Confession time: I am something of a newcomer to Stephen Shore. I have only recently become aware of his work but it is safe to say that I am now instantly hooked by not only his style but the clear, disciplined vision he takes to his photography.
Uncommon Places was originally published in 1982 and is a terrific example of how simplicity and colour come together to create meaningful images from otherwise unmemorable scenes. Taken from a series of road trips across the United States in the 1970s, this book features hundreds of photographs from his travels. Architecture, cars, and very few people are the most prominent themes.
Embracing the mundane
Before I wax lyrical about how much I enjoyed Uncommon Places, I should probably put out a disclaimer that this book might not be for everyone. There's a conscious rejection from Shore of clever compositions or aesthetically pleasing viewpoints. It is instead an exercise in the banal – scenes that we witness without even thinking about it, so ordinary that they barely register in our consciousness.
As architect Robert Venturi rightly acknowledges, it is the ordinariness of the subjects that make the images so engaging. The views, so purposefully chosen by Shore, are not especially interesting: dusty streets, empty garages, parking lots, intersections, motel furniture, the featureless exteriors of rundown offices.
It's a collection of images that accepts and embraces the mundane of these rural landscapes and doesn't attempt to dramatise or make them beautiful. Shore has turned what would otherwise be fleeting, instantly-forgotten moments into a work that gives an undeniable sense of time and place.
Despite the mundane nature of the subjects, the presence of rich colour can be found throughout. Unlike some of Shore's contemporaries who would utilise late afternoon light to help create vivid tones, the colour in Uncommon Places tends to come from the subjects themselves: storefront signs, window sills, strips of grass along sidewalks, the sky, painted houses, fences and, of course, cars.
A sense of familiarity from the ordinary
Having read and re-read the book, you can't help but be left with an acute sense of just how familiar these places feel. We've all been to towns like this – more often than not just passing through – and that sense of being personally acquainted with them makes Uncommon Places so enjoyable and satisfying.
Tennessee Williams said of this book that it "[exposes] so much, and yet [leaves] so much room for your imagination to roam" and I couldn't agree more. Shore's work gives you hundreds of not-quite blank canvasses and your mind tends to complete the picture by asking questions about these places and the people who reside there.
By creating mini-stories from the most basic and ordinary of photographs, Uncommon Places, is a series that can not only be interpreted widely but one that evolves the more you look at it. That alone makes it stand out as a very special body of photographs and the perfect introduction to Shore's work.
Uncommon Places: The Complete Works
Thames & Hudson (2014)