In American Surfaces, I was photographing almost every meal I ate, every person I met, every waiter or waitress who served me, every bed I slept in, every toilet I used.3
To put it simply, Stephen Shore took a lot of photographs. One of my main struggles in emulating Shore’s photos was capturing his vast selection of subjects. I was timid with camera, approaching dozens of people to ask for a portrait, but shying away as I neared closer. Additionally, Shore took his camera everywhere, catching everything he saw. While I do always have my cellphone on hand, I did not like using it to take photos – its quality is significantly worse than my DSLR. However, I was often without my Nikon and missed heaps of perfect shots.
In my methodology, I had said I would attempt to recreate Shore’s obscure photos of food, mashed and unnerving. I tried to capture these shots, but I often lacked the height to perfectly emulate his work. Shore would stand on a diner’s bench or a café’s stool to achieve the optimal height for his aerial food shots. My timidity prevented me from doing this. In a crowded dining hall, I was too nervous of what others would think of me if I stood on a chair with a clunky DSLR and photographed my mundane meal.
Shore began American Surfaces in 1971 and his photos capture the atmosphere and style of the seventies – afros and thick glasses, wood paneled walls and tacky shag carpets. While these chronological differences originally threw me off, upon a second look at the photos, I was able to look past these distinctions and see that people of the 20th century are not so different than those of my time. They relax, stress, laugh, cry, and appear amused, disturbed, and distraught. They enjoy each other’s company, while also enjoying their time alone. The introduction of cellphones, computers, and color television may seem to change my generation, but deep down humanity has remained the same since Shore’s time.
People say my pictures are nostalgic, my pictures aren’t nostalgic, they’re nostalgic! My pictures are just pictures. When they were shown in the early seventies in New York, there was no hint of nostalgia.5
Following this idea, I assert my original thesis that a further look at the mundane reveals the hidden intricacies of the human condition. Taking photos of my friends and family, people I have grown to know on a deeply intrinsic level, I have realized that their true character and personality shines through a photograph even if it spontaneous. The goofiness of a friend, the patient, caring twinkle in my mother’s eyes, my father’s confident yet humble intelligence are evident through my snapshots.
While the awkwardness of photographing unknown subjects allowed me to feel the alienation and isolation that Shore felt as a Jew growing up in a gentile world, the project was liberating in its ability to free me from that distanced state. It was intimidating for me to flash around my clunky DSLR and snap photos in public places (and surely must have been for Shore). However, upon reviewing my finished gallery, I felt as though I compiled a study of candid humanity. My photos eased my concerns and seemed to liberate me from my position of isolation as I realized that when people are unaware of the lens (that of the camera as well as the judging eye of society), in truth, we all share quirky mannerisms that make us human. While many people attempt to hide behind a facade of ‘coolness’ and feign normalcy, when they don’t think they’re being watched, their true human character shines. The camera was especially liberating for Shore as it proved to him that all people are unique in their independent idiosyncrasies. His candid shots exposed the truths of pure humanness: we are all quirky, peculiar, and odd, however that very trait is what makes us most human.
I believe, if nothing else, I have left this project with a more patient eye. I have learned to question the world around me, to explore what I take as ordinary, to spend an extra minute a day thinking about the food on the plate before me, to examine the infinitesimal, ever-changing facial expressions of a friend. I have inherited Shore’s eye: nothing I see can remain unexamined. In the words of famed social critic and The Doors lead singer, Jim Morrison:
It takes large murder to turn rocks in the shade and expose strange worms beneath. The lives of our discontented madmen are revealed.2
Shore left no rock unturned, never content with the ordinary.