Wim Wenders’ 1974 film Alice in the Cities begins with one of cinema’s more memorable depictions of the paradoxical experience of foreigners who travel through modern America. In the opening scene we find West German journalist Philip Winter lounging on the beach in Surf City, North Carolina, singing “Under the Boardwalk” with a sort of languid impishness. But as he drives through the American South, talking to himself and snapping Polaroids as “research” for a writing assignment he is clearly avoiding, Winter begins to seem unpredictable.
Road-tripping foreigners have many times supplied the more clear-eyed and captivating assessments of this country.
One night he wakes up in a hotel room and finds the television still blaring: the broadcast is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, an entrancing work with its own paradoxical vision of American life. Winter watches until the film is interrupted by an advertisement for a retirement community in Florida; enraged, he chucks his shoe at the monitor, feebly punches it, and finally tips it forward so that it crashes on its face, emitting a sizeable blast of dust. Moments later, we witness Winter speeding down a highway with his eyes closed. Eventually, he opens them and grins.
The landscape that Winter travels through is as psychological as it is physical. “When you drive through America, something happens to you,” he tells his editor in New York. “The images you see change you.” And yet, he adds, of the photos he has been taking, “They never show what it is you saw.” As a European in the post-war world—especially as a West German—Winter has been inundated with American pop culture, and his visit leaves him both dumbstruck and profoundly disappointed by a world he cannot quite grasp despite its dreamlike familiarity.
There is, of course, a respectable tradition of studying the United States from the road. Yet while Americans can lay claim to Peter Fonda aboard his Stars and Stripes chopper, or Thelma and Louise launching themselves into the Grand Canyon, or Sal Paradise howling about Dean Moriarty, our national pilgrimages tilt too often toward self-indulgence rather than introspection or observation. In contrast, road-tripping foreigners have many times supplied the more clear-eyed and captivating assessments of this country. This rich lineage originates with the bemused but generally complimentary Alexis de Tocqueville and from there includes a disparate assemblage of individuals, including D.H. Lawrence, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Simone de Beauvoir, and Vladimir Nabokov. (Nabokov had of course been living in the U.S. for seven years by the time he started drafting Lolita, but his descriptions of roadside hotels and gas stations possess the genial remove of an inquisitive traveler.)
For his part, Robert Frank’s collection of photographs The Americans will probably always be the genre’s high-water mark. By photographing suppressed elements of daily life—workers in a Detroit assembly plant, a segregated streetcar in New Orleans, a black family in a convertible—Frank so effectively punctured America’s idyllic self-conception that the book is still capable of shocking viewers today, nearly fifty years after its publication. In his application for a Guggenheim grant, the Zürich-born Frank professed a desire to record “the kind of civilization born here and spreading everywhere.” One thinks of how, in Alice in the Cities, Philip Winter seemingly brings America home with him when he returns to West Germany, attending a Chuck Berry concert, eating fast food, and listening to Canned Heat on a drugstore jukebox. For Winter, the camera is a defense mechanism, a crude tool which protects him from the ephemera bombarding him at every turn. Frank, on the other hand, took the mass culture that surrounded him and slyly imbued it with his own selfhood. Instead of concealing the dread that shaped his fascination with America—evident in his many shots of people staring vacantly into the distance, failing to engage one another—he made it unavoidable, transferring much of the burden onto his viewers.
Of the many U.S.-born photographer-voyagers who followed in Frank’s wake, Stephen Shore—the current subject of a massive retrospective at MoMA—has engaged in one of the most complicated balancing acts between observation and self-expression, as well as between form and content. In the early 1970s, when fine art photography was almost exclusively black-and-white, Shore began using color film in earnest. But even if Shore prides himself as a groundbreaking artist who is “always moving forward” (if wall text is to be believed), his ingenuity has usually been laced with staid formalism and an aura of objectivity. Shore is a disciple of Walker Evans, and while his gaze is not as dispassionate as that of his idol, his photographs peruse more than they probe, prioritizing hues, textures, the play of light, and above all, composition. “A picture can contain conflict, but that’s not all a picture is about,” he has noted, de-emphasizing subject matter and the visceral impact it can have.
A native New Yorker, Shore cut his teeth taking pictures at Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he befriended—among other, more storied figures—a group of transplants from Amarillo, Texas. Though he’d been to Europe, most of the United States remained unknown to him, and a visit to Amarillo left him enamored with “the pace of life, the car culture,” and perhaps most of all, the quality of light. In 1972, having only just acquired his license, Shore embarked on a two-month road trip, haphazardly touring the alien corn with an unassuming Rollei 35mm camera in hand.
The resulting collection, American Surfaces, is an exploration of vernacular “snapshotness” that brings Philip Winter and the opening scenes of Alice in the Cities to mind. As Shore crossed the Deep South, careening through New Mexico, Colorado, and then towards the Midwest, he photographed hotel beds, half-eaten meals, storefronts, gas station attendants, friends, acquaintances, dogs, and countless toilets. At the Grand Canyon, his camera shunts the sublime, instead focusing on three friends seated on the chasm’s edge. Though the diaristic nature of these photographs suggests a narrative presence and allows for a glimpse of authorial perspective, American Surfaces uses pattern, repetition, and a borrowed amateur aesthetic to establish a state of cryptic remove, launching Shore’s decades-long obsession with the idea of “perfect neutrality.”
But can an artist who states, “I saw myself as an explorer,” really achieve neutrality? In adopting the guise of an adventurer, how different is Shore’s work from that of an informed “outsider” like Wim Wenders? In his hugely influential next phase—compiled in 1982 as Uncommon Places—Shore seemed to ignore such questions by doubling down on his goal of objectivity. Still traversing the continental United States, he switched from a Rollei to a large-format 8×10 camera. Costly and unwieldy, an 8×10 can make color-saturated, minutely detailed, massive images: all factors that encourage the photographer to slow down and heighten the process of observation.
For Shore, this meant further emphasizing formal composition. Without the inconspicuousness of a handheld camera, he began to primarily produce landscapes, many of them in the cosmically vast American West: deserted movie theaters, undulating fields, forlorn lowriders, and unpaved back streets are framed with such ingenuity and immediacy that viewers might feel like they can enter a given scene if they look hard enough. Described by writer David Campany as “hyperlucid stares at the world,” these images appear to possess Shore’s idealized neutrality; but if we consider that these “stares” are drawn directly from Shore’s field of vision, it seems more likely that the artist has just gotten better at concealing his hand. The actual has been transformed so slightly that it becomes more convincing than reality itself. Welcome to America.
Much of the writing on Shore corroborates his subtle transformations that hinge on an obscured but omnipresent selfhood. The flap copy for Uncommon Places describes him seizing upon “scenes that would scarcely attract the attention of most travelers” and using them “as an opportunity for awakened perception and deepening contemplation.” While this sort of praise implies an admiration for the lasting art that Shore has wrung out of the American expanse, it also conveys what can only be described as coastal contempt for flyover country. In the The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl expressed an appreciation for Shore’s “easeful acceptance of a world—the actual, whole one—in which I have never felt quite at home.” Joshua Cohen, writing for Art in America, thanked Shore for taking the cultural detritus of America and using “neutral observation” to return it to a geometry that could bring viewers closer to their environment. Even as they candidly praise Shore’s unmediated and impartial photography, these estranged critics express a grateful relief for the way he filters the horrors of their homeland through his understated individuality.
It would appear, then, that Shore’s admirers do not have the necessary perspective on their country that would allow them to perceive the content of his road-trip photos, rather than the way they have been structured. Along with Shore himself, they seem to forget what Philip Winter knows: that photographs “never show what it is you saw” of America, perhaps especially if what you are claiming is total objectivity. Of course, Shore is not required to make art driven by subjectivity or political context; but he is misguided if he believes he has obscured his selfhood completely.
If we look—for ourselves, of course—at an image that Shore made with his 8×10 on a backstreet in Presidio, Texas, we are indeed captivated by his forthright composition: the gravel lane is viewed head-on, bracketed by a chain-link fence and a row of dilapidated adobe structures, each boundary extending towards a heaving mountain-range in the distance, the entire frame lashed by thin streaks of intersecting power lines. But at the same time, we are seeing Presidio, Texas, in the forever-distant summer of 1975, or at least the suggestion of it as captured by Shore’s camera; we are seeing a man in a cowboy hat standing amongst the adobe huts with his black dog close at hand; we are seeing the decision that Shore made to include these two figures in his carefully arranged representation of this tiny border town. We are not seeing, on the other hand, perfect neutrality, or the erasure of Shore’s American imperial self.
Since so few people appear in the images that make up Uncommon Places—most of them idling on street corners, their backs to the lens—there is a tendency to regard them as inconsequential, among the many forms that contribute to Shore’s aesthetic framework (power lines, for example, have yielded warmer praise). But here, in Presidio, man and dog are contextually vital, two companions in a struggling Texas town during the height of the oil crisis. Though he is diminutive even in a large format print, the man holds himself in a way that commands our attention, his firmly planted feet connecting him to a landscape that we have only just encountered. The tiny figures that Shore includes in Cincinnati, Ohio, or Ashland, Wisconsin, look different than our friend in Presidio, and the scenery—quite obviously—does as well. But that hasn’t stopped critics from regarding these variegated pockets of America as part of the same geographical vacuum, a ‘no-place’ in which composition has neutralized the particulars of location and politics.
No act of criticism can possibly convey the entire historical context of the art it engages with, but the widespread failure to frame Shore’s travel photographs is a lost opportunity. The dashed hopes of the counterculture movement, the ongoing energy crisis, the general economic stagnation and consequent decline of domestic manufacturing, the Watergate scandal: all of these happenings hover around the margins of Shore’s career-making work, weighing on the people and places he documented. But instead of acknowledging these reference points, critics have let their repulsion lead to a willed blindness. It is jarring to witness the most wholly visual art form going almost completely unseen.
We would prefer that the images of our country achieve a tidy, pacifying objectivity.
Then again, it does make sense that these photographs have disarmed writers living in a country where sensory experience is so commonly conditioned by images and screens. To “enter the fiction of America,” as Jean Baudrillard put it in his 1988 travel journal-cum-manifesto America, one must be aware of the “play of images,” “the deluge of advertising,” and the creeping sense that “life is cinema.” Put another way, the ability to truly see America—in its physical as well as its illusory forms—involves a learning process, one that requires nuance and a willingness to be vulnerable, two things that this commonwealth has tried to suppress. We would prefer that the images of our country achieve a tidy, pacifying objectivity; but the elusive, spectral “truth” of America feels more at hand during Philip Winter’s road trip, where things can be banal, mesmerizing, confounding, and disenchanting all at once.
The vulnerability engendered by this method of unimpeded observation can obviously have its drawbacks: in this way, we can view Winter’s delirious destruction of his hotel television as a desperate attempt to distance himself from a lifestyle that has begun to hold him hostage. (“The Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” is how one character puts it in Wenders’ 1976 film Kings of the Road.) Obviously, Winter is fictional, a character in a movie, but this paradoxically makes his engagement with the easily disseminated movie house of American culture feel all the more authentic. The global popularity of this “giant hologram” (as Baudrillard put it) is often used as evidence of our “achieved utopia,” but it is merely a sideshow put on by a society that is visibly crumbling, hampered mightily by its refusal to engage with history, or merely what is in front of the camera-eye.