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Transparencies: Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Book Review Transparencies Photographs by Stephen Shore Reviewed by Blake Andrews Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 offers an alternative account of one of the most fabled episodes in photographic history: the cross-country journeys that produced Stephen Shore’s luminous new vision of the American landscape, Uncommon Places.
Transparencies. By Stephen Shore.
Small Camera Works 1971–1979
Photographs by Stephen Shore

Mack, London, England, 2020. Unpaged, 11¾x12¼".

In the early 1970s, Stephen Shore seldom left a restaurant table unphotographed. Food was just one small component in his daily captures, which included motel rooms, dirty clothes, parking lots, toilets, ceilings, shops, nightstands, appliances, and all the other artifacts of his domestic explorations. Everything was fair game.

Shore’s aesthetic, which would eventually come to dominate fine art photography, was a deliberate effort to avoid modernist trappings — those of man seeking grandeur in the mundane. Instead, he looked to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan factuality for guidance. Inspired by postcards, commercial signage, and snapshots, he developed a direct, non-fussy style that stripped away any highbrow pretensions to framing, lighting, or the picturesque. Shore’s approach proved prescient. The idea that image is secondary to intention is now the zeitgeist.

TransparenciesBy Stephen Shore.

Transparencies is the latest in a recent slew of books to explore Shore’s early archives. A new edition of American Surfaces is also due soon. It’s rather amazing to look back and realize that these early photos weren’t published as books contemporaneously. The first edition of American Surfaces didn’t arrive until 1999, and it wasn’t until 2005 that a more comprehensive edit came along.

TransparenciesBy Stephen Shore.
Transparencies focuses on the mid-seventies, the period when Shore was transitioning to the view camera. That large format work would eventually produce his best known project, Uncommon Places. But even while consumed by that project, he hadn’t quite given up on 35mm. True, he’d ditched his trusty Rollei 35, but, in its place, acquired a Leica M2. Stocked with Kodachrome, it went everywhere with him.

How did that Leica see differently? The book shows a sampling of what Shore found: 112 photographs, generously sized, without captions. Transparencies compares with Uncommon Places in the ways one might expect. Beginning with a shaky series of indistinct road shots, the photos exude the loose energy of 35mm. Some frames are cockeyed, or seen through a windshield, or suffer from camera shake, or are helped by it. There are generally more pedestrians in Transparencies than Uncommon Places, though that may be a function of editing as much as format. And whereas Shore using a tripod could stop down his aperture to get entire scenes in focus, his 35mm depth of field was often restrained by slow film and unreliable lighting.

Although the work was shot concurrently, there’s seemingly only one scene shot by both cameras. That’s a boat harbor in Miami in 1975, huddled under a massive highway interchange. With no other direct comparisons, the reader looks to the work for hints of Shore’s thinking.

TransparenciesBy Stephen Shore.

Transparencies is sequenced chronologically. As we move through the seventies some familiar themes arise. One change that becomes immediately apparent is the transition to outdoors. Whereas American Surfaces largely featured indoor snapshots, Shore’s Leica found much of its material in public settings. The change in backdrop seems to echo a broader switch in Shore’s approach, from internalized snapshots of a very personal nature toward the dispassionate open landscapes typical of New Topographics. Whether the Leica work was “a parallel iteration of an iconic vision… like a piece of music played in a new key,” as Mack describes it, or simply the efforts of a photographer whose style had already moved on, the results are fascinating.

TransparenciesBy Stephen Shore.
The formalism of Uncommon Places manifests more and more as the reader wades deeper into Transparencies. The opening photos are blurred and dreamy, but they quickly firm up. Soon we see storefronts shot head-on, alleys opening into distant vistas, delicately composed parking lots, an affinity for cars, pavement, signs and vernacular material. There’s even a brief taste of Europe before the book returns stateside. By the time the reader encounters a street corner fronted by plywood walls, angled just so, the world has shifted convincingly toward Uncommon Places.

Regardless of camera, whatever Shore photographed in the 1970s was with intense visual hunger. It’s the same motivation fueling all great photographers and all lasting works, that restless need to swallow the world with a lens. “I wanted to be visually aware as I went through the day,” he is quoted in American Surfaces. “I started photographing everyone I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked on, the towns I visited. Then, when the trip was over, I just continued it.”

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TransparenciesBy Stephen Shore.
TransparenciesBy Stephen Shore.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at