Transparencies: Small Camera works 1971-1979 collects, for the first time, Stephen Shore’s work with small cameras (mostly Leicas) during the period just before the American Surfaces period through the transition to large format and the vast majority of shooting for Uncommon Places. It’s interesting to see how Shore’s vision changed from the American Surfaces period through the end of the decade, and also to compare the scenes he captured with 35mm vs. those shot on 8×10.
Transparencies definitely has all the qualities of a Mack book. It’s a large book, meant to sit on a coffee table and the photographs are printed large in it, and it’s really rather handsome, though I don’t know that it really needs to be bigger than American Surfaces. And, in fact, images in Transparences are printed at the same size as pictures in the Uncommon Places: The Complete Works, which give these pictures somewhat more status and grandeur than the American Surfaces works, which seems a bit strange to me, given how new and previously-unexhibited/unpublished/unknown these photographs are.
I’m not mad about this, honestly. I like a decently large print, large enough to really look at, and the pictures in Transparencies are easy to look at and study. Also, as regards printing size, American Surfaces was first an exhibition of photolab prints in three rows along several walls, and the book sorta reproduces this (albeit with many more photographs, and in two rows instead of three), down to the image size, which is roughly that of a 3.5×5 print. Insofar as Transparencies is something entirely new, I guess it makes sense to print the photographs as large as practical. Still, it seems strange to me.
Britt Salvesen contributes an essay, “Ordinary Speech: the Vernacular in Stephen Shore’s Early 35mm Photography,” that situates the work in Shore’s overall project and gives some background and basis for it (and Shore’s aesthetic and vision). Very early on, Salvesen writes that “…Stephen Shore has explained his interest in making photographs that were the equivalent of how people talked: ordinary speech, as opposed to the formality of writing.” Now, given what I know of Shore and his lifelong project, that seems accurate, but I couldn’t find any source. Salvesen doesn’t provide a footnote or reference, and limited googling brought nothing either.*
It makes some sense, for sure, but for me you see it more in American Surfaces and Transparencies pictures made in 1971-1973. But when he really gets going on the Uncommon Spaces work, the pictures change. The horizons are almost never wonky, there are many more portraits and people in the pictures, there’s a stronger formal quality to them, a precision of sorts, upright verticals and all, that weren’t always there in the earlier work. And I would argue that spoken language, friendly conversation, has wonky horizons and diverging parallels, it’s sometimes blurred by motion or focus, it’s not rigid. You get precision in formal writing.** Even in a letter to a friend, the language is less precise.
Anyway. Transparencies is a really interesting book that I need to spend more time with.
I rate it a solid-enough 4.2 stars.
Transparencies is a big mass market publication, so it should be available all over, including direct from Mack. It makes a great companion to American Surfaces and Uncommon Spaces, but it’s really probably not essential, unless you’re an admirer of Shore’s work, like me, or a spontaneous photobook buyer, also like me… And if you just want to take a look, Stephen Shore’s website has some of the pictures.
*I did find a fun interview between Shore and Alec Soth that’s worth a read. It’s on the Financial Times and so may be behind a paywall by the time you get there, though it was open for me at time of writing. Also, if you go and read through to the end, look a the last picture… it’s a selfy taken by Shore of him and Soth standing together. One is looking into the lens; the other is looking at the screen. Can you guess who?
**Not this writing, obviously, but you know what I mean.