Question marks: Stephen Shore’s Abu Dhabi photographs
Ryan Summerlin August 7, 2011
ASPEN – Stephen Shore has been a photographer for nearly six decades, and in all that time he has never been moved to make photographs that are attractive in a typical fashion. Proof of this aesthetic lies in “Elevator,” a 16mm film Shore made when he was 18; it was a black-and-white view of the inside of an elevator. (Shore notes that this was one of those old-fashioned cage elevators, which probably raises the attractiveness level a notch higher than if it had been a modern, fully enclosed model.)
Fortunately, at the time Shore screened “Elevator,” traditional notions of aesthetics were in a particularly active state of being upended. It was 1965, and “Elevator” screened on the same program that Andy Warhol showed his “The Life of Juanita Castro,” a highly experimental work that consisted of a playwright coaxing a group of female actors to create a play about Cuban politics. “Elevator” earned the teenage Shore an invitation to come to the Factory, Warhol’s midtown Manhattan studio/gathering spot. Shore spent three years making photographs at the Factory, a training ground he considers a substitute for college. “The most important thing I took away from it was, I got to see artists making aesthetic decisions every day,” he said.
Rather than making what he calls “good photographs,” Shore has used his camera as an investigative tool. “It’s always been my intent to use photographs to answer questions in my mind,” he said.
In Abu Dhabi, an exhibition of 32 digital images currently showing in the upper gallery of the Aspen Art Museum, Shore’s questions center around the capitol of the United Arab Emirates, a city on the Persian Gulf that, thanks to an abundance of oil, is perhaps the wealthiest city on the planet. Shore’s central puzzlement: Why does Abu Dhabi look the way it does?
“This was a city that was built very recently, 40 years ago, in a country where there had been nothing there, really,” the 64-year-old Shore said on an afternoon last week at the Art Museum. “But to build a city without much history, in an age of globalization, I was interested in seeing the regional influence in the art, the architecture and the little symbols of life.”
Shore’s photographs, which are being exhibited for the first time, portray a place that is resolutely Middle Eastern in its look. People are almost nonexistent in the series, but virtually everything captured – the colors, designs, objects, topography, buildings, rubble, the prominent blue sky – speak of a place in the Arabic world. Which got Shore into questioning mode.
“They could have used traditional Western, modernist architecture. They could have used that model,” Shore, who lives in Tivoli, N.Y., roughly 100 miles north of his native Manhattan, and who is director of the photography program at Bard College, said. “But what they have is inflected with something regional.”
Shore visited the United Arab Emirates two and a half years ago, staying in Dubai. He was then invited to attend Abu Dhabi Art, a fair where he installed a five-screen projection of images from the Abu Dhabi series. But Shore’s interest in the city extends beyond simple logistics; Abu Dhabi is on the visual leading edge. Shore points out that three of the most ambitious building projects in the world are planned for the city: the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry; the Louvre Abu Dhabi; and a museum by Norman Foster.
Shore, who began making photographs at age 6, when an uncle gave him a Kodak dark-room kit, spent much of his career working with American images. In the last few years, though, he has become increasingly interested in foreign lands, working extensively in Israel, making images in Hong Kong and Switzerland, and doing a small book on northern Italy. The shift in focus has caused him to start confronting new issues – like the benefits and disadvantages of being in unfamiliar surroundings.
“It has potential and problems,” he said. “The potential is, you can see if freshly. The problem is, you don’t want to end up doing tourist pictures. I put myself in a mental framework of a foreigner: If I were unfamiliar with this culture, a stranger, an anthropologist from New Guinea coming to Tucumcari, New Mexico, what would I find of interest there? And I say anthropologist rather than a tourist, because I’m saying I don’t come without cultural understanding.”
Shore believes that photography has its limitations on how far it can delve into a culture. But turning the lens toward other aspects of a culture allows the photographer to go a bit further. And a broad series of photos, like Abu Dhabi, can begin to add up to a bigger picture of a place.
“I’m interested in how a culture expresses itself in its architecture, its signage, its design,” he said. “There are a lot of perceptions that are literary, verbal perceptions. A photograph can only deal with visual perceptions. But the built environment provides a visual expression of these forces, and being visible, it makes it expressible through a camera.”
Shore said that the ubiquity of photography – that fact that virtually everyone now uses some form of camera on a near daily basis – hasn’t affected his practice much. He still faces an issue that he had to deal with a half-century ago – that picture-taking is, in many ways, far easier than painting or sculpting.
“What hasn’t changed is that it’s the easiest medium in which to make a completed work,” Shore said. “You could give a camera to a chimp, and he could make something that would have edges, content, be in focus. It would be a picture. That accessibility hasn’t changed at all. There’s always been this issue that the ease of making a picture masks the thinking that goes behind making a serious photograph. Or a humorous one.”
Shore continues to use his camera in service of his thinking. He said that, after earning praise early on – he was the first living photographer to have a one-person exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – the easiest thing would have been to duplicate his past methods. But different questions keep coming to mind.
“And when those questions are answered, I move on,” he said. “As soon as the mental friction is gone, I want to move forward. New questions keep arising. Which makes it totally satisfying.”