James Welling puts five questions to Stephen Shore
James Welling puts five questions to Stephen Shore
I came to photography in fits and starts. In the early 1970s, I was entranced by Minimal art. I was particularly interested in Carl Andres Quincy Book, published in 1973. Andre hired a photographer to take pictures of his hometown, Quincy, Massachusetts. The book records situations that are isomorphic with Andre’s work: piles of things, quarries, roads. Quincy Book is, above all, a sculptural view of the world, and it is an extraordinarily well-observed set of pictures. I began to think about Andre’s book in relation to the restaging of "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) last month. Ed Ruschas work is cited as a touchstone for the photographers in the show. Fair enough. But for me, raised on the East Coast and looking intently at landscapes, Quincy resonated in ways Ruscha’s pieces did not.
When I saw Stephen Shore’s work for the first time — at the original "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" show, in Los Angeles in 1975 — I was struck by his extreme sensitivity to place. This was something I’d been thinking about since studying Quincy Book. Viewing Stephen’s work pushed me over the edge. I bought a 4x5 camera and started making my own photographs in 1976. I didn’t meet Stephen until almost 20 years later, and I have seen him more and more frequently as he travels to the West Coast on various projects. — James Welling
I’ve been working on some very artificially colored photographs using colored filters placed in front of my digital camera. When I make an ink-jet print of these images, I am always amazed that no matter how peculiar the ones I’ve combined are, I notice some of the same colors later in the day on the street or in a magazine. Colors that I would not normally be sensitive to, I am now cognizant of. This might be an obvious question, but when you see your prints, does it change how you look at everyday things later in the day or week or month?
Absolutely. That’s the short answer. Now for the long answer: I believe that mastering color materials and seeing in terms of a picture’s color space involve seeing as a particular combination of color film and paper sees. This is different from seeing the way our eyes see. It is akin to a person working in black-and-white actually seeing in black-and-white. Seeing the exact tonality of the film-and-paper combination means seeing the colors of the world and seeing light in a new way. When I first visited [the photographer William] Eggleston, in Memphis in 1973, he showed me slides of his work projected onto his living room wall. I realized that he chose to photograph in situations that produced images that looked great when taken in Kodachrome and projected on a wall. They didn’t all translate to dye transfer. Seeing this way is the result of the repeated process of seeing the world, taking a picture, and seeing the result, and doing this over and over again in different situations. This is where the experience you relate comes in. I feel lucky that I learned this at a time when there was only one 8x10 color negative film and one paper to print it on. Digital capture doesn’t provide the necessary limitation and makes learning to see this way more difficult.
I’m trying to wrench myself back to using film after a few years working with a Canon 5d Mark III camera. I love editing the work immediately on my laptop, but I find that I don’t see very well with a digital camera. I’ve started to shoot tethered, so the image appears immediately on my laptop. My shooting ratio is much worse than it is with film. How are you negotiating working with film and digital capture in your work? Are you doing any digital capture?
I’m using digital more and more. I recently got a Nikon D3x. After using an 8x10 for almost 30 years, I find I think in 8x10 terms. I take only one picture of a subject, even with a digital camera, unless I’m photographing something that is in motion or changing. Still, looking through the viewfinder is not the same as looking through an 8x10 ground glass and working on a tripod. But I’m getting better at it, and much of my new digital work seems as focused as my view-camera work. Also I get to have the pleasure of making many more images in a day.
"New Topographics" opened at LACMA two weeks ago. I saw the show when it came to the Otis College of Art and Design [in Los Angeles] on its tour, and it changed my life. Seeing the original gelatin silver (and your color) prints in it was like taking an ice-water shower — so clear and crisp and bracing. What has the restaging of the show been like for you? Any thoughts on seeing the work again?
I didn’t see the show. I wish I had.
According to the curator of the restaging, Britt Salvesen, the original show came together somewhat quickly. What are your memories of it?
Very few memories. I do remember going to a colloquium on the stability of color held at the George Eastman House during the show. The Eastman House hadn’t collected color for archival reasons. What came from the colloquium was the finding that low-temperature, low-humidity environments greatly increase the life of type-C material. I went home and bought a refrigerator for my negatives.
At 303 a few years ago, you showed early super-8 films. Have you made any since?
No. (This is both the short and the long answer.)
Stephen Shore has a retrospective, "The Biographical Landscape," at Museo di Roma in Trastevere, Feb. 11-May 23, museodiromaintrastevere.it, and an upcoming show at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, May 21-July 7, douglashydegallery.com. James Welling has a show at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Jan. 30-Mar. 6, regenprojects.com, and an upcoming show at David Zwirner Gallery, New York, Mar. 24-Apr. 24, davidzwirner.com.
"James Welling puts five questions to Stephen Shore" originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' February 2010 Table of Contents.