Pick Up Stephen Shore’s Photo Trail at the Kemper


You know how every small town in America tends to look alike? A little of that goes a long way.

American photographer Stephen Shore‘s exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art includes more than 150 images. It includes the “Uncommon Places” series in which he documented ’70s-era parking lots, motel rooms, restaurants and highways across the country. His work conveys the wonder — and tedium — of ordinary scenes.

“Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973” shows us a small stack of pancakes, half a cantaloupe, milk and water on a Western-themed placemat in a diner that could be anywhere in America. Similarly, “Sugar Bowl Restaurant, Gaylord, MI, July 7, 1973” reveals the restaurant’s pristine interior, with two booths and a view of an unremarkable outside.

Seeing a Sambo’s restaurant sign makes us wince, as does a Chevron sign with gas at 59.9 cents.

Shore’s photographic successes are well-documented and lengthy; he’s a pioneer in large-format color photography and is chairman of the art division at Bard College, where he has taught since 1982. What’s intriguing about Shore’s work is the personal context of his enchantment. According to Shore, until age 23 he lived within a few square miles of New York City. Riding in a car to Amarillo, Texas, he discovered the light-infused spaces that make up much of the American landscape. The experience that launched his aesthetic took him by surprise.

The exterior photographs of filling stations, desolate dirt roads, billboards and other architectural shots vibrate with color and ripple with texture. Shore is particularly adept at distilling the essence of light and its changeable nature; saturated colors give bricks a velvety feeling.

Shore was no naïf; he recognized the irony of many of his images. One of the cleverest is “U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973,” which depicts a desolate spot of road where a billboard displays a snowcapped-mountain scene — against actual mountains in the distance. The billboard image seems to emerge from the land itself. Along with a cattle gate and a sky with blown-out contrails, the billboard is a tired and shabby advertisement for America itself.

Largely unpeopled, the images isolate specific times and places. The exhibition consists of work done in the 10 years between 1969 and 1979, and the colors — those interior rusts and yellows — immediately signal an era. The work has an aesthetic impact, and those colors are certainly beautiful, but something about the exhibition begins to feel airless and paradoxically claustrophobic.

This made no sense until I began to realize that I was becoming distracted by my own memories. Anyone who has been on a road trip knows these images by heart. Anyone who went on a road trip in the 1970s has been to these places and can taste the stale air of every Howard Johnson motel along the way. This might make one start thinking about the past instead of the art; that’s because Shore is so skilled, the photographic effort falls away to reveal a distinct and singular sense of time and place.

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