The Unlikely Beauty of Club Sandwiches Served on Faux-Wood Formica


A painter well-known for his work’s “spiritual” intensity once admitted to me that, while his past loves remained but hazy memories, he could recall with precision every meal he’d ever eaten in the restaurants of his native city. He might have found in Stephen Shore a kindred spirit. In 1972, the 24-year-old photographer—following the tracks of Robert Frank—set out from New York by car across the United States, taking color film and a 35mm camera. Art photography, at the time, was largely a black-and-white affair; color, a debased medium, considered more suitable for snapshots or advertising.

The long hours behind the wheel, the numbing procession of gas stations, truck stops, and motel rooms, worked like an elixir on Shore’s spirits, heightening his senses to the unlikely formal beauty of club sandwiches served on faux-wood Formica and the low-rise, vernacular architecture of deserted downtowns at dawn. “American Surfaces,” Shore’s photographic diary of his nearly two years on the road—now on view at P.S.1 in a show curated by Bob Nickas and published for the first time in sequence by Phaidon—is more than a mere record of the people he met, the refrigerators he stared into, the beds he occupied, and even the toilets he used. Its very matter-of-factness, descended from Walker Evans’s sublimely laconic images of the American heartland, distills something of our nation’s character. Yet it’s also an oddly moving portrait of an anonymous, homeless soul adrift in a disposable culture and a forlorn landscape hovering between banality and grace.

“Life is in color,” says a character in some new wave film I’ve otherwise forgotten, “but black-and-white is more realistic.” In fact, Shore’s color seems to emanate from an atmosphere unlike the air we breathe. The crystalline blue of his Southwestern skies and the dim blue light from his countless motel televisions are equally remote—the first, a promise impossible to fulfill, the latter an icon of emptiness.

And he might have been a visitor from another planet, so alive was he to the strangeness of the landscape he witnessed from his car window. A boutique displaying hats suitable for churchgoing in South Carolina; self-contained little houses sprouting like mushrooms in Colorado; bits of signage, like the vaguely ominous “Science of Mind” stenciled in quotation marks above a glowing window in Florida, all appear uncannily animated. Almost a century earlier, Eugéne Atget photographed the streets of Paris as if they were stage sets, the bearers of secrets soon to disappear under Haussmann’s modernizations. In Shore’s case, perhaps it took an outsider to recognize in these empty sidewalks an endangered species, an urban center whose life was slowly draining toward suburban sprawl.

Before he set off for parts unknown, Shore’s stomping ground had always been a few square miles of Manhattan. An Upper East Side prodigy, he was introduced to darkroom technique at age six; when he was 14, Edward Steichen, then director of photography at MOMA, acquired three of his pictures for the museum, and he spent his late teen years at Warhol’s Factory, clicking the shutter.

Conceptual art was in the air. With its cool detachment, preoccupation with mass production, and repetitive nature, “American Surfaces” owes a debt to both Warhol and Ed Ruscha, whose books, such as Thirty-Four Parking Lots, raised the bar on poker-faced monotony. It recalls unwieldy epics like Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, a vast, photographic compendium drawn from the artist’s daily life. And it found champions in Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German photographers whose students Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky have made color and pseudo-objectivity—for better or for worse—contemporary photography’s dominant mode of seeing.

True to his project’s conceptual roots, Shore sent his rolls of film out for processing by Kodak. He tacked the results, hundreds of unframed images, to the walls of Manhattan’s Light Gallery. The shock they produced is hard to conjure today. Yet “American Surfaces” remains an austere and elusive achievement. At P.S.1, some 300 small, uncaptioned pictures float in a limbo of time and place. Phaidon’s catalog, with its place-names marking Shore’s peripatetic trajectory, is somewhat more user-friendly.

For me, this work offers the rather ambiguous pleasure of seeing an era I consciously remember transformed into history. Certain packaged foods glimpsed in Shore’s open refrigerators—the green cylinder of Kraft’s Parmesan cheese, for example—evoke whole swatches of my childhood, recalling the taste of powdered cardboard in the years before I’d been to Europe or heard of radicchio. Mary Tyler Moore was on television; Richard Nixon was in the White House. We cherish the memory of this uneasiness, for it was our own.