In the mid-1970s, when Stephen Shore was in his twenties, he encountered the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams downing a half-dozen tumblers of vodka at a friend’s New York apartment. “He said, in this kind of detached way, ‘I had a creative hot streak in the 1940s, and ever since then I’ve been potboiling,’” Shore recalls. “I thought, When I’m 85 and having dinner with a 25-year-old photographer, I don’t want to look back on my life and make that assessment. Whenever I found myself beginning to repeat myself, I would change and go in a different direction.”
To be sure, over a restless career spanning six decades, Shore has been a remarkably protean figure in the world of American photography. At 14, the New York–born artist sold three photos to the Museum of Modern Art, early evidence of his facility for framing an image, including an indelible shot of an iceman on his neighborhood route. Three years later, after meeting Andy Warhol at a movie screening, he was soon documenting the celebrated artist’s Silver Factory with intimate portraits of Lou Reed and Edie Sedgwick, and then experimenting with the Mick-o-Matic novelty camera that informed his snapshot style, teasing out the gentle contrasts of our national psyche.
In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art took notice, offering him a solo show at age 23. And now, almost 50 years later, the museum is taking another look. Opening this month, Shore’s first MoMA retrospective documents his distinctly American career with hundreds of images, from his earliest black-and-white snapshots of Manhattan to large-format color landscapes and iconic viewfinder works, among them a seminal 1975 shot of the Chevron Standard filling station at the corner of La Brea Avenue and Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood—a breakthrough moment in documentary photography for its hyper-detailed framing of the chaotic hustle and densely layered advertising that was just beginning to consume America’s cities.
Shore has of late become a master of the digital image, as evidenced in the pioneering works from his 2012 pilgrimage to document Holocaust survivors, and MoMA is installing iPads so that visitors can scroll through the artist’s latest obsession: Instagram. In the last three years, Shore’s feed (@stephen.shore) has attracted more than 100,000 followers with its eclectic offerings, from abstracted close-ups of muddy sticks to poetic captures of unsuspecting pedestrians in Prague and intimate shots of his Westie terrier in the fields outside his home and studio in the upstate New York village of Tivoli.
“I’m interested in being on that edge of taking a picture I couldn’t take before,” says Shore, who has spent the last year using his new Hasselblad to make highly detailed 60x80-inch studies of his garden that will be shown at New York’s 303 Gallery in January. “It’s like a door has been opened,” he adds.
“I see new pictures all the time.”