Stephen Shore’s Modern Instances - this is not a book review

March has been a write off. Both G and I finally caught Covid despite all our care. Fortunately we have had nothing more serious than moderate flue symptoms but unlike flue the recovery from Covid has been very slow. Apart from walking the dogs each day we have spent long periods resting and reading. The enforced rest has given me the time to read some of the books too long unopened on my shelf. One of those is Stephen Shore’s Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography. A Memoir. Shore has been credited as one of the photographers who established colour photography as an art form (1) and has been acknowledged as a major influence on the work of Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Martin Parr, Joel Sternfeld and Thomas Struth (2). To describe Shore’s work as unfathomable would be an understatement. His images can be both deadpan and contemplative, often of banal scenes and objects. His American Surfaces series, for example, was a travel diary made between 1972 and 1973 with photographs of “friends he met, meals he ate, toilets he sat on”. The series was first exhibited at the Light Gallery, New York in 1972. Shot on 35mm film and printed in glossy colour using a high-street Kodak lab, the prints were hung directly onto the gallery wall and fixed with backing tape in a large grid (3). At the time the image content and gallery context were considered too radical with the inevitable bad reception from photography critics. Today, the exhibition is widely acknowledged as representing a key moment in the history of photography. And I now know where Wolfgang Tillmans got the hanging idea.

Stephen Shore has been making images for a very long time, he had his first 35mm camera at the age of 9. I think he must be 75 this year and he’s been working seriously with a camera since the 60’s, so even if his photographs don’t touch you, even if you find them indifferent or banal; with that amount of experience he is going to have some things to say about the craft of photography that are going to be interesting and perhaps even useful. 

Modern Instances is a book that is as much to do with fishing as it has photography.

It is in many ways a memoir as the title suggests, but not in a way that you might expect. It is very much a cerebral scrapbook filled with interactions with people as well as places, things, and a few well placed Shakespearian sonnets. 

By his own admission he seems to have had an innate ability to be in the right place at the right time and as a consequence has met and befriended an astonishing array of well know artists and photographers, including a 3 year stint working with Andy Worhol at the Factory.

It is an insightful read because he talks openly about what was going on in his head, what and who influenced him and what what was driving him.  At the beginning I said that this wasn’t a book review but reading through this is seems to be shaping up into one. So I’ll stop and just say that Modern Instances is essential reading for anyone doing anything visual who struggles with the point or purpose of their practice. It is full of intelligent insights and it is also full of great quotes. I’ll leave you with two of my favourites:

“…. I stood on a street corner in Savannah, Georgia, setting up my camera. I remember recognising that making the picture seemed neither intentional nor intuitive, but more habitual. I realised then that the pictures I had been taking on this short trip were all made almost by rote. I realised that I wasn’t on my edge making work. There wasn’t a sense of “flow”. I saw that for a while the visual questions that kept “arising” for most of the ’70s had stopped. I was making “Stephen Shores”, I was, in a sense, imitating myself. Szarkowski and I once discussed what distinguishes a photograph from an illustration. He said, “an illustration is a picture whose problems were solved before the picture was made”.

“Zen pretty much comes down to three things - everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.” Credited to Jane Hirshfield.

Stephen Shore’s Modern Instances. The Craft of Photography. A Memoir is available from MACK Books at




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