Uncommon Places: 50 Unpublished Photographs 1973-1978
A photo spread from Stephen Shores Uncommon Places
Sleeping by the Mississippi
New Orleans, Louisianna
Photo from Sleeping by the Mississippi
Larry Sultan: The Valley
Boxers, Mission Hills, 2000, from the series The Valley
by Jean Dykstra
"The photographic equivalent of a directors cut," is how Stephen Shore describes Uncommon Places (Aperture), originally published in 1982 and now reissued with a new selection of photographs, including 60 that werent in the first version. It can also be read as the photographic equivalent of a road movie. From 1973 to 1981, Shore spent his summers traveling across the country and taking pictures.
In the documentary vein of the New Topographics photographers (originally coined for a 1975 show at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester), Shores subject, generally speaking, was the built environment, but he included plenty of finely observed interiors and such deadpan details as the back end of a bright red Ford pickup.
Shore was a pioneer in the use of color in art photography in the 70s, and in the focus on a particularly American vernacular. Walker Evans was there first, of course, and hes clearly a major influence, but so is Andy Warhol, whom the 17-year-old Shore photographed while hanging around Warhols Factory. A native New Yorker, Shore approached the vast expanse of America as an outsider, but his photographs lack Warhols disdain.
Shore offers a new way to see the American landscape: from long stretches of dirt road to straightforward, beautifully composed photographs of houses, gas stations, strip malls, or a plate of pancakes, Shore took it all in and offered it back up in a spirit of appreciation: look at this, they seem to say. Or more specifically: look at how this looks in a photograph.
Shore, not to mention William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld and Mitch Epstein, photographers working in color in the 1970s, surely influenced Alec Soth, whose Sleeping by the Mississippi (Steidl) takes a similarly close view of the small towns up and down the most famous American river. Soths confident photographs home in on evocative details -- like the red, Egglestonesque interior of a bar in Minneapolis, or a wax figure of "Jim" from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Hannibal, Missouri -- that suggest a flavor of the towns along the river, though the river itself, often as not, is only an implied presence.
There are recurring themesreligion, beds (suggesting dreaming, or childhood, or home), and pictures, photographs, and paintings, which appear in so Many of Soths photographs. Unlike Shore, Soth also includes a fair number of portraits, many of them attesting to the religious convictions of his subjects. In Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, a stiffly posed man in a too-big but well-pressed suit, stands in the midst of what looks to be the wreckage of a building, clasping a palm in one hand a Bible in the other. Soth has produced a rich, nuanced book that stakes its own claim to the tradition of Evans and Shore.
In contrast to these road photographers, Larry Sultan is probably best known for the series "Pictures from Home," in which he stayed local, photographing his aging parents, tanned and practicing their golf swings, in their San Fernando Valley home. In The Valley (Scalo), Sultan returns to the place where he grew up to discover that in the past decade, the Valley has become a stage set for porn films: folks have taken to renting out their homes for two or three days to adult-film companies.
Some of Sultans best pictures are as much about the houses as whats going on inside them: a flamboyantly ornate bedroom, for instance, with a faux 18th century chair, a leather footstool, zebra print blankets on oriental rugs and, almost out of the frame, a naked woman, seen from behind. Theres excess within excess here, but Sultan has primarily photographed, in sumptuous color, the more ordinary stuff. People talk on cell phones, smoke cigarettes, nap and chat about babysitters and mortgages.
What Sultan shows best is the weird disjunction of it all -- naked actors strolling around a suburban house he could have grown up in, the boredom that seems to define their working days, which are dedicated to manufacturing fantasy.
Naoya Hatakeyamas photographs can be described, generally speaking, as landscape photographs, but he has a particularly understated take on the way the natural and the manmade worlds intersect. His series Blast was comprised of strangely beautiful photographs of explosions at limestone quarries, for instance, and Underground was a series of dark, moody pictures of tunnels throughout Tokyo. In Atmos (Nazraeli Press), a slender bi-fold artists book, the photographer has paired color images of the Camargue, a bucolic plain in the south of France where the Rhone River empties into the sea, with photographs of the steel factory on the outskirts of the plain.
Hatakeyama clearly did not intend to pit the evils of industrialism against the glories of nature: images of billowing white clouds of steam or views of an opening in the factory spewing flame do contrast with quiet pictures of wind-blown grasses or serene stretches of brush where three white horses graze, but they are, somehow, equally awe-inspiring.
Finally, two recent books of black and white photography deserve attention: On the heels of the major exhibitions by August Sander and Diane Arbus comes Liu Zhengs The Chinese (Steidl and the International Center of Photography), the result of a seven-year project in which Liu traveled across China photographing its citizens. Like Arbus, Liu favors outsiders -- nightclub dancers, the ill, the poor, the devout (nuns and monks, among others), the mentally handicapped. Direct and compassionate, the photographs have a wrenching quality that suggests the clash of tradition and modernization.
In Situ (self-published), an intimate artists book by DW Mellor, explores an interior landscape in the photographic tradition of Joseph Sudek or Frederick Sommer, artists who created small whimsical worlds for their cameras. Dark, richly printed still lifes of sea shells, or fruit peels and crystal, recall old master paintings. Surrealist-inspired abstractions and details of faintly visible figures cavorting across torn and peeling paper attest to the breadth of Mellors work, reflected nicely in this small contemplative book.
JEAN DYKSTRA is a New York-based arts writer.