American Surfaces is a series of 312 colour landscape-format photographs depicting vernacular scenes that American photographer Stephen Shore captured while on a dedicated road trip across America in 1972–3. Informal portraits, photographs of city and suburban streets, and images of domestic objects, meals and street signage are all among the subject matter featured in these works, which can be displayed sequentially in smaller groups or as part of the series in its entirety.
This series is the earliest example of the road trip projects documenting the social landscape of America that have formed a central part of Shore’s practice. At the first exhibition of American Surfaces at Light Gallery, New York in 1972, the series’ snapshot aesthetic (achieved through the use of 35 mm film and glossy colour prints made at a high-street Kodak lab) and the unconventional hang (in a large grid of prints fixed directly onto the wall with backing tape) were thought radical and were badly received by photography critics of the time. Today, the exhibition is widely acknowledged as representing a key moment in the history of photography.
American Surfaces was first published as a book of seventy-two images in 1999. In 2005, consistent with his practice of revisiting and reworking earlier series through the medium of the photobook, Shore published the series in its entirety for the first time, and applied a cohesive structure to the works, grouping them by year and the state in which they were taken (see Shore 2005). These digital prints owned by Tate were made in the same year in an edition of ten.
Reflected in the title of the work, the details recorded in American Surfaces are superficial, yet together they build a bold and insightful portrait of the social and geographical landscape specific to North America at that time. Prior to making American Surfaces, Shore’s work had focused almost singularly on New York, where he grew up. This project marked a formative point in his career when the concept of the road trip became – as it remains – integral to his practice: immediately after finishing this project he began his seminal series Uncommon Places (published 1982). Working in a photographic tradition established by American photographers such as Robert Frank (born 1924) and Walker Evans (1903–1975), in American Surfaces Shore established a new method of recording vernacular scenes of life in North America. The artist has stated that he set out to record ‘everything and everyone’ he came across (Stephen Shore, artist talk, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 23 February 2012, http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/asx-tv-stephen-shore-sf-moma-artist-talk-2012.html, accessed 21 November 2014). His approach – loosely diaristic and serial in nature – together with his non-hierarchical framing of the image and grid-like method of presentation, indicated links with minimalist and conceptual practices of the 1960s and 1970s.
Shore is recognised as being among the most influential post-war American photographers, and was included in the landmark exhibition New Topographics: Photography of a Man-Altered Landscape at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York in 1975 (alongside photographers including Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and Bernd and Hilla Becher). His work is closely associated with conceptual practices as a result of his time at Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s, and he is credited, along with William Eggleston (born 1939), with helping to establish colour photography as a valid medium.
Stephen Shore, American Surfaces, New York 2005.
Michael Fried, Christy Lange and Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, London 2007.
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