5 Things Stephen Shore Can Teach You About Street Photography

Stephen Shore

(All images in this article are copyrighted by Stephen Shore)

While in Amsterdam I checked out the FOAM photography museum and picked up a book on Stephen Shore. For those of you who may not know, he is one of the early color pioneers in photography in America. Although his style is classified more as documentary and urban landscape, I think there is a lot of things we can learn from him as street photographers. If you are interested in learning more about color and street photography, read on!

1. Create A Visual Diary

(Copyright: Stephen Shore)

Street photography doesn’t only need to be shots of other people walking about on the streets. It can be a deep self-reflection of yourself – and how you see society through your photographs.

When Stephen Shore worked on his “American Surfaces” project, he took a road trip across America and took photos of the following things:

  1. People he met
  2. Meals he ate
  3. Beds he slept in
  4. Art on walls
  5. Store windows
  6. Residential architecture
  7. Television sets watched

He also took all of these photos on a cheap Rollei 35mm camera, and traveled all across America.

Through these images you don’t see the images as they are, but as a reflection of how Stephen Shore saw the places he visited. For example, when he took a photograph of four chicken bones (he just ate at a diner) he did so because he thought the food was awful, and couldn’t understand why anyone would cook or eat that kind of stuff in America.

Therefore when you’re out shooting street photography, try to add your own personality and view of the world in your shots. Don’t feel that all of your shots have to be of crazy-extraordinary “decisive moments – look for the “boring” and mundane things around you to capture. Think about how a series of images can create your own “visual diary”.

2. Shoot Color For Visual Accuracy And Realism

(Copyright: Stephen Shore)

In the book there was a quote by Peter Schjeldahl:

“Black and white can show how something is. Color adds how it is, imbued with temperatures and humidities of experience”.

Former curator of MOMA, John Szarkowski wrote eloquently on these jet as well saying:

“Most color photography, in short, has been either formless or pretty. In the first case the meanings of color have been ignored; in the second they have been at the expense of allusive meanings. While editing directly from life, photographers found it difficult to see simultaneously both the blue and the sky” – John Szarkowski 1976.

Therefore when it comes presenting your work, consider why you decide to present it in color vs black and white. Consider color as a way to see the world in a descriptive and “real” way, and black and white to see the world in a more conceptual and imaginary way (we don’t see the world in black and white).

I also recommend for people to go out shooting thinking in either black and white or color. This is because when you are shooting in the streets, you will see the world differently (depending on how you approach it).

For example, when I’m shooting in black and white film, I see the world as abstractions in terms of lines, shapes, reflections and shadows etc. However when shooting in color I see things like clothes, juxtaposition of colors, logos, etc.

3. Date Your Images

(Copyright: Stephen Shore)

We often look back at the old photos of Paris in the 1920s and feel nostalgia. We tell ourselves, “Man, the world was so much more interesting back then. Why can’t the world we live in be as interesting?”

However consider that people living in the 1920s didn’t find anything interesting about Paris the way we do. Sure in the old photos we see women wearing extravagant outfits and hats, and men with old-school suits. But back then, everyone wore that. It’s kinda like how nowadays when we see someone on their iPhone we think it’s boring. A hundred years from now, I’m sure people will find it fascinating (then they will probably have the iPhone 38s or something).

In his book shore mentions Specifically adding cars or telephone booths to his photos saying,

“I remember thinking that it’s important to put cars in photographs because they are like time seeds. And I learned this from looking at Evans”

So when you are out shooting on the streets, realize that a hundred years from now your photos will be a part of history. Don’t romanticize the past, think about today as tomorrow’s yesterday.

4. Experiment With Different Formats

(Copyright: Stephen Shore). A photograph he shot with an 8×10 view camera.

When Stephen shire was working on his “American Surfaces” project, he used 35mm small format film on a Rollei 35 camera, and took images as “purposeful snapshots“.

However for his next project he embarked on, “Uncommon Places” he decided to switch to a 8×10 large-format view camera (similar to what Ansel Adams used) for more clarity and detail in the urban landscapes he shot.

Also when shooting with his view camera, he could see exactly how his photos would look through the glass plate, which allowed him to create tighter, and better composed images.

Stephen Shore experimented two sides of the spectrum in terms of equipment (a tiny and compact 35mm camera vs a cumbersome view camera on a tripod). By shooting with different cameras, his approach to photographing his subjects changed.

Although I believe in the importance of staying consistent with equipment, I don’t want to restrict your creativity by experimenting. Therefore depending on what project you are working on, try to experiment with different cameras, formats, or equipment. If you shot film all your life, try using an iPhone. If you have only shot digital, try film.

5. Go Against The Grain

(Copyright: Stephen Shore)

When Shore was doing his photography projects With his 8×10 view camera, he was going against small or medium format shooters like Frank, Winogrand, Friedlander, and Arbus. But at the same time, he was going against the f64 group (Ansel Adams group) by shooting color.

Therefore don’t feel like you always have to fit under conventions. Shoot street photography with hipstamatic and add crazy filters if you want. If you like HDR, go ahead and do that.

Although I personally don’t agree with crazy effects or over-processing, once again make yourself happy and try to experiment. To be creative, it is necessary to break out of the typical “boundaries of photography”. However if you are going to break the boundaries in terms of how you present your images, do it consistently and purposefully. Don’t do it for the sake of doing it, but have a real reason why you want to try something differently.


Copyright: Stephen Shore

I feel some of the best insights we can get about street photography isn’t always by street photographers (by definition). Rather, gaining inspiration from other photographers similar to street photographers (and even completely opposite from street photographers) can help us become more creative, to break boundaries, as well as push the limits.

If you want to learn more about color street photography, check out my recent post: “7 Things I Learned About Shooting Street Photography in Color“.

Photo Books by Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places

If you want to learn more about Stephen Shore and color photography, check out his photo books below!

What do you think of Stephen Shore’s work or approach? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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