Photos & Analysis
Oftentimes, photos lose their merit when they’re staged. A staged photo captures how the subject wants to appear: a forced smile, open eyes, a body turned slightly away from the camera. They fail in catching the essence of the individual, the minute quirky mannerisms that make us human. Stephen Shore aimed to capture these truths. His photos frame the short seconds of human error, those beautiful moments of pure humanness that allow us to place ourselves in a photo.
The above photo, “The 40oz Rebellion” captures these truths. Its spontaneity allows it to capture the boys in a moment that wouldn’t ordinarily be considered good photography. However, its capture of emotion – the half closed eye of the boy in the center, and the defamatory act of the boy in the back – is powerful in its honesty. What specifically draws the viewer’s eye to the boys is the photo’s poor composition and uneven lighting. Just like in many of Shore’s photos, the subject is placed flat in the center of the photo with most of the light on him. The viewer’s eye is first drawn to the boy in the center, whose deranged facial expression and wet shorts (although probably from a spill) evoke feelings of shock and disgust. The next progression of the viewer’s eye is towards the boy in the back. While he definitely notices the camera, he does not stop drinking his almost empty bottle, but rather responds bluntly with a middle finger and scornful eyes. This spontaneity, the instance of emotion, allows the viewer to place himself in the scene, to feel the surprise of the subjects and to see the sloppiness of this scene.
At first glance, many of Shore’s photos seem normal and ordinary, however on further review, one sees their true peculiarity. The above photo, “A Frozen Reflection” appears to be a normal photo of a freezer in a supermarket. The sign taped to the front, however, is strange and out of place. It reads, “We Have The Shingles Vaccine.” While this sign would not be out of place at the pharmacy, its placement on the frozen pizza freezer is gross and strange. The reflection of the store in the freezer’s glass adds to the disgusting nature of the market. The linoleum tiles look stained and dirty, the lights are long fluorescent bulbs, and the ceiling is composed of off-white aged tiles. Additionally, the composition of this photo creates an unnerving perspective. The photo is slightly tilted, only displaying part of the freezer, and the lights in the reflection moves to a central vanishing point, while the subject maintains no artistic composition. Traditionally considered a poorly composed photo, the unnerving nature of the photo would surely place it among the ranks of Shore’s work. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger describe the power of an oddly composed photograph in their piece “Photo Books”:
Great photo books can be made from not-so-great photographs. Moi Ver’s remarkable Paris (1931) is probably the most notable example of this: the individual images are not particularly striking, but the way in which they are choreographed creates an astonishing work.6
Shore’s photo book, “American Surfaces” is a compilation of the photos taken during his tour of the United States. However, his photos dive deeper than the surface; none would be classified as traditional “American” – no patriotic symbols of hope, flags, soldiers, or Big Macs and fries. They are from the perspective of the stranger in the bathroom, the quiet wanderer on the street, the outsider looking in. Growing up in a Jewish family, Shore must have felt that he was not a part of the American surface, the stereotype of a typical American. He was a Jew, not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. His photos do not seem to be taken from the outsider perspective at first glance, however, after attempting to emulate them, I realized the true goal behind his approach. Taking photos of everyday life – of the grotesque, true face of the human condition – I had to blend into my surroundings, I had to maintain an eye displaced from the my subjects, I had to remain unnoticed: a quiet observer looking in. My photos made me feel alienated and distanced, as if I was unwanted and my presence was invasive and creepy. Shore’s photos are anonymous, yet intrusive, simple yet sincere. In his introduction to “American Surfaces,” Bob Nickas so beautifully describes this emotion:
Even though we never actually see the man behind the camera, he’s there, present and anonymous. He could be almost anyone.4
Additionally, Shore’s photos are powerful not in their singularity, but in their pairings. His pages pair the old with the new, the grotesque with the beautiful, and these pairings illustrate the vast cultural differences of American societies. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger describe the importance and power of pairings:
In the photo book, the sum, by definition, is greater than the parts, and the greater the parts, the greater the potential of the sum.6
I attempted to emulate one of these couplings by pairing a toilet surrounded by a dirty floor with a tacky, oddly composed photograph of a landscape painting. Individually, each of these photos are rather weak in their power to evoke emotion, however, when paired, their sum causes viewers to question the truths behind their own world. They demonstrate that there is more than the surface; perhaps all it takes to recognize the truth is a second perspective.
In order to view the images as intended, first click on the Shore slideshow and then the Schindler slideshow to see corresponding images.
The above slideshows demonstrate the normal processes of daily life: from cooking a meal to relaxing on the couch. Each however, is ever so slightly distorted, shifting perspective and exposing new truths about the mundaneness of daily life. The photos may appear normal at first, but focus around the subject, and you will see a strange new perspective. I have paired my photos with Shore’s, trying to emulate his photos, while placing them in my own world of the 21st century, to show that Shore’s feelings of alienation and invasiveness are universal to all people who do not fit the mold of the “American Surface.”