critically about one’s own photographs and what they aspire to say.

Unlike the “workshop” books I referenced, Modern Instances is definitely not a portfolio of Shore’s work, although a fair number of his images are included. Most of the images in the book are not photographs, but reproductions of paintings, music, movie stills and historical illustrations.

What Modern Instances is, is a glimpse into the life, inspiration and philosophy of a man who has not only enjoyed significant artistic success of his own, but who has thought deeply about his craft and generously shared his insights with generations of students. The book can be read quickly, but with thought and attention, it will reward you in ways that few other photography books can.

I have a handful of books that I revisit from time to time, taking new lessons from them. The Nature of Photographs, is one of those books. Robert Adams three books of essays – Why People Photograph, Beauty in Photography and Art Can Help – along with John Szarkowski’s, The Photographer’s Eye, all fit that category. I am adding Modern Instances to that short list.

Modern Instances on Amazon

The Nature of Photographs on Amazon

The Photographer’s Eye on Amazon

Beauty in Photography on Amazon

Why People Photograph on Amazon

Art Can Help on Amazon

Aperture Photography Workshop Series on Amazon

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