Getting Your Kicks on Route 66: Stephen Shore’s “Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979,” Part 2, Reviewed by Robert Dunn

As I was planning out this second piece on Stephen Shore’s new Mack book, “Transparencies,” I started thinking about the road trips that created the book, and, hmmn, decided I could call my piece “Getting Your Kicks on Route 66,” after the Bobby Troup song from 1946, first made a hit by Nat King Cole, before it jumped into various generations of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry to the Stones to Depeche Mode. I worried, though, that tying the song in with Shore might be a stretch since his first road run was from NYC down to Texas, nowhere really near that route … until I found a piece on Shore’s website called “The Road Trip,” in which he exalts the song’s “magical litany of place names: ‘Now you go thru St. Looey; Joplin, Missouri and Oklahoma City is oh so pretty. You’ll see Amarillo; Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona; don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino.’ ” 

I go on about the song, and Shore’s inspiration from it, because as I’m writing about the books from his 1970s’ road trips, “Uncommon Places,” “American Surfaces,” and now “Transparencies,” I’m newly fascinated by those years as, well, road trips. In “The Road Trip” Shore writes about other inspiring road trips, including Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Frank’s “The Americans,” even the great Preston Sturges film “Sullivan’s Travels.” Clearly all these landmark cultural moments, and more, were in Shore’s head as he took off across the nation with numerous camera arrangements in that decade of wide-flare striped jeans, skin-tight polyester shirts, and faux-leather everything. He wasn’t just out to take pictures (and change photography forever), he was coursing a great American theme, the epic journey, going back at least to Huck Finn on his raft or Ahab after his white whale. 

As a novelist, I’m always interested in the day-to-day, how things happen, the before and afters, the minute details, the commonplace touches, the little triumphs and indignities we all go through … simply, the lives we actually live. Road trips aren’t simply sailing down Route 66, a rockin’ song on the radio, a comely blonde on the seat next to you, storm clouds brewing over Tyler, Texas, in the most dramatic way. Nope, it’s also worrying about running out of gas, digging up a few bucks somewhere to get something into the tank, all the coffee stops, pee breaks, hunting for an affordable motel (or pulling off the side of the road to crash), endless miles behind an exhaust-bellowing semi, getting dumbfoundingly lost (then with luck, wondrously lost), puzzling out maps, feeling a fool, feeling on top of the world, feeling a chump, feeling exalted.

To Shore’s enduring credit he took the minute-to-minute dailyness of his road trip life seriously, setting out to photograph, as he puts it, “every meal I ate, every person I met, every bed I slept in, every toilet I used, every town I drove through.” Which he did. The book that resulted from his first road trip, in 1972, “American Surfaces,” I’ve always found a little too random, unkempt, scattered, with little of the magical symmetry and glow of photos from his later trips that decade. 

Still, the 1972 photos Shore took changed photography forever, destroying any contemporary expectations of formalism and high seriousness (Irving Penn), glossy-magazine fashionistaness (Richard Avedon), Family of Man bombast, even that search for le moment parfait (Cartier-Bresson). “American Surfaces” was as demotic as Atget’s Paris, William Klein’s “New York” and Frank’s “Americans” (not to mention Shore’s teenage mentor, Andy Warhol), but without any visible nod to what at the time was considered serious art. Indeed, Shore really did shoot everything, and well enough, though for me that only goes so far. As an axe into the establishment, I love the gesture, but I find “American Surfaces” a little too lacking in thoughtful and considered, well … art. 

Turns out Shore felt that way, too. When he went back to the road, he took a 4 x 5 camera, then later in the decade an 8 x 10. The photos would build off the random corners and happenstances of the first road trip, but they’d be far more thoughtful and worked out. That’s what the larger-film cameras forced him to do, take every shot with da Vinci–like seriousness, and boy did he do it well in “Uncommon Places,” where the attention to light and detail with the huge “pixel” range of the 8 x 10 view camera gives an artistic magnificence to the often banal scenes he chose to shoot. The new book, “Transparencies,” offers the 35mm Leica photos he took on those road trips when not wielding the 8 x 10.

In a postscript to “Transparencies,” by Britt Salveson, while discussing the differences between the smaller frame 35mm slides and the large format work, she drops in the casually perfect sentence: “[Shore] is recognizably the same person in both languages.” 

Indeed. He’s also the same guy who worried about running out of gas on the road, and where to sleep, and whether to have pancakes— again?; well, why not—for breakfast. He’s the guy who, as we find out in detail in a piece in the book “Stephen Shore” by Christy Lange, on July 7, 1973 checked into a Holiday Inn in Gaylord, Michigan, ate a plate of roast beef and smorgasbord at the Sugar Bowl restaurant, and “out of habit, he photographed his surroundings.” The resulting picture, from “Uncommon Places,” is uncommonly lovely, an early-evening light spread over Formica tabletops and vinyl banquettes. Later that evening, we learn, he watched the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” (Can you imagine ever knowing what Robert Frank watched on TV after shooting the New Orleans trolley car? Maybe if it was a Monday the “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” or if Sunday, the appointment TV lineup of “Ed Sullivan,” “GE Theater,” then at 10 “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”)

What am I getting at here? That at the least Shore is a complex, innovative, and wide-ranging artist. He’s as preoccupied by ways of seeing as he is by what he sees, and the life that leads up to all that seeing. On these later trips Shore evidently was particularly interested in the differences in the distinct ways of seeing between his various film formats. “Transparencies” reflects this, a wider 35mm frame than the large-format squarer frames, a lot quicker on the draw. Perhaps that’s what he was thinking about during the commercials in-between the antics of Mary, Rhoda, Ted Baxter, et al. 

Which means that for all of his common, everyday life Shore is willing (if not driven) to share with us, he’s always Stephen Shore the artist, with one strong and unique artistic vision, ”recognizably the same person in both languages.” While he’s the man tooling down the road shooting everything, he’s also an artist of near Italian Renaissance purpose and design.

No matter what they’re shooting—in Shore’s case, bad paintings in a store window, a pile of broken bricks (two shots in “Transparencies”)—artists must always aim as high as possible; and yet also never forget, even the most “important” ones, that they’re most of the time regular people … or at least they should be. Especially photographers, who always have to make their art in the here and now, wherever they are. They can approach their work with ideas and concepts and even high-art theory rattling around in their heads, but when it comes time to snap the shot, they’re in a moment, and they have to give the moment all they have. It would be interesting to ask Shore how many shots were ruined because he couldn’t get last night’s sitcom out of his head. Or maybe he couldn’t quite decide which camera to use that day. Or the grill cook burned the pancakes.

The miracle, of course, is that in finding true art in the most common of photos, Shore made so much great work; and that “Transparencies,” for its differences of detail and color, is still a most valuable and essential addition to “Uncommon Places,” in all its iterations.

As much as the new book moves me, in a way I’m most touched by Shore’s own short postscript, in which, before he thanks his publisher, Michael Mack, and others who brought “Transparencies” to fruition, he writes simply, “I met my wife, Ginger, in the middle of the years covered by this body of work. We’ve now been married for forty years. Our relationship has been the most significant one of my life.”

That’s why, as Rod Stewart put it, every picture tells a story, as does every photobook. It’s the story of the photos, of course, but also implicit within the book is the story behind the making the book. Shore takes us far closer than almost anyone else to this hidden story, letting us know the meals eaten, the street corners he parked on, the weddings he stumbled upon, the cowboy sitting next to him at lunch … and so much more.  

It’s not really a wild ride for him, this kicks-getting on Route 66, but it’s a complete one, of the low and the high, of endlessly interesting and inventive photographs, and, inarguably, of boundless significance to the world of photography; and now it turns out, even greater significance to Shore and his own life.

Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 by Stephen Shore can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.