Almost every Shore photograph is organized around a bright panel or pole of red—a distinctively New York red, not a sunset or a tropical red but an emergency-call-box or fire-station or athletic-socks red.
We see New York, and sometimes, as Henry James asked us to, we “do it”—explore and conquer it—but what we see when we see it is so far unlike what we experience when we’re doing it that the difference itself can become a subject for art. The city sneaks up on us in pictures, and we are startled to see what it looks like even when what it looks like is just us, doing what we really do. We respond to truthful depictions of New York with the same surprise that we feel when we hear a recording of our own voice.
This surprise is one of the subjects of the extraordinary, lost—or, actually, never found in the first place—American photographer Jerry Shore. Shore did New York, was done by it, and then became a kind of artist-martyr to the act of seeing it. In the last decade of his life, Shore, after twenty years as one of the leading short-form commercial directors of his time, fell down a well of alcohol and isolation. He died in 1994, at the age of fifty-nine, and left behind four thousand photographic prints, most of New York City streets, in Queens and Manhattan, in Turtle Bay and Chelsea and the old meatpacking district. Only one of them had ever been sold. The collector Daniel Wolf bought all of Shore’s work, in 1995, and has archived it, so that, for the first time, it is possible to see the range and intensity of what he accomplished, and discover an original New York eye.Jerry Shore’s story is simple, in many ways typical, and in most ways sad. He grew up in Oxford Circle, a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood outside Philadelphia, and, along with his twin brother, Fred, attended art schools at a time when Philadelphia had a great many of them. “He loved art,” Fred says. “He just lived everything visual.” He came to New York in the early sixties, like so many others, intending to become a painter—he worshipped de Kooning and Hofmann and Kline.
But he loved, too, the burgeoning realist and documentary cinema—his brother recalls that he had a special passion for Rossellini and Antonioni—and he soon found work with the director Harold Becker, who was then making documentary films. Together they made a seminal short film about the great French photographer Eugène Atget, who wandered the unpopulated streets of Paris with a huge camera, searching for images of the city that endured and the city that was disappearing. The Becker-Shore film is a beautiful fifteen minutes, silent save for Satie’s plangent “Gymnopédie No. 1” (not nearly the cliché that it later became), with slow, floating pans of Atget’s photographs of empty Paris streets and bridges and parks. It is lovely and sad enough to soften the heart of any lover of Paris, and oddly premonitory of the city views that Shore later did alone, in the same key but on a very different instrument.
Shore found himself as a filmmaker, and for a while he became one of the most successful of the swinging generation of commercial directors, at a time when the thirty-second spot was, if not exactly a theatre of creativity, at least a medium of riches and excitement. In 1969, after doing advertising work alongside Bert Stern and Jerry Bruckheimer, he opened his own shop, Jerry Shore Productions, and for the next fifteen years he was one of the most commercial of commercial directors. He made thirty- and sixty-second spots for Pepsi, Revlon, Maybelline. He was known for his lighting, his ability to make a seemingly improvised situation glamorous. Inevitably, like his contemporaries Jerry Schatzberg and Stern, he went off to Hollywood, where he made a couple of little features, including an adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor short story.
Desires are eternal, but their biddings are temporal; when Shore returned to New York, in the eighties, he found that the advertising industry had grown beyond the small, hip shops that had been dominant a decade earlier. Work suddenly became very hard to find, and his search for it was not helped by his drinking and depression. Friends say that he lost confidence, as can happen quickly to a man caught up in a confidence game.
Yet this was the moment when he gave himself over to a project that he may have begun sometime earlier, in the late seventies. He travelled through Manhattan and Queens, making large-scale, exquisitely printed color photographs of some of the most aesthetically unpersuasive streets in New York City. For the next ten years, until his death, he pursued this project, with a focus and self-discipline made all the more moving by his ever more distressed circumstances.
Some colleagues who thought they knew him well didn’t even know that he was taking photographs, though on rare occasions he asked friends to accompany him. He would dress, they recall, in an unchanging daily uniform: worn bomber jacket, flannel shirt, khakis, and saddle shoes. For all his personal disorganization, he was able to handle his work with extraordinary care and methodical purpose: he roved the streets with a 35-mm. camera, “sketching” possible scenes in the least pictured vistas of the city. Then, later in the week, he would return and be ready to make his picture, waiting for the right light—the pregnant, rather than the decisive, moment—to take and keep a city corner that no one else might have thought worth preserving. The project, which seems to have begun as a kind of surcease from his commercial work—a way of recapturing some of the concerns and obsessions that had led him to New York and to art in the first place—soon became a substitute. It was all he did; given the number of images he left behind, he must have been out with his camera, hunting scenes and taking pictures, nearly every day until he died.
Shore’s photography is, to use the ever-reductive language of art criticism, an attempt to reconcile the subject matter of the New York school of black-and-white street photography of the fifties—the love of the overlooked, the stray, the strange, the gutter, and the slummy—with the high finish and compositional poise of the Meyerowitz-Eggleston school of color photography. His own ambitions for his photographs seem to have been almost purely formal and even abstract: though he was always on the streets, he never saw himself as a documentary street photographer, in the familiar Eugene Richards sense. His attention was devoted to space and color and form. And, to be sure, it is the organization of the pictures that first strikes one—what was called, in formalism’s rosier days, their interpenetrating planes and surprising deep space.
But it’s the descriptive bits of the pictures which register most strongly. Dignity opens the door to sadness. Just as each Atget façade is a study in shape and space and gleaming particulate light but is also about a Paris that was passing, or stilled, so in Shore the will to memorialize the commonplace mirrors our own sense of how things we love get lost, and can be recalled only in pictures.
Though not in pretty ones. Jerry Shore’s New York is relentlessly anti-picturesque. There is scarcely a single scene in the thousands of prints he made that even remotely corresponds to anyone’s idea of a pleasing or appealing New York: no slanting shadows cast by skyscrapers, nowhere the skyline seen from a distance, or the river seen from on high, no playing children or even small moments of escape in Central Park. Here are ugly scaffoldings, black plastic bags, peeling billboards, and parked cars—the things we see and choose not to know. Yet his work is not an exercise in the knowingly anti-picturesque, either: the places he chooses aren’t even squalidly interesting. There is no shame to the city he sees. Unlike the New York of Richards or, indeed, Weegee, Shore’s New York is relentlessly, eerily unpopulated. When people do appear, they are as anonymous as Saul Steinberg’s hieroglyphic rubber-stamp people.
Shore loved the bleakest of New York streets—not the ones, like some in the South Bronx or on the old Lower East Side, that have been romantically ruined but the grim and indifferent avenues of the postwar middle-class boom. Not mean streets but boring streets: the streets around his own apartment, for instance, in one of the giant postwar apartment buildings on Third Avenue in the Thirties. Or the streets of Long Island City, those nameless avenues with high numbers and delivery trucks rumbling down them; he loved, too, the streets around Gansevoort Market, in the old meatpacking district, in those days resolutely unglamorous. Yet a city, so recognizable that sight alone becomes a kind of love, is opened up before us in these pictures. The peeling billboards and the plastic bags are all registered, as a camera can register things, neither as subjects, made emotional by the artist’s will, nor as objects, emptied of meaning at the artist’s whim. They’re just there, as uncontroversial as crabgrass.
Shore was the Atget of the parked car. He did with parked cars what the Parisian photographer did with park benches: he made them not symbolic but merely present. His photographs are filled with their simple weight and presence. Nothing is more omnipresent in New York than those silent cars in rows and rows on city streets and lots—nothing would seem to a Martian more integral to the look of New York. Yet they are a part of our landscape that we not only reject but ride right by. We don’t even think of them as ugly; we just don’t know they’re there, except when we rent a car and circle the block for hours, searching for a space, in sudden resentment of their hulking, stolid presence. Shore makes their presence something precise and quietly haunting. They’re our homes, waiting for us as patiently as soldiers’ wives.
Shore had an original sense of color, and he didn’t mind playing with his realities to bring it home. Almost every Shore photograph is organized around a bright panel or pole of red—a distinctively New York red, not a sunset or a tropical red but an emergency-call-box or fire-station or athletic-socks red. (He seems to have carried a paint can of the red he liked with him; some inauspicious walls suddenly appear covered with it.) But mostly he found it where he went looking for it: the Shore red appears on diners and aluminum siding and, above all, in ads on lampposts and walls and bits of scrap metal and the signs on Texaco stations. This red is often set off by a strong taxicab or raincoat yellow, and the two together, like the panels of colors that overlay Hofmann’s painterly backgrounds, give clarity and bracing organization to the gray-and-steel-blue city behind.
He had an exquisite regard for found signage: his photographs, like Walker Evans’s, are filled with fading painted signs. This obsession is a kind of memento mori for the advertising by which he had found his fortune and lost his way. But it has even more to do with the simple love of the palimpsest of New York: the way that everything just sits together, old and new, ugly and lovely, the tiny superintending tip of the Chrysler Building and the vast desert of black surfaces and plastic bags flitting like tumbleweed below. The democratic funkiness of New York’s streets has seldom been seen with so stoic and accepting an eye.
Shore’s pictures are really still-lifes more than landscapes, studies of things rather than impressions of climates. There is a moment of aesthetic shock in Shore’s unaesthetic photographs that comes when we say to ourselves, Oh, dear, it does look like that. Neither more squalid nor more picturesque but . . . just like that. The sense of things ugly in themselves—ugliness registered not defiantly but passively, as if nothing could be truly ugly—filled his work. In the best sense, it is very period, very “seventies”; he often seems within hailing distance of the photo-realist painter Richard Estes in his love of the city street as it is, not as we would have it. And at times he is within hailing distance of Edward Hopper, whose lonely avenues he updates and reimagines. There is even a Shore that seems to be a subtle comment on Hopper: sad light on lonely buildings. But then that’s where he lived. James Thurber thought that every New Yorker is a mouse living in a cage in a prison; the mouse thinks it’s the only one who’s cooped up. In the isolation of his own peculiar island, Shore saw the shape of our imprisonment, where the bars on the cell keeping us in are hard to distinguish from the shapes on the window luring us out.