How a 17th century painting inspired a 70s LA photo

Stephen Shore tells us how his La Brea Ave photo was organised using Claude Lorrain's compositional technique
La Brea Avenue Los Angeles, California June 21, 1975 - Stephen Shore
La Brea Avenue Los Angeles, California June 21, 1975 - Stephen Shore

We caught up with Phaidon photographer and living legend Stephen Shore at the preview for the Constructing Worlds show at the Barbican in London yesterday. The show, co-curated by the author of our Shooting Space book Elias Redstone, features work by many of the photographers in the book among them Bas Princen, Nadav Kander, Iwan Baan, and Hélène Binet to name but a few. Naturally we interviewed them all about the show and book and we’ll be bringing you those interviews over the coming days. We’re going to kick off however, by bringing you part of a chat we had with Stephen Shore at the preview.

“We started off by talking about the premise of our Shooting Space book and the Constructing Worlds show, and how they both present the artistic, photographic response to architectural photography.

“Architecture has been an inspiration for photographers since the very beginnings of the media,” Shore told us. “I’m interested in cultural and societal forces but I can’t photograph them unless they become visible. Historians, sociologists and anthropologists can write about it but I can’t deal with it unless it becomes concrete. And architecture and the built environment is any photographer’s way of accessing these cultural forces.” Shore picked off one of his photos where he clearly remembered his artistic response to the space in question.


Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba 1648 - Claude Lorrain
Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba 1648 - Claude Lorrain

“So at the time of this one (1975) I’m thinking about a couple of things. I’m thinking about what seems almost archetypal about a part of LA - and to take a picture that touches on that but I’m also interested in a structural problem. I was going through a period where I wanted to see how densely structured I could make a picture. So I was looking at not just the relationships of the chevrons to the traffic light, and the street signs to the advertising but how far into the space of the picture I could go.

"And as I did it I recognized that in solving this picture I was imposing a very classical kind of structure on it. Structurally it is very similar to Claude Lorrain - a very traditional classical organisation of space where he would perhaps have on the right a classical pediment where I have the Standard station. On the left where I have a telegraph pole he might have a tree. And then there’s the one point perspective. 

“So it bothered me that in my attempt to organize and hold everything together I was imposing a 17th century idea of spatial organization onto a 20th century scene. I went back the next day and photographed this intersection again and made a completely different picture. I was facing a different way and it looks like it’s not organized at all. To my mind it’s just like being there.”


La Brea Avenue Los Angeles, California June 21, 1975 - Stephen Shore
La Brea Avenue Los Angeles, California June 21, 1975 - Stephen Shore

"On my mind at the time was how many balls I could juggle at once structurally – how deeply into the space I could organize it. I did a number of pictures on that trip that are dealing with this question. So when I took it it just laid a seed in my mind that grew - this question of what am I imposing on the scene and how am I imposing it?”

You can find the photo in the Stephen Shore book in our contemporary artist series and you can find the series of photographs Stephen took across America in the books American Surfaces and Road Trip Journal

Meanwhile you can also find Shooting Space in the store. We’ll be bringing you an interview with its author Elias Redstone tomorrow and the photographers in it, during the coming days. And if you're in London this weekend you might like to know that there's a Phaidon event at the Photographer's Gallery on Saturday evening (September 26) which features Elias Redstone in conversation with Shooting Space photographers Bas Princen and Richard Wentworth. Tickets are available here. Finally, Constructing Worlds at the Barbican is here.

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