In 1973, Stephen Shore left New York City and set out on a voyage to photograph America through the eyes of an ordinary tourist.
Just 25, Shore was already a rising star in the art world, fresh off an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art—where, at the time, he was only the second living photographer to have had his own solo show. He was also a protege of Andy Warhol, who had taught him to appreciate the artistic value of random, everyday things—or what Warhol described as “radical inclusiveness.”
With that aesthetic in mind, Shore, now 65, chose to document his trip the way an average person would: with a simple point-and-shoot camera aimed at the everyday banalities of the American road—where anything, he believed, could be fodder for art.
That work is the centerpiece of a new exhibition opening on Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York called “Everyday Epiphanies: Photography and Daily Life Since 1969.” The exhibit aims to show how subjects close to home have influenced modern photography. It includes works from artists including Shore, William Eggleston, Nan Goldin and Gregory Crewdson.
The exhibit displays 36 photos Shore took for his on-the-road project, called “American Surfaces.” Shore took pictures of the people he met, the meals he ate, the places he stayed and the streets he navigated. He developed the hundreds of photos he took just as regular people at the time would: by mailing them to a Kodak processing lab, which sent back packets of 3x5 color photos.
“He wanted to make sure that both the camera that he used was related to the vernacular of everyday, snapshot photography and also that the prints weren’t fine art prints,” said Doug Eklund, the exhibit’s curator.
While Shore’s road trip photos have since become icons of the early color photography era, “American Surfaces” wasn’t immediately embraced by the art world. Critics raised questions about the project’s simple subject matter and debated whether photos taken with simple point-and-shoot cameras should be considered high art.
It’s a debate similar to one happening today as a growing number of photographers embrace tools like iPhones to make images. The spirit of Shore’s project bears more than a passing resemblance to how modern-day photographers have embraced social media like Instagram to document daily life.
The Met’s exhibit also includes several recent works that show how technology has changed the medium, including a video project called “Not Human.” For this project, Los Angeles-based photographer Brandon Lattu fed thousands of photographs of street ads and other daily life into facial-recognition software to see how it would try to distinguish people in the pictures.
While Instagram and other photography through social media go unrepresented in the exhibition, Eklund thinks it’s only a matter of time before art created through apps is embraced by museums like The Met.
“People always ask, ‘Is photography dead? Did digital photography kill analog photography?’” Eklund said, adding that he thinks that way of thinking is a “mistake.”
“Photography is really a technology or a way of using light to illuminate a subject. And it’s not so important what the camera is or what the F stop is or what exposure is. It’s much more about using whatever the most current technology is at the time,” he said. “I think that if I had found an artist who was using their iPhone or Instagram [and] doing it in a fantastic way I would have included them, [but] I haven’t seen that yet.”