Uncommon Places

In 1972, Stephen Shore set out from Manhattan bound for Amarillo, Texas. As his friend drove, Shore stared out through the frame of the car window at the landscape around him and was mesmerised.

Having come from the setting of Warhol’s artists studio in New York, this American landscape was a strange and unfamiliar one to Shore, a displacement that resonates within the photographs that would come together in “Uncommon Places”.

This alien aspect of the surroundings, the distance that Shore seems to bring to each image, captures the vastness of America by emphasising its emptiness. The transience of each place, that liminality, is very present. The images at times suggest that some places really are just for passing through. That America is a land to cross, a land full of in between spaces which we are never meant to experience in any intimate way.

And yet, for all that, it drew Shore in. Enchanted and intrigued him.

“It was a shock. I would be in a flat nowhere place of the earth, and every now and then I would walk outside or be driving down a road and the light would hit something and for a few minutes the place would be transformed … A picture happens when something inside connects, an experience that changes as the photographer does.” (Quoted here)

It’s strange to look at those images today. The familiarity of them seems to distract us from that original alien sense.

We look at those images today and see a familiar place. A place we have seen before. That empty, daunting America, that expansive place has somehow found a space in our psyches.

The impressive vastness is as much an impression of the States as the bustling energy of New York Skyscrapers or the glaring neon of Las Vegas.

But unlike the raucous joy of the cities, this America seems more a place to fear. A primeval place of terrifying loneliness, like River Phoenix on that empty road in “My Own Private Idaho”, isolated and alone.

This is a place we know exists, but prefer not to face.

Why? I think perhpas it is because it reminds us that it really is just us alone in this space, in this time and there’s something very unsettlingl about that idea.

Even Shore’s images of ordinary places and everyday people provoke this nervousness within us.

Among the images of the roadside cafes, the cinemas, the parking lots. Amidst the leatherette booths and the polyester shirts, the hamburgers and the cacti, the commonplace and the outlandish.

Amidst all of this, there is this terrible presence of light that always makes the viewer aware of the time of the day. Of the casting of shadows and the passing of time.

So that the melancholy of it all stands out, resonates, and makes the familiar seem somehow desolate and alien. Makes us crave, at times, the garish lights of Vegas or New York, if only to forget that time really is passing, that those shadows really are real.

That the young, bright, optimistic America is an old place after all, a place whose landscape reverberates with time and shadows we can only get a glimpse of.

What made Shore’s work so strange at the time though, was his fearless use of colour film. Until then, colour photography was largely the prevail of the advertising community. The brashness and glare of it was just what was needed to blaze out the garish joy and novelty of consumerism.

And then there was Shore, using that same colour to document, not some fantasy world, but a real place, a real America, which until them hadn’t existed in this way.

True, in “The Americans” Robert Frank had composed a photographic diary of the States in the Fifties, which according to Jack Kerouac depicted:

“That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral…” (Quoted here)

But Frank, as a Swiss national was not an American, was not able, in quite the same way, to depict that alien feeling that Shore had at setting out into his own country only to find himself shocked at the unfamiliarity of it.

If Kerouac tried in his novels to give us a glimpse of that world, then it is Shore that succeded in showing it to us in film.

And today, those images have lost their alien qualities somewhat. The Americana of Shore is all around us in film, in advertising, in our own photographs.

I’ve been flipping through Flickr again and marvelling at the documentary range available there, not just for the States, but in general.

And looking through it, I see an aesthetic there sometimes. Not just the documentation of the mundane, but that documentation of time and light, of fun and sadness and joy that Shore, in a way, opened our eyes to, all those years ago, with his “Uncommon Places”.

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