Stephen Shore’s Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979
Stephen Shore is an American photographer still living and working today. Shore’s oeuvre is characterized by his highly detailed photographs. They are color film shots, taken on an 8×10 view finding camera. Shore is unique for this type of work. Early on in his career in the 1960s, photography was not so established as a form of high art. His fellow photographers were eager to establish themselves as “fine art” photographers, and used black and white, and or 35 mm film to do so. Shore’s color and large-scale works set him apart and was his form of rebellion against those conventions. Shore was never formally trained, nor an assistant to an established photographer. Nevertheless, by the time he was 23 he had already been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The photograph that is in Haverford College’s collection, Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979 is a part of Shore’s series Uncommon Places 1973-81. This series is where Shore investigates the ambivalence of the American landscape. Because of the medium requirements of shooting with such a large camera, with a tripod and long exposure times, Shores photographs are deliberate, posed and complex.
Shore’s Merced River triumphs in its depiction of landscape, humans and their composition. If the sheer beauty of the landscape was not enough, his framing of it only heightens its intrigue; the curve of the river complements the mountains behind it. The smattering of people around the scene, all in their own world, show the human interaction with the landscape. Shore takes the photograph from a high vantage point, so the figures are small, and the enormity of the landscape takes precedent. What is most remarkable about this work, along with all of Shores work, is the fine detail of the print. With his process of using an 8×10 camera, he is able to sharply capture all of the detail present within the frame. Stephen Shore contributed to the history of photography by creating works of art that were unafraid, technically intricate and bold compositionally.
Dahó, Marta. Stephen Shore. First edition. New York: Aperture, 2014.
In approaching this assignment, I was drawn to the idea of creating space for reflection. In my own personal reflection on this course and the content I’ve produced, I’ve noticed recurring themes associated with the global pandemic. This pandemic, so deeply ingrained in our collective experiences, has produced such great loss that has been emphasized in so many different forms of expression, almost to an excessive extent. However, the pandemic’s pervasive nature keeps it a relevant and intrusive muse at every attempt of art I make, and often I don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye.
In creating the physical space of the shoot, I included a speaker for music, Oreo cookies for incentive and a token of thanks, and index cards. On these index cards, I asked everyone to write a love letter to someone. I placed no bounds on who the recipient of the letter could be, I just wanted them to sit, reflect on their love for someone, and immortalize it on a colorful index card. Some wrote to their mothers, some wrote to their younger selves, some to their siblings, and some to seemingly random people who got them where they are today. A sentiment that has been circulating the internet right now is the idea that we are all just a collection of habits and quirks of all those we’ve surrounded ourselves with over the years. I wanted to capture the fleeting moments of recognition and appreciation for those people in our lives.
These images represent a piece of ourselves given to this school, this space, and this past year of triumphs and tribulations. To see yourself, and to love yourself is to see and love all of the people who have touched your life, and all of the lives you have touched. I am eternally grateful for the community created out of these trying times, and I hope to never forget the impact every single one of my friends, those pictured and those not, have had on my small life. You know who you are, this is my love letter to you. Thank you and I love you.
Lee Norman Friedlander was born on July 14th, 1934 in Aberdeen, WA. He gained his education at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and then moved to New York where he focused on taking pictures of the American social landscape. Friedlander is primarily a street photographer, and his images are recognized for being candid portraits of urban settings. Many of his photographs capture overlapping light and reflections in windows. Friedlander claims that his photographs aren’t premediated. Rather, he works to spontaneously capture whatever is ahead of him. His images draw out a tension between people and things in a street by making them all feel equal in the image. Friedlander’s images have been curated and published multiple times. Notably, he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Documents exhibition which was curated by John Szarkowski in 1967. His most famous published work includes The American Monument (1976), America by Car (2010) and Self Portrait (2000), which was a series of self-portraits he started in the 1960’s. The image we are looking at was also published in 1978 in Lee Friedlander, Photographs.
The image, titled New York City was created in 1965. It is a black and white gelatin silver print. It measures 17cm by 25cm. While it isn’t a super small print, the dark shadow on the right, and the dark wall at the top half of the print, in some ways makes the image feel smaller. There is a lot going on in these darker areas, but we are still drawn toward the ground, which takes less that 50% of the entire composition. The size effectively accomplishes the goal of placing things within the right proportions.
Gelatin silver prints were extremely popular during this time, especially for artistic projects such as this because of the high level of detail that it revealed. It consists of a layer of paper, a layer of baryta, and a layer of gelatin. The gelatin layer contains the light-sensitive silver compounds. After it is exposed to the negative and developed in a chemical bath, the image is relatively permanent and has a smooth surface. Silver gelatin prints were created and popularized as an alternative to platinum prints. The silver prints were first introduced in the late 1800s and experimented with by Alfred Stieglitz. However, it wasn’t until World War I and later, when platinum papers became harder to obtain, that silver prints became more popular.
The detail in this image is extremely interesting to the viewer- from the stains on the ground and the speckled walls to the clean lines of the stars on the flag in the store window, there is a lot to see, but it isn’t overwhelming either. The use of black and white is also very impactful here. The shadow on the right becomes even more mysterious because it conceals something within it while still staying in frame. Also, the iconography of the flag is emphasized. Even without color, the flag is easily recognizable, and muting the bright red, blue of the flag into grayscale equalizes the power balance of all the subjects in the frame.
Of the five categories that John Szarkowski discusses in his book The Photographers Eye, the frame(s) in this image are most significant in the image’s composition as it tells us what Friedlander wanted us to see in this scene. Frame asks the photographer what they should include and what they should reject. Szarkowski also says that the frame “isolates unexpected juxtapositions… The edge of the photograph dissects familiar forms and shows their unfamiliar fragment” (70). The most striking part of the frame is that the right side of the frame is almost entirely covered by a shadow. Out of the shadow, a single foot sticks out. While the foot is extremely well lit, the rest of the body is hidden in the shadow (an unfamiliar fragment) which draws intrigue to the foot. Within the image, the shadow on the right, the wall in the top half, and the left and bottom edges of the photo frame the well-lit sidewalk. The sidewalk becomes the focus of the image despite being the least “eventful” place in the image. The foot is the only object visible on the sidewalk in this framed area, which further highlights its presence. The framing allows us to deduce that the image is about the foot walking on the sidewalk- not about the store in the back or the owner of the feet. When paired with the title of the image “New York City” and Friedlander’s background, it becomes even more apparent that we are looking at the candid movements of people through the street. Another key framing in this image is the American flag in the store window. Despite not being able to see all sides of the window, there is a framing with the border of the image. As New York City is one of the representative cities on America, this position of the flag alongside the street is very poignant. The flag is above the street, but also not framed within the center of the image. This positioning makes us know we’re in American streets, but also that this is about the people more than it is about the place. In addition, in most representations of the American flag or interactions with it, the flag is hoisted high above everyone else, and people stand still, facing the flag, in some form of patriotic performance. In this image, there is movement parallel to the flag, not toward it. The framing of the image feels purposeful in highlighting this.
On initial glance, I was drawn to this image because the way the objects in the image were placed was not something I had really seen before. The American flag stood out easily but soon after my eyes dropped to the large sidewalk. It wasn’t until after I’d noticed these things that I saw the foot on the right. It could have to do with the way people read in English- from left to right. To me, the image feels like it’s divided into three sections which is a result of the framing. First we have the sidewalk, then the storefront, and lastly the foot and shadow on the right. Friedlander loved to juxtapose people and things in this manner to comment on urban scenes, and I feel the equal importance of all different parts of the image. While I am naturally intrigued by who the foot belongs too, I also feel like it doesn’t actually matter- it’s just representative of any dweller in the city. In addition, the (mostly) empty sidewalk shows its wear and tear, and how constantly it is used by people in the city. This is a striking contrast to the flag in the storefront that is shielded from the outside air and doesn’t appear to be used- it’s just meant to be looked at.
In many ways, this image feels timeless to me. The icons in place are easily recognizable. Most images of the city are busy and overwhelming, but this image doesn’t feel like that to me. There is mystery and it calls for intrigue, and the viewer wants to see more.
Photography and Text by Sharon Wang, Copyright 2021
Wild at Heart
The question goes, what does it mean to be a woman?
Her responsibilities and expectations from society. Women began their journey of smashing the stereotypes years ago, but the suppression still exists in many places around the world. This series was born to praise the beauty of women, aim to reconstruct some concept to live as a woman, and most essentially celebrate all the wild dreams women have in heart.
Marriage for women, they say, is a new start,
But why is it not an expectation for their male counterparts?
The first head piece, a veil, is an obvious metaphor for being a bride. At one point, marriage was considered to be the sole goal for a woman. They are also expected to spend more effort in maintaining this relationship. Unfortunately, it is still true in some places and a lot of women don’t even have the autonomy to decide what they want with their marriage, or even who to love. From the photos, we can see a mixture of desperation, fear and anger from the model’s eyes, challenging the traditional notion of marriage.
From what society expects, it’s worlds apart, That women are being too smart.
The second head piece is a fun, glamorous and shiny piece. Its existence seems as if women are being suffocated on the head, of some fancy things from the outside. The head piece is like the non-existent limitations of things that people think women are not capable of. Turns out, things are the same for whatever gender.
“Someone will remember us, I say, even in another time,” believed Sappo. But I want the accomplishments and beauty to be celebrated now. And to actualize it, possibly with art.
I shoot the model in a relatively mysterious place, presenting the “wild” thoughts in the actual wilderness.
But after all, how do women ever get to depart? And follow that wilderness in heart.
I chose the photograph Unemployed Miner’s Wife With Tuberculosis on Porch of Company Owned Quarters, Marine, West Virginia (1938) by Marion Post Wolcott. I initially chose this photograph due to the facial expression of the woman portrayed. Her subtle smile and her eye contact that moves beyond the camera made me wonder what she might be looking at, especially given the title revealing her battle with Tuberculosis. It is a somewhat hopeful image, with such a somber title. Wolcott (1910-1990) was an American photographer who had specialized in documenting the Depression era, seeking to find the ordinary struggles within the lives lived during that time. I believe this photograph best provokes John Szarkowski’s characteristic of “The Thing Itself” because there was a reality behind this photograph that we will truly never know, yet by being photographed, it is documented forever. This photograph documented by Wolcott’s camera reveals a truth that the human eye cannot perceive.
Between 1938 and 1942, Wolcott had produced more than 9,000 photographs, including the one talked about in this paper, for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) (Brannan, 2012). The FSA was established in 1937 to share and document the rural poverty occurring during the Great Depression. Starting out her career in photography, she worked freelance. But when she landed a job with the FSA, her work transformed into activism. Her photographs that documented the struggles of the people during that time, especially women, worked as a way to expose the need for assistance.
Activism work was not new to Wolcott. Although her father was a conservative, her mother was an activist for progressive causes. Wolcott was also extremely educated and cultured (Brannan, 2012). She spent time in New York City and Europe, experiencing the arts such as dance and theatre. She studied an array of topics at New School for Social Research, New York University, and University of Vienna including child psychology, and childhood education. She also studied dance intensely throughout her life, allowing her artistic side to cultivate. Although she had grown up quite privileged, she had watched the struggles of others which touched her quite deeply. She worked as a childcare provider in a mill town in Massachusetts and saw the class divide amongst children, depending on the hierarchy of their parents. She lived in Vienna during the Nazi regime, she watched homes be destroyed and the homeless population rise. Her somewhat privileged upbringing gave her the opportunity to share others struggles, and depict them in a way to help bring awareness and aid.
The black and white photograph of Unemployed Miner’s Wife With Tuberculosis on Porch of Company Owned Quarters, Marine, West Virginia depicts a women in the middle of the frame, leaning against a porch in front of her. It is a portrait. This photograph was created through Selenium-toned silver print on paper. It was a decent sized photograph, the display that I saw measured 22cm by 18cm with a large overmatting white boarder. I was immediately drawn to this image because of the expression on the woman’s face.
I see “The Thing Itself” as the formal characteristic of this photograph. Szarkowski describes “The Thing Itself” as the subject and the image being separate from one another. The camera eye can capture a reality that the human eye will not be able to fully percieve or understand. The image portrays one sliver of a moment, that does not capture the full reality of that moment in time. In terms of the photograph in question, “The Thing Itself” is the woman.
Although we get a clue as to her situation through the title, we do not fully understand her. This image leaves a lot open for the viewer to interpret and think about. Her eyes are wide but tired looking. We can see her collar bones and veiny hands. We can suspect she is frail. But at the same time, she looks off into the distance with perhaps a slight smile to her face. She leans against the post in front of her comfortably. What is she looking at? Is she looking for something? What is going on around her? This photograph leaves the viewer wanting to know more about the subject and her life. It only captures a glimmer into the reality of this woman’s life.
Because Wolcott specialized in activism work, especially during the depression era, it made me wonder what about this photograph shares her vision. The photograph and the subject are two different things. Her mission working for the FSA was to share the story of those experiencing extreme poverty and distress during the Great Depression. She wanted to share the collective trauma of a generation (McEuen, 2000). This image shares the stark reality of a woman during this time, ill but perhaps hopeful? The narrative will always be under question, as the photographer has many possibilities to manipulate the construction of an image. But the simplicity of this photo evokes more of a stark reality than anything else. By this, I mean that this image does not thrive off of trauma porn. It is a simple, yet extremely intriguing, image depicting a woman with struggles of her own during the depression.
This photograph possesses many other characteristics I will now describe. “The Detail” of the image has a large amount of clarity. The women possesses sharp details, from the veins on her hands to the straggling hairs on her head. The background is also quite clear, but not as sharp as the woman herself. This brings me to “The Frame.” This characteristic gives a glimpse of the “Company Owned House” described in the title. We can see that it is a wooden structure, there
is a window behind her and perhaps a door next to her. But the rest of the structure is left to the imagination, we cannot understand how large or small the structure is given the information in this photograph. The way this image was framed shares the focus put onto the woman. She is placed dead center in the photograph. Her forehead and cheekbones are extremely highlighted, guiding the viewer to look at her face first. The way this image was framed also gives off a slight keystone affect. Although the photograph is taken from a lower side angle, the window appears larger on the bottom than it does on the top. The background frames her well, but she is still the center of attention.
Because the image is so still, the “Time” exposed must have been quite fast. One clue that I can analyze is her hair blowing in the wind. Although it is blowing, it is still incredibly detailed, her hair is not blurry at all. Another clue I might be able to analyze is her dress, it is wrinkled, but detailed. This hints that the exposure time was quite short if it was able to capture such detail, or maybe she did stand still for a long time. The last characteristic of this image that I will analyze is “Vantage Point.” Because she stands against a porch, she looks as if she towers her surroundings. The photograph was taken from a lower angle, leaving the subject to be elevated. Szarkowski describes a process in creating the vantage point as “If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera” (Szarkowski, 1966). Because of the subject’s comfortable pose, Wolcott must have wanted to capture the scene in its entirety by shooting from below.
This photograph feels quite candid. The subject looks away from the camera, as if she is unaware she is being captured. She is elevated, yet grounded. What I mean is this photograph does not feel curated, it feels authentic. It captures a singular moment in time. Although the subject and the photograph are two separate things, I feel as though Wolcott did a good job
capturing the struggles within the ordinary. This image does not feel posed or composed. It captures a woman in a habitat of her own, or so we are meant to believe. She is the light and the subject of this image. I was immediately drawn to the expression on her face, and the highlights that draw us to her. The captured details of her body leave the viewer wanting to know more about her situation, and about her battle with Tuberculosis. It also makes the viewer think more about the realities of the Great Depression. This photograph depicts only one reality, and Wolcott’s collection of 9,000 other images would show other realities. Wolcott’s mission was to share the collective trauma, and strength, of a generation, and this image is only one example.
Brannan, Beverly W. “Marion Post Wolcott: A Biographical Essay.” The Library of Congress. Prints & Photographs Division, 2012.
McEuen, Melissa A. “A Radical Vision on Film: Marion Post’s Portrayal of Collective Strength.” Essay. In Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars, 125–96. University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Szarkowski, John. Photographer’s Eye. New York City, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1966.