Book: Shore, S. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works

The introductory text to exercise 5.3 on journeys referred at some length to Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, and it occurred to me that although several images from this series had been included in the Cruel and Tender exhibition which I saw at Tate Modern back in 2003, I’d never seen the complete series, so I ordered a copy of the book. When it arrived a few days later I was struck by how deeply familiar all the images felt. Perhaps I have in fact seen them all many times over the years, but I think the sense of familiarity actually stems from the fact that the images seem to constitute an idiom that is both deeply embedded in and reflective of cultural representations of the US of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The sense of transience and endless open spaces, the juxtapositioning of the gaudy products and signage of mass consumer culture against untamed dusty landscapes and distant mountain ranges, the simultaneous sense of sparseness and abundance, the strong but muted colour palettes, the grid-like urban environments, reflected in Shore’s grid-like compositions. The cars are different today, but other than that this is what the US still looks like, in movies and in real life. More than Frank and Eggleston, in Uncommon Places Shore has captured the look and feel of the country – to the extent that it seems inevitable and unavoidable that it should be photographed this way.

Shore’s use of horizontal and vertical lines within the image to frame his subject and create interest in the picture plane put me in mind of Stephen Gill’s series Covered or Removed, which also uses these devices and has a distinctly Shore-like aesthetic despite being shot in Hackney rather than north America. I also noted that my own images from a two-week California road trip last July borrowed heavily from the same idiom (see selection below). Did Shore invent this idiom? Did he borrow it from Hollywood? Is it an inevitable outcome of the way such environments present themselves to be photographed? Perhaps all of these things are true.

References and resources

Shore, S. (2014) Uncommon Places: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson.
Gill, S. (date unknown) Covered or Removed. Available at https://www.stephengill.co.uk/portfolio/portfolio/nggallery/album-1-2/covered-or-removed [accessed 02.06.2020]