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Book of the Week: Selected by William Boling

Book Review Modern Instances Photographs by Stephen Shore Reviewed by William Boling "In Modern Instances, Shore’s knowledge, insights and teachings are on full display. With over 170 photographs and illustrations, the book is a feast for the eyes and a ‘sine qua non primer’ for any photographer, curator or collector interested in a deep exploration of how great photography (and photographers) are made..."

Modern Instances by Stephen Shore.
Modern Instances
Photographs by Stephen Shore

MACK, London, UK, 2022. 224 pp., 6¾x9¾".

Stephen Shore’s memoir Modern Instances is a modern masterpiece. Shore is a renowned photographer and one of the most innovative and prolific creatives of his generation, as anyone fortunate enough to have seen his retrospective at MoMA in 2017 knows. With too many exhibitions and published books to mention, and 40 plus years as a teacher and director at Bard College’s prestigious photography department, Shore knows something about the photographic medium worth sharing. Much of what we consider photography today springs from his legendary work.

In Modern Instances, Shore’s knowledge, insights and teachings are on full display. With over 170 photographs and illustrations, the book is a feast for the eyes and a ‘sine qua non primer’ for any photographer, curator or collector interested in a deep exploration of how great photography (and photographers) are made. But, all of this is not what makes this book a masterpiece. After all, Shore’s classic, The Nature of Photography, finally back in its third printing, also provides a masterclass on the nature of the medium.

What makes Modern Instances truly unique is its personal, intimate even, generosity and scope of sharing. Shore lets us in. We are shown the alchemy of the craft alongside the wonder of his extraordinary life. The full title of the book is, after all, Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography. A Memoir. The book is lavishly illustrated and uses vignettes, short essays and even a lengthy email conversation with friend and colleague, George Miles, in an open, flowing style, uniquely Shore’s own, to show and tell. Shore invites us to walk with him through the thoughts, images, influences and experiences that inspired him to develop his craft and, ultimately, become the Stephen Shore we know and think of today.

Few artists have the temerity or ability to effectively share such a journey. But, Stephen Shore was born to share and teach. From his days as a teenager hanging out with Andy Warhol and the crew at The Factory, through the too-early loss of his parents and his first-hand experiences with some of the great and lesser-known players in the art world, he weaves, thread by thread, the tapestry of a long and successful life in photography. We learn how his work evolved from classic black-and-white street to the revolutionary color snapshot-style seeing of American Surfaces and on to the extraordinary 8x10 driven documents of Uncommon Places. Shore’s tale uses his varied affinities with fly fishing, baseball, Vermeer, Shakespeare and beyond to illustrate how all of that came to bear in his becoming a “photographer in full.” It is impossible in a short review to share more than a couple of examples of what makes this book so special. Here are two.

The book’s first vignette and discussion after the introduction is entitled simply “Dead Cowboy.” We see a photo that is precisely that. It is a forensic photo of a murder scene that a district attorney in Amarillo, Texas gave Shore in 1971. A shadow of the deputy taking the photo is cast long across the ground and over the body of the dead cowboy. Shore speaks to the inherent intrigue and power of this vernacular image, which had been taken for non-aesthetic reasons, to open up consideration of why there is such magic in photography and how we use it. Speaking of the image he says: “…while it shows little, it explains even less. It asks more questions than it answers.” And that could be said for Modern Instances. It refuses to give pat answers, grand summations, or conclusions of how he found his way in photography. Instead, he shows us. The memoir meticulously and clearly lays out the people, experiences and artistic and literary influences that lead Shore on a journey from 8x10 to iPhone photos and back again. A veritable Marco Polo of the medium, with Modern Instances, he takes us graciously and with great affection back over the grand trail he has traveled.

In a section titled simply “1970”, Shore shows a diptych portrait of his father and writes about the experience of becoming the third living artist ever to receive an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shore was 23 at the time. He writes, “At the entrance to the show were double portraits of my parents, a picture of each dressed and another in their underwear. My father would dress as he did in the clothed picture to go to the show, waiting for visitors to recognize him. More than just proud, I think he was also relieved. After dropping out of school, spending three years at The Factory, and experimenting with various drugs, I was now having a show at the Met.”

Finally, it must be said, the edit, layout and design of this book are elegant, clear and perfectly appropriate for the purposes of Modern Instances. The publisher, MACK, has had the good sense to create a platform that grows out of the work. Thus the maestro shares his story with nothing between him and the reader except the spirit and good lights of the author.

Modern Instances is the story of a truly remarkable and enduring artist’s path; Shore’s is certainly one of the great photographic journeys of the past half-century. And it is told and presented in a brilliant and ultimately illuminating fashion.

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William Boling is a photographer and the publisher of Fall Line Press and was a student of Stephen Shore in 2005 and 2006. He publishes a weekly newsletter on art and photography at and a longer essay discussing Modern Instances may be found there.