LL (Lucy Xiaochuan Liu): I’m excited to see you bring another innovation to photography in your new work Town & Country. I would really love to hear about your inspiration, your process.
SS (Stephen Shore): There are several things. I had a student who started doing work with drones about three years ago. When I saw it, I remembered back in the seventies when I was doing cross-country trips, I had wished I could afford a cherry picker, so I could travel to different places and have the option of photographing from 20 feet up, instead of only photographing at eye level. I love photographing from eye level because a lot of that is about the experience we all have of seeing, but from a higher elevation, you get to see the structure of land in town. You get to see where one neighborhood ends and another begins, where the transition is from residential areas to commercial areas, from a suburb to undeveloped land… I saw all this potential in drones. So it's been on my mind for a few years and this summer I started doing it.
LL: It must have been such a different way of thinking. You can see through a conventional camera so it seems not so exterior to you, whereas you cannot see how the drone is going to capture.
SS: I would say yes and no. I know exactly how the drone captures, because what I see is what the drone is seeing. I can make judgements such as where to stand. I could see things in front of me and have an idea from experience.
However, what I don't know, which you mentioned, is very important and actually central to my interest and pleasure in it. If I'm walking down a street thinking about taking pictures, I could see in front of me all the possibilities as I'm walking. For instance, I would know what I’m going to see if I walk three steps forward. If I moved, or turned to my left or my right, I know I could see what's there. But with the drone, once it is up, if I move it a little bit forward or rotate it to the side, I don't have any idea what it's going to see. I don't see from that perspective. Also, I could use the drone to look into people's backyards and see things that are behind fences, I could also go over a hill and see a valley that I didn't even know was there.
So a lot of the drone use is exploring. I would put it up where I see something in front of me that I think is going to be interesting, and I take that picture. But once it is up, I'll just start exploring and have no idea at all, what I'm going to find. It's a whole different way of working.
LL: How do you consider spatial relations with a drone? I read the essay Focus by Joel Sternfeld, published in Stephen Shore by Phaidon which started with an analysis of your image Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974. It was a fantastic read about the spatial construction, and the relationship between the town and the country. How is this thought process different with Town & Country?
SS: It’s very different. There are three basic kinds of pictures I take. One is looking straight down. One is looking at an angle toward the ground, but having no horizon. And the third one is taking a picture that has a horizon in it. The first kind, the straight down doesn't really interest me. I've done it once in a while. It tends to look too graphic, too much about pattern and less about what is really the stuff of the real world—the kind of spatial relationships that can exist on a street, with something close to the camera and something that's further in the distance, for example the relationship between a telephone pole that is 10 meters in front of me, and the edge of a building which is 20 meters. In a picture, they look right next to each other that doesn't exist from a drone because everything is far away.
So the challenge is working with the same three basic kinds of pictures I'm talking about and finding relationships within it that are revealing enough about a culture or about a landscape to activate the picture. There's a fourth kind I've been experimenting with, where I'm not up that high, maybe 40 or 50 feet. There could be buildings around me, and it feels more like the spatial relationships from eye level.
LL: In the pictures, I saw some pristine natural landscapes, and some very curious juxtapositions of it with the man-made and inhabited. I was really curious about this as well. How did you consider that?
SS: All of the work was done this summer, in Montana, where I spend my summers. It's a very unpopulated state, although very large in area. Actually, I had a student in China, I asked her: “where are you?” She said: “Oh, it’s a very small city.” I asked: “What's the population?” She said: “1.4 million.” Well, the state of Montana is huge and it has about only a million! So the towns often look different. There are these instances which, from a drone you can see the whole town, surrounded by land. The town or the village might be one or two blocks long, and that's it. It could have a bank, a bar, a post office. That’s it. I bet around that it's just miles of empty land. So from the drone, you get to see this town, how it sits on this expansive land. Montana is great for that.
LL: You keep bringing these innovations into your practice, or you employ different approaches in one work yet it all comes together in an ingenious way. I'm curious how you seem to move through all your ideas, subject-matter, equipment, etc.,with such ease.
SS: Most of my career, I've found a change in tools interesting because each tool opens new aesthetic possibilities. When I went from 35mm to an eight-by-ten, I went back to the oldest photographic technology, but the eight-by-ten camera can do things that a 35mm can’t, and it opens a particular aesthetic door. Color opens another door. Whenever I change the tools I use, I see it as an aesthetic door opening. So I walked through and explore the new territory, a territory that I couldn't have explored with the tools I've had before.
It's not about novelty or gimmicks. I'm in fact behind the curve in that. Millions of people take photos and videos with their drones. There's no novelty in it at this point. It’s the perception that informs the picture, which I couldn't have made if I didn't have the drone. That's what impressed me. It was similar when I started using an eight-by-ten.
LL: I have one particular series of yours in mind—Ukraine. Just to take two pictures from it as an example, there was one with the camera set at a higher angle, of a woman with a white hat, and a goat half black and half white. The landscape receded into the distance. Another image, the one of the clock between two headshots. I just thought, wow, such different approaches coming together in a wonderful way.
SS: It’s interesting you point that out. I was on a little hill so I could take the picture of the goat. I've often been attracted to a kind of higher vantage point, at the end of the seventies. I did a couple of pictures, one of camp ground in Jackson, Wyoming, and another of people on a beach in Yosemite National Park, both taken from higher vantage points. I was able to climb up some land or from a bridge. Then in the eighties, I did a lot of landscapes, particularly in Texas and in Scotland where I would go up on the hillsides and photograph down the valley to another hill on the other side, to give myself a higher vantage point. I started using the drone, it reminded me of the part of me seeking that vantage point for a while. I'm glad you picked up on that in Ukraine work.
Since we're talking about technology, the tool that I took advantage of Ukraine was, a fairly high-end digital camera that I could use like a 35mm, but it's a picture that was at least the quality of a four by five. It produced a picture with the kind of detail of the view camera, but with the speed and flexibility of a 35 millimeter. That also allowed me to take lots and lots of pictures every day, 10 times as many as I could have done using the view camera. Digital photography allowed bracketing of exposures. I could do an interior and take three pictures: one normal exposure, one overexposed(which gives me detail in shadows), and one underexposed(which gives me detail out of a window). I would then digitally combine the three and make it more like what I experience standing in a room, which with film you could never do. It's not that obvious looking at the work, but there are many pictures in there that couldn't have been taken with film.
LL: It's fantastic. Speaking about different forms, I'm really attracted to the utilization of Instagram to produce work. Can you please talk about this body of work?
SS: It's been five or six years. It's been the continuing project in my work. But to be honest, in the past two weeks I only posted once. I think the events of the world are just taking over my mind. Five or six years ago, I posted every single day.
LL: People are still gonna follow you.
SS: I don't know if I'm going in a different direction, or if in a month I'll get back to it. Right now I find myself so engrossed with the events of the world that I’m not focusing. It might also be my increasing interest in the drone use. I was going out almost every day, whenever it was good weather. I’m planning to do a couple of road trips, like I used to do in the seventies, except with the drone. That's really where a lot of my thinking is.
LL: In the Instagram exhibition at 303 Gallery, did the images come from your Instagram photos, or are they photography work put in an Instagram format? How do you think of them?
SS: First of all, it's very hard to generalize about Instagram because there are a billions of people who use it for all different kinds of purposes. Some people just post selfies, some people use it to advertise their products, other people use it for political messages. I don't want to, in any way, generalize. I’m interested in people using it as an artistic platform, as a creative medium. People are taking pictures with their phones with Instagram in mind, thinking, this is for Instagram. They are not going out with a professional camera, taking pictures, and at the end of the day thinking: “What's the best picture I took?” And put it up on Instagram.
I like its “notational quality,” as I call it. That means it doesn't need to be a complex image. A little observation is often enough for the picture. There is a Polaroid made about 40 years ago, called the SX 70. Walker Evans started using it towards the end of his life. You press the button, and pull out a square color picture. It's about the same size as a square Instagram image on a larger iPhone. People loved the SX 70 in the seventies and eighties because of the exact same quality that I'm looking for now.
With the capabilities of the phone, I can get much closer to something. I can put it over my head. I can get it underneath places. I can take pictures with it that I couldn’t with another camera that impressed me. As I mentioned earlier about the basic kinds of photographs that drones produce, Instagram offers aesthetic possibilities.
Now I see the light hitting my teacup sitting on my desk. I can take a picture of that. I'll just do it. (pulls out phone)
LL: I am witnessing a creation!
SS: (shows the picture)You can imagine it being on Instagram and you see what I mean about a very simple notation. It's not a complex picture. It's just something I see. The light is lovely on it. The form is biased. The notational picture on Instagram relates to the stand-alone photograph that I would exhibit on a wall, like how a haiku relates to a sonnet. A haiku is not less profound than a long poem, but its profundity comes from its simplicity and brevity. This image has that same kind of visual brevity to it.
The other part of my interest in Instagram is the community. There are people who I follow, who I know follow me. I post every day and see what they've done. We've formed this online community all over the world. There is a photographer in Iran, one in South Korea, one in Finland, one Switzerland, a number in the UK and in Italy… We look at what we do every day and have this conversation. It is like two enlightenment scholars, one in Paris and one in Amsterdam, who have never met but write letters to each other every week. Maybe I'll never meet my friend in Iran, but we can have this conversation.
LL: It has that romantic quality to it in a contemporary way. How does this work relates to your earlier works like American Surfaces and Uncommon Places?
SS: I think there are some similarities between Instagram and American Surfaces. I was exploring that same kind of notational image. I believe that the notational quality is tied to the physical presentation of the image on our phones, which makes us experience it differently from seeing it framed on a wall.
In American Surfaces, I was looking for the same thing. That's why I presented it as snapshots when they were first exhibited. First of all, I used a snapshot camera called a Rollei 35. It was a little larger than a pack of cigarettes. I own two Leicas, but I wanted a tool that would take lighter notational kind of pictures. Rather than have the lab make the prints, I sent my film to Kodak and had actual snapshots. Part of the aim was to look for a physical form like a haiku. This was the connection for me between American Surfaces and Instagram today.
LL: When creating Town & Country and Instagram, did you have any particular ambitions or intentions, such as a new way to go in the future, or where to place the work in photography history?
SS: No. Going back to one of earlier responses, I think a particular tool opens an aesthetic door in my process. However, on the other side of that door are not just possibilities, but questions. So what can I do with Instagram that I couldn't do with another camera? What makes the picture? How do people read the picture? What makes it interesting? What makes it revealing of the cultural and topographical issues that I'm interested in? How do I make them clear? These problems are always on my mind when I’m using the drone or an iPhone. I don't think they are unique to the tool, but they're all within the broad scope of aesthetic exploration.
LL: New technological approaches are related to new aesthetics. Today, when everyone can own a drone or a camera, take pictures with phones, or post them on Instagram, what new can be done by professional photographers?
SS: “What new can be done in photography?” I've heard that question asked for 50 years, but someone always comes along and do something new. Sometimes it's because of a technological innovation and sometimes it's because a person just sees freshly. In the seventies, I did color photography which had been around for decades. The view camera had been around for 150 years since the beginning of photography. It wasn't that I was using tools that weren't available to other people. A photographer in Berlin named Mikhail Schmidt was just using black-and-white film and a medium format camera that millions of people use, but there was something different about his vision that he saw the world. His voice was a unique voice, and so something new happened. So something new always happens.