Photos of different parts of the city always show the viewer something that cannot be seen 'in reality'. Firstly, that is because of the picture frame, which turns the photos into something of a window on or reflection of society. Then of course there is the technical reduction from three to two dimensions, which turns 'volume' into a graphical entity. Finally, and this is the last open door, the camera viewpoint is important. The composition of a photo is often botched if the photographer takes a step forward or backward, to the right or left, climbs a ladder or stands on the ground. This is neatly illustrated in the photo taken by Stephen Shore on June 21, 1975, on Coronado Street in Los Angeles. We see a building in the centre of the image, and the shadow of a palm tree draws our eye from the bottom right-hand corner of the photo towards the front door in the centre. But the shadow doesn't end there; it runs up the facade on the left side of the picture, and is echoed by a real palm tree behind the house. No other camera viewpoint would have captured this effect. Masterly, but there are other reasons why this photograph is important.
Shore's book Uncommon Places first appeared in 1982 and contains a series of just 50 photos. The recent reprint offers the first overview of the complete series in one book, and contains some hundred photos omitted from the original edition. Shore himself calls it 'the director's cut', despite the fact that he himself selected the photos for previous editions. Now that we can view all photos together we can appreciate the enormous influence they have had on today's urban and landscape photographers.
The titles of Shore's photos always include an indication of time and place. This underlines the serial character of the collection as a single entity. Moreover, the geographical pinpointing of each picture allows you to trace Shore's journey across America. Shore learnt to work in series from his chance master Andy Warhol, from whom he also acquired a well-developed nose for mixing high and low culture. And rightly so: the ordinary and extraordinary go together effortlessly. They belong together like day and night, connected by dusk and daybreak.
There's an important lesson in these pictures for designers. The jacket blurb on the first edition written by star architect Robert Venturi explains why. The fact is that Shore's work relates directly to the designer's vision. And what was true for Venturi back then is perhaps true for today's generation. According to Venturi, Shore rejects excessive opulence, artistic embellishment, and superficial simplification. Shore accepts the well-worn, commonplace, makeshift character of urban and rural America. He accepts the run-down appearance of the landscape and the spatial messiness of the cityscape. He makes the ordinary significant, makes it poignant, coherent, almost loveable. So much for Venturi. The book therefore has a perfect title: the photos are about the 'commonplace', and the 'un' prefix denotes just how special the commonplace really is.
The Other Way Round
Venturi here is candid in expressing his love of ordinariness. Shore makes explicit and special everything we never see because we simply never look carefully enough and because it forms part of the visual clutter that is always there clouding our field of vision. That is exactly what Venturi has always done with ordinary architecture. He is never judgmental, certainly not in the aesthetic sense ('ugliness doesn't exist'). Instead, he totally accepts what exists and adds his own vocabulary. In that sense Venturi's architecture has always had a photographic character: seeing, accepting, and then adding a new image. The photographer prints, the architect draws.
The opposite is true far too often today. Instead of 'addition' we see an awful lot of demolition; instead of 'accepting' work by others, designers too often think that everything different is worse than what they make; and 'seeing', with which everything should begin, occurs only afterwards in the form of looking back in amazement at the disappointing performance of one's own efforts. Shore's lesson: to design is to look carefully, accept, and add - in precisely that order.
That makes Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places a timeless masterpiece by a major artist. No designer should be without it.