This is the way you look at the poorest details of the world resurfaced …. you feel their singleness and precise location and the forlorn coincidence of your being there to see them.
— Alice Munro, “Miles City, Montana,” 1985 1
In his newest book, Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape, published earlier this year, the renowned photographer Stephen Shore returns to themes explored in his seminal 1982 publication Uncommon Places. The recent book’s title nods, as well, to the exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” an era-defining group show in 1975, in which the work that made Shore’s reputation was on display for the first time. 2 Indeed, the latest photographs testify to a continuing fascination with the type of “altered” terrains that were named as subjects by the almost-50-year-old book and exhibition. As in “New Topographics” and Uncommon Places, we visit small towns and scattered homesteads, sites where the tight grain of urban centers opens up, where buildings gradually (and sometimes suddenly) yield to roads and fields, prairies and hills. But while the territory is equivalent, the technique is markedly different. In Uncommon Places, Shore used a large-format camera, producing four-by-five and later eight-by-ten plate negatives. For Topographies, he used a camera mounted on a drone.
We visit small towns and scattered homesteads, where the tight grain of urban centers opens up, where buildings yield to roads and fields, prairies and hills.
There are obvious differences between these technologies — one analogue, cumbersome, and time-consuming; the other digital, fluent, and ostensibly effortless. There are also unexpected affinities, not just in subject matter but in pictorial attitude, the visual grammar organizing the images that result. Beyond comparisons of content and form, moreover, one is tempted to posit a broader assessment of the shapes and patterns characterizing U.S. settlement. Any viewer (American or otherwise) who has seen a Western movie, not to mention countless other filmic, photographic, and fictional renderings, will recognize the visual imaginary at work in Topographies — the barns and rivers, parking lots and Main Streets, railroads and big skies. Given his long-standing immersion in this imaginary, can Shore communicate what has changed, from the era of oil crisis to the present circumstances of political polarization, technological transition, and climate emergency?
The invitation to extrapolate from the book’s 97 photographs to consider a national condition is encapsulated in Shore’s title, which strings together terms connoting the comprehensive and categorical, as distinct from the anecdotal or particular. Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape: the phrase suggests a treatment that will be scientific in method (topographies), remote in viewpoint (aerial), objective in stance (surveys), continental in scope (American), and expansive in theme (landscape). Of course, it is not unusual for photographic studies of American locations to make such totalizing claims. Besides the canonical American Photographs by Walker Evans (1938) and The Americans by Robert Franks (1957), we might think of Ansel Adams’s This is the American Earth (1960) or, in a different vein, Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (1986).
But, compared to such examples, the effective scope and geographic range of Topographies is limited. Only seven states feature at all, only three in a significant number of images, and only one in real depth. Whole regions of the country — the west coast, the southwest, the south — are missing, and with them climates, ecologies, landforms, cultures, building types. Even within Shore’s chosen areas, the “survey” is circumscribed, clustering around towns such as Bozeman, Big Timber, or Three Forks. Nor are the chosen viewpoints consistent enough to yield what might be considered a coherent body of evidence about the current state of habitation in the U.S. mountain states; there is no overt attempt to present a close reading of the place.
Any viewer who has seen a Western movie, not to mention countless other filmic, photographic, and fictional renderings, will recognize the visual imaginary at work.
In fact, we only learn the sites of images through the tracking coordinates that furnish their titles. The height at which each image was taken is also included in a list at the end of the volume, drawing attention, however unobtrusively, to Shore’s use of the drone camera. As it has been theorized, the drone is often seen as producing a combination of embodiment and abstraction, allowing us to inhabit a milieu and simultaneously to inspect it from afar. In this regard, it might be Stephen Shore’s perfect instrument. These pictures express a fusion of variety and propinquity that resists the completeness suggested by the book’s title. Rather than positing an overarching critical assessment, the photographer’s motive in Topographies seems to be simply to see more, and to get more of what is seen into the pictures. Whether the undoubted descriptive power which results can compensate for this apparent lack of critical overview, and how this new body of work relates to the now canonical Uncommon Places, has to do with the photographic rendering of depth and flatness, and the photographer’s will to make these apparently contradictory visual terms yield a comparable wealth of information.
The Topographies project began during the first phase of Covid restrictions, a period that Shore spent mostly in Montana, where he has owned a property since the 1980s. Starting in the summer of 2020, he would set out from his base in Bozeman to explore the edges of that regional city and the surrounding areas using a Chinese-made DJI drone with an onboard Hasselblad camera. (The iconic brand was recently acquired by the Shenzhen-based company, the largest manufacturer of drones in the world. 3 ) Shore made another group of photographs in spring and summer 2021, including several shot in Wyoming and Nebraska. The series was subsequently expanded to include pictures made in North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and New York, where Shore also has a residence. Yet the Montana material dominates the book, comprising 62 of the 97 images. 4
The drone invites us to perceive the shapes imposed on land by infrastructure — the gravel pits and cul-de-sacs, watered lawns and prefab sheds.
The photographer describes in a recent interview how, when using the drone in the field, he will start at a view which, based on 60 years of experience, he understands as a picture in the making. Literally lifting off from there, his eye in the sky soon finds additional areas of interest, new potential compositions inside the 400-foot range within which he usually works. “It’s just like when you take off on a plane,” Shore explains, “there’s a period before you get up to cloud level where you’re a certain height from the ground and you can see structures of land and development that make more sense, in a way, than at eye level. That’s what the drone provides.” 5
From these elevated viewpoints, we are invited to perceive the shapes imposed on land by infrastructure — the gravel pits and cul-de-sacs, watered lawns and prefab sheds. As arts writer Richard B. Woodward observes in one of two essays in Topographies (the other is by Noah Chasin):
Shore and his drone have taken note of the resources found in an assortment of places as well as the barriers and partitions that for decades or centuries have aided, thwarted or guided settlements — rivers, mountains, deserts, fields, bridges, fences, railroad tracks, streets, roads and expressways. Without obviously seeking to, his photographs often reveal the interactions between these factors, ones that Earth-bound observers would find hard or impossible to discern. 6
In Shore’s terms, the photographs allow these simple patterns of inhabitation to “make more sense” than they would or could to a human body immersed in them. Thus we see an archetypal farmstead, with a timber-framed, tin-roofed house flanked by barn and outbuildings, one black horse in a paddock, one white horse in the adjoining field. On the following page, the fact of inhabitation is rendered in even more basic terms, with an Airstream trailer set alone in a field of vivid green that stretches to a horizon defined by a mountain range.
We realize something that a body on the ground would not likely perceive. How still everything seems. How eerily empty.
It is only as we encounter larger and more complex groupings of built forms — trailers dotted along bleak, horseshoe-shaped streets; modest split-level houses across the road from an industrial plant — that we realize the pervasiveness of something else that a body on the ground would not likely perceive. How still everything seems, as far as the drone-assisted eye can see; how eerily empty. There are those two horses, and a few desultory cars and pickups on the roads. But there is no one in the yards, or on the sidewalks, or walking to their cars marooned between the neatly painted lines of the parking lots. Finally, two-thirds through the volume, a human figure looms clearly into view: a boy on a red bike on the pavement, in front of a row of houses with a graveyard behind. (This photograph was made in upstate New York, close to Bard College, where Shore has taught since the early 1980s.) At other junctures where people appear — notably at a riverside kayaking-and-bathing spot in Big Sky, Montana — the feeling is that of a staged tableau. (In the latter instance, Shore is likely referring to a famous image of his own, Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979, the final photograph in the original edition of Uncommon Places.) We are reminded that these are pictures made under Covid restrictions. Perhaps, as is normal enough with photographs of urban settings or dramatic landscapes, Shore worked in the early mornings? But no, the index that gives the date, time, and elevation for each image confirms that most were shot on weekday afternoons. With people or without, the scenes’ crystalline stillness holds. Even the populated images feel structured by vacancy.
One effect of this prevailing absence is to focus our attention on the built forms, which come to stand as proxies for the populations who have shaped them, and that they serve. In Topographies, houses, vehicles, factories, highways, and bridges become protagonists, “non-human actors” in Bruno Latour’s terms, embodying and enacting a range of societal functions. Like a strange hybrid species, moving in herds, they disperse across plains; they congregate around water; they assemble in formations and then seem to freeze — vacant, expectant. We watch from a distance, poised at the indeterminate remove the drone affords.
In its early phases of development, the drone-mounted camera caused distortion, and the resulting images had a distinctive, fisheyed quality. 7 But these idiosyncrasies have long since been resolved, and the drone shot has established itself to the extent that few television dramas or documentaries can avoid the temptation to include an aerial view as mise-en-scene. News photographers can show reporters talking to the camera and then, within the same shot, pull back to reveal the context within which, and of which, the correspondent speaks. The subjective affirmation of the reporter being there combines with the (presumed) objective distance of their reportage, all made explicit in visual terms.
For the viewer as for the photographer, this is less a matter of being in two places at once, and more of being twice in one place at one time. Walking through a landscape, controlling a drone above, which is looking down on that landscape and transmitting images to a handheld screen, induces for the user an odd sense of bilocation that remains palpable in the resulting image. Landscape architect Rikke Munck Petersen, for instance, has considered how the movement of the drone prompts “affective” responses in the operator: “The drone’s gestures connect you with the live setting you are in,” she writes, “and they also extend you ahead of yourself while you are filming by making you exist out there: your senses are activated, affecting each other and affecting you.” 9 One is alert to the expanded territory made available through the viewfinder, while remaining connected to one’s immediate, terrestrial location — an actual location in the case of the photographer, presumed or inferred in the case of the viewer paging through the photographer’s book.
For the viewer as for the photographer, the drone-assisted image is less a matter of being in two places at once, and more of being twice in one place at one time.
It is possible to draw some parallels here between the coterminous presence and distance offered by the drone, and the visual affordances created by the view camera as Shore used it in the 1970s. The view camera, too, requires a withdrawal from the scene while on the scene, as the photographer ducks beneath a cloth into darkness to compose the image, inverted and mirrored, on the ground glass — a saturating vividness and contradictory sense of alienation that, again, is delivered via the photographic image to the viewer. When he moved away from the 35mm format favored in his American Surfaces photographs (1972), Shore embraced the clarity and formality bestowed by the larger format on the scene depicted, as well as the discipline the technology required: “I chose a view camera because it describes the world with unparalleled precision; because the necessarily slow, deliberate working method it requires leads to conscious decision making; and because it’s the photographic means of communicating what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness.”
Look, for instance, at the famous photograph titled Church and 2nd Streets, Easton, Pennsylvania, June 20, 1974. In the foreground, the street is flanked by two brick walls. Between them, the view is of the last building in a row of attached houses — stuccoed, with four storeys of windows, the top two rows shaded by dark green awnings — and, in the distance, treed hills populated by large houses. Thanks to the view camera, everything is in crisp focus; the amount of detail available to the eye exceeds anything that might present itself to the casual view. We see the thin lines of telephone wires that crisscross the intersection. A tree and a low bush poke into view from the left. We note a yellow vase half-visible in the ground floor of the green-awninged building and, in the next window over, a boy sitting, looking out, his breath steaming the glass. Perhaps he’s nervous, given that the sign in front of him reads “Dr. Barry Ungerhofer, Dentist.” Parked in front is a VW bus, whose brick-red color half rhymes with the walls that frame it. On the face of it, the scene is nondescript. But it is rendered with such deliberation that all these mundane details gain significance. Something is being shown to us, though it’s hard to articulate just what: perhaps it is detailedness as such. The manner of the showing, the circumstances enabling the fixing of the scene, are part of what makes the resulting picture memorable. The nondescript is described. The commonplace becomes an uncommon place.
For the epigraph of Uncommon Places, Shore used lines from Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats (1918):
[F]or attention is of the essence of our powers; it is that which draws other things toward us, it is that which, if we have lived with it, brings the experiences of our lives ready to our hand. If things but make impression enough on you, you will not forget them; and thus, as you go through life, your store of experiences becomes greater, richer, more and more available. But to this end you must cultivate attention — the art of seeing, the art of listening …. To pay attention is to live, and to live is to pay attention. 10
The surfeit of seeing the Uncommon Places images offer means that, even as they seem to make available to view every detail of a highly particularized location, they achieve an archetypal or universal character; they are arguments not so much for the value of specific places as for a more general attentiveness to inhabited environments. In a conversation with Lynne Tillman, Shore discusses the “inherent architecture” of his scenes — the formal and spatial relationships produced through his deliberate technique. He notes how the view camera’s descriptive power “allowed [him] to move back farther and take pictures that were more packed with information, more layered.” This layered distance “allows for lots of different points of interest to exist in the same picture.” 11
This surfeit of seeing means that, even as the photographs seem to make available every detail of a particular location, they achieve an archetypal character.
The same desire to expand the pictorial information available within a single photograph drives Shore’s experiments with the drone. But, whereas the large-format camera enabled that expansion without a change in vantage point, the drone extends the realm available to view, offering access to areas unseen — unseeable — by the earthbound eye. Many artistic appropriations of drone technology, by photographers from Trevor Paglen to Richard Mosse, have leaned into the militaristic applications of such surveillant power. In Shore’s hands, the instrument seems comparatively benign; the attitude is more that of a nosy neighbor than a controlling state. (In a recurring motif in Topographies, for instance, we peer over boundary walls into rubbish-packed dumping grounds. But the rubbish does not seem sinister, not obviously illegal or toxic-looking. It’s just more stuff on the ground.) “Every time I move my camera with the lever, something unexpected could pop up on the screen,” Shore says. 12 The images reflect this willingness to drift and discover, to probe and test edges and adjacencies.
Granted, the technology allows this, is perhaps even predicated upon it. Endless images can be produced, with little physical effort, from constantly shifting access points. In the early 1970s, to make pictures across a continent was an epic undertaking. Shore kept meticulous scrapbooks — subsequently published — of two long road-trips he took in 1973 and 1974. Traversing east-to-west and back, he made photographs in 25 American states and Canadian provinces, keeping a record of each exposure. (The large-format plates cost fifteen dollars each, and shots were hence very carefully planned. 13 ) By contrast, a map of locations for the Topographies pictures reveals that most involved little more than short weekend drives — analogous, perhaps, to the fishing trips Shore also enjoys.
So, what patterns do these new photographs reveal? Two viewpoints predominate in Topographies. In the first, the camera takes a raking view across terrain extending to the horizon. Order prevails. We can read how landforms, settlement histories, and infrastructure intersect. In the second kind of view, examples of which are more numerous in the book, sky and horizon are, like human actors, absented. The camera angles downward so that terrain fills the frame, tilting towards us. Perspectival lines angle across the picture plane, unsettling balance, rhyming with and accentuating the contingent quality of the things on view — the raw, unravelling edges of towns and homesteads and industrial emplacements.
Shore has always been attracted to such scenes of visual coherence won out of incoherence, be it social, economic, or architectural.
Shore has always been attracted to such scenes of visual coherence won out of incoherence, be it social, economic, or architectural. Back in the 1970s, when Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown commissioned him to make photographs for a number of exhibitions (notably Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City, mounted at the Smithsonian in 1976), the architects were interested in how to capture “the threadbare banality of the American scene, the jerry-rigged down-at-heels seediness of our rural landscapes and the spatial looseness of our towns.” 14 But whereas, in Uncommon Places, that spatial looseness acquired a formal depth and complexity through the viewfinder, in Topographies, it is laid flat and splayed open to view, as if steamrolled. The paradoxical effect of the aerial vantage point is to withdraw not only liveliness, but dimensionality itself.
Compare, for instance, the famous photograph from Uncommon Places of the intersection of Beverley Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles with the photograph from Topographies of a crossroads in Four Corners, Montana. In the earlier picture, signage and street furniture combine to establish lines of order — verticals, horizontals, and perspectivals that coordinate the scene towards a single vanishing point. 15 In the more recent picture, the raking aerial view renders the space simultaneously shallow and recessive. Depth and continuity are lost. On the L.A. corner, we are firmly anchored, absorbed in slow scrutiny. In Four Corners, we are privy only to a darting glance. That glance, nevertheless, remains sufficient to lay bare a surplus of visual information. Instead of the leading edges of a canopy in a filling-station forecourt, we see a similar canopy from above, its trapezoidal form and rudimentary structure revealed as unfamiliar. If perspectival space itself was the dominant medium in the La Brea picture, here, hovering above Four Corners, all appears as surface — the surface of the picture plane, and equally that of the asphalt on the intersecting roads, a continuous, blotchy membrane extending between boxy buildings that seem to be all surface and no volume.
He is alert, as ever, to subtle interplay between embodied perception and formalized depiction. But his interest is in the abstracting, regularizing gaze.
In the La Brea photograph, an unprepossessing place acquires enough formal coherence to become memorable. The combination of visual depth and semiotic richness in the image positioned it perfectly at the threshold where the postmodern percolated through and subsumed the modern: it’s a plethora of signs and surfaces and blaring Pop colors, yes, but comprising a Gestalt, a seamless whole. This is perhaps why the image has proved iconic, even prompting a whole exhibition in 2011 of German photographers exploring its influence. 16 It’s hard to imagine that 45º40.185653N, 111º11.104876W will come to epitomize an equivalent photographic aesthetic. Yet this may be in part because it comes closer to the experience of actually existing in such an aggressively normal spot. In such a setting, it is surely the sea of asphalt rather than the artful alignment of orthogonals that would most forcefully strike the awareness. (Even in 1975, when Shore took the La Brea photograph, something about its insistent visual order niggled him, so much so that he went back the next day and took another, far less composed shot, structured “in a way that communicated my experience standing there, taking in the scene in front of me.” 17 )
Shore has always been alert to this subtle interplay between the embodied perception of a setting and its formalized depiction — an interplay, after all, that lies at the core of photography as an aesthetic discipline and as a technology. But his interest is clearly on the side of the abstracting, regularizing gaze. His 1998 primer The Nature of Photographs centers far more on the formal characteristic of camera-derived images (the “physical” and “depictive” levels, in his terms) than on the meanings pictures may convey (what Shore calls the “mental” level). His recent memoir Modern Instances (2022) is subtitled The Craft of Photography and dwells again on questions of form and technique. In this regard, his practice might be understood as being at odds with a more recent tendency for ambitious photographic projects to be framed within overtly conceptual and explicatory armatures. For evidence of this, we might compare Desert Cantos (1996), the earlier of Richard Misrach’s Cantos series — photographs produced mostly in the 1980s — with his more recent Border Cantos (2016), a collaboration with composer Guillermo Galindo, in which photographs and introductory essays are joined by lengthy captions, essays setting the political context, pictures of found artifacts and of commissioned sculptures, and an accompanying musical composition. 18
Or think of Victoria Sambunaris’s Taxonomy of a Landscape (2013) in which large-format photographs are accompanied by a booklet showing artifacts collected on the artist’s road-trip through the southwest, along with reference texts from the celebrated nature writer Barry Lopez, among others. 19 Where images are asked to stand alone, as in Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture (2012) or Jeffrey Ladd’s A Field Measure Survey of American Architecture (2021), archival or editorial sensibilities are explicitly at work. Using his home computer, Rickard rephotographed Google Street View scenes of impoverished urban neighborhoods, while Ladd has selected and offered without comment images from the vast archive of the Historic American Buildings Survey, chosen for their resonances with previous photographic depictions of American architecture. 20
In this company, Shore’s choices can seem to lack criticality. The images collected in Topographies express no evident ecological message, as Misrach’s work does. They evince little of Rickard’s alertness to socioeconomic conditions; they do not traffic in the kind of playful appropriation deployed by Ladd. Nor does Shore’s exploitation of the elevated view seem motivated by a desire to come to terms with larger economic and environmental forces acting on American society. Beyond a certain emptiness and dishevelment, nothing in particular is being diagnosed here. What these drone-assisted photographs do propose — and here is where their true value lies — is that paying attention to what’s there is a necessary first step towards comprehending it.
“This is the way you look at the poorest details of the world resurfaced,” writes Alice Munro of a roadside stop on a journey through Montana: “you feel their singleness and precise location and the forlorn coincidence of your being there to see them.” Over more than half a century, Shore has celebrated the forlorn coincidence, offering us everyday scenes, happened upon, chosen and framed, and brought before the viewer, inviting us to see with comparable openness and precision.