Winter 2007

Essential on every level

The Nature of Photographs

By Stephen Shore. Design: A2 / SW / HK. Phaidon Press, £24.95

The title of Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs promises to peel its subject to reveal the physical and ontological core. Even before you begin to read, the design by A2 / SW / HK instils a sense that the writing has been purged of everything that is not essential to its point. Except for section openings, all the text is positioned at the top corner of the left-hand pages. Equally generous fields of white space surround the pictures. Everything about the book’s physical form, starting with its sublime choice of cover image – a photograph held at arm’s length – proposes a space for quiet, purposeful contemplation.

The Nature of Photographs is described as a primer for students, but it is really a work of theory for those who have already progressed some way with photography. There is no technical guidance or elementary instruction on how to compose a picture; nor is there anything about the content of particular photographs and what they might mean. Instead, Shore, an influential photographer and professor at Bard College, New York, concentrates on the physical and formal attributes of a photographic print, which the photographer uses to create the image. These attributes he divides into three categories: the physical level, the depictive level (consisting of flatness, the frame, time and focus) and the mental level, illustrating each proposition with many examples.

A specially designed typeface by A2 / SW / HK in a typewriter style gives Shore’s reflections the appearance of informal notes. They are so pared down that their precision of terminology and concentration of thought can seem almost Zen-like, and the text repays repeated readings. Sometimes Shore refers to the image opposite, as when he describes how the eye seems to change focus while moving around a 1968 picture of an outdoor theatre, or, in a discussion of time, the miraculous instant caught by Garry Winogrand, one 250th of a second, when a steer’s tongue and the brim of a cowboy’s Stetson ‘met in perfect symmetry’. More often he allows the reader to decide how his observations relate to individual images, sometimes shown as a short sequence without further commentary.

Shore has a particular liking for photographers of the American scene such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston – each represented by several classic shots – and he includes a few of his own images. While the book collects old snapshots, documentary pictures and an aerial geological study, as a visual essay it is suffused with the author’s taste and temperament and the prevailing melancholy stillness is closer to art than to news reportage. Photographs such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s man at a window gazing out at the twilight, Guido Guidi’s motionless circular saw surrounded by wood chippings, or Thomas Annan’s ‘impossibly narrow’ allEy, shot 130 years ago, are profoundly mysterious and gently disquieting images. Few of the pictures capture vigorous movement or even much sign of human interaction, and of those that do, Larry Fink’s dancer at Studio 54 in 1977 provides one of the book’s strangest ‘discrete parcels of time’ – a phrase Shore borrows from the late John Szarkowski. The reveller’s face is a mask of detached composure as her body twists out of the picture and her ponytail swishes through the air with a life of its own in the darkness behind her.

The book closes with a succinct discussion of ‘mental modelling’: these models are the result of the photographer’s conditioning, insights and understanding of the world, and they form a filter that determines what kinds of picture will be taken. By becoming conscious of this model, the photographer can bring it under control. New perceptions derived from the process of photography feed into the model, leading to new photographic decisions. A revised, expanded and redesigned version of a book first published in 1998 by John Hopkins University Press, The Nature of Photographs has the makings of an enduring work. Writing, picture selection and design combine to form a beautiful expression of what its author wants to say, with a resonance far beyond its outwardly simple form.