Stephen Shore’s Survivors in Ukraine (1) is highly relevant as research for assignment 3. It documents a community, albeit one defined by age and ethnicity as opposed to geography, and Shore, in this instance, might be described as a connected outsider.
Shore’s paternal grandfather emigrated from Ukraine in 1890, hence the connection; Shore’s wife, recognising that his work needed to “move into a more personal sphere” (1: p.136) suggested the Jewish Ukrainian survivors of the Holocaust as a project. This personal connection to his subject matter is indeed a departure for Shore whose previous and highly acclaimed work has documented places from the standpoint of the detached observer but, on the other hand, his work has always been infused with his subjective viewpoint to the degree that whilst Uncommon Places (reviewed here) and From Galilee to the Negev (reviewed here) are non judgmental h is observational style creates a commentary; his work is his view of a place in both senses of the word.
The photographs in Survivors are preceded by a contextual history essay by Jane Kramer, the European corespondent of The New Yorker magazine. In this regard the structure of Survivors follows a similar pattern to Josef Koudelka’s Wall (reviewed here) which was coincidentally part of the same project (This Place) (i) that included Shore’s From Galilee to the Negev. This structure is relevant as in both these examples we are introduced to the wider history of the place in question before the photographer and their work enters the stage and, in both cases, the history is so distressing that it sets the tone for the images that follow. The difference in structure is that, once the essay has been completed, Shore provides no captions beyond a location or a name for the portraits whereas Koudelka continues to add politically loaded commentary as captions throughout his book (4). (discussed here) (4)
Kramer sets the tone for her short history of Ukraine by suggesting that the name itself might derive from the word for border lands, describing it as “a border waiting to be breached” (2: p:3). It is an unfortunate place squeezed between Western Europe and Russia, a buffer zone or thoroughfare depending on the political climate. In the ninth century its territories stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and included Moscow in the east but by the start of WWII it had shrunk to something resembling its current borders, which incidentally is still the largest country entirely in Europe. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had ceded the Western Ukraine to Russia so when the German army invaded in July 1941 as a prelude to Operation Barbarossa they were welcomed as liberators; the celebrations were brutally curtailed as the SS began the systematic annihilation of the country’s 2.7 million jews. By the end of the war 1.5 million had been found and murdered, often by mass execution; Heinrich Himmler having decided that it was “impractical” (2: p4) and too costly to deport them to death camps.
Shore’s project revolves around twenty-two of the survivors; some of whom had hidden in cellars, attics or barns, others had escaped to Kazakhstan to join soviet collective farms and one had escaped to join the Russia army to fight in the defence of Stalingrad; Tzal Nusymovych (fig. 1) is given pride of place on the cover of the book, proudly bedecked with his medals. All are now in their nineties, some have died since these photographs were taken.
Although the subject matter is a departure for Shore his approach, or style, is recognisable from his earlier published work. Shore describes a place and its inhabitants by following a recognisable but loose pattern. He uses the broader landscape to provide a general sense of place, focuses in on a contained landscape to show how humans relate to the environment, introduces the human subject and their homes by revealing telling details that help to describe them. In From Galilee to the Negev he tended to create these patterns like a bird swooping in from the great expanses of the desert to land on tiny but expressive details after looking at the inhabitants and how they had shaped their environment. The pattern is less discernible here but it still exists. The difference being that Shore uses the portraits of his twenty-two survivors to anchor the narrative which is perhaps necessary as his typical obsession with photographing the banal objects that speak of everyday life might appear trivial if not juxtaposed with the history that is embodied in his human subjects.
In an interview with American Photo Magazine Shore explained something of his approach, he revealed that he has previously avoided subjects with an “emotion charge” and had to carefully consider his approach to this subject matter.
“How could I take pictures that didn’t depend on the associations people would have with the Holocaust but at the same time not ignore it?” (5)
One wonders whether his work on From Galilee to the Negev was part of the process that led to this more personal project; in an interview with ASX:TV (6) he says that in that project he was trying to “come to terms with what is essential about a place that’s visually accessible” but that he recognised it was a more charged subject matter than he was used to. In that series he appears to actively avoid making political statements, in Survivors he is more direct, the very act of photographing these elderly people in a sympathetic and gentle way is an expression of solidarity.
The children’s swing in Bucha is typical of Shore’s contained landscapes. He intends for the viewer to see the child with their grandparent in the context of their local environment but Shore does not spoon feed his audience, he wants and expects us to consider the whole picture and make our own reading of the information on offer. He says, of this photograph, that there:
“Can be one of a number of points of interest, so that the viewer, instead of being directed, is given a small world in which they can explore …. which is so much better than my saying ‘look at it’ “” (5)
Shore is famous for being a protégé; at the tender age of fourteen he sold three photographs to Edward Steichen at the MoMA and is the youngest photographer to have held a solo exhibition at that same museum. However, he has never rested on this early success and has constantly explored and studied every element of making photographs from composition to the type of cameras he uses. His “primer” The Nature of Photographs (reviewed here), which in part is a homage to John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (reviewed here) in many ways describes this journey and many of his conclusions. Few established (ii) and acclaimed practitioners have the ability to write a “text” book that can be held alongside their own work to reveal how they think in general compared with how they practice in the specific.
In The Nature of Photographs Shore tells us much about his intent when composing a photograph like Bucha (fig. 2) when he explains the depictive nature of a photograph:
“Photography is inherently an analytic discipline. Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture. A photographer standing before houses and streets and trees and artefacts of a culture imposes an order on this scene – simplifies the jumble by giving it structure. He or she imposes this order by choosing a vantage point, choosing a frame, choosing a moment of exposure, and by selecting a plane of focus” (7: p.37)
Every element of the child’s swing at Bucha has been included as part of this process of imposing order.
- The swing is centrally placed, Shore is not a slavish follower of rules imposed by photography’s historic and increasingly tenuous relationship with painting, we know that he intends this to be a focal point of the picture partly because of the composition but also because of its context, we assume that the white haired man or the child is related to Tzilya Moishe-Penkhosovna, the survivor living in Bucha.
- The car, the swing plus humans and the house form a wide but perfect diagonal leading the viewer through the picture, they also provide three clear light-tone points of interest; white car, white shirt, white roof contrasting with the foliage.
- An alternative diagonal is formed by the dirt road which intersects with the first diagonal at he centre of the frame.
These structural elements section the photograph into clear spaces that simplify the natural “jumble” of the scene; each section contains a wealth of detailed information that we can analyse. The style of car hints at Ukraine’s recent history as part of the Soviet Union; the factory chimney suggests an industrial present, which we learn is an industrial past on turning the page; the covered stack of pallets connotes practicality and the hoarding of wood against cold winter; the children’s pushchair and the telephone lines are contemporary but positioned in an ageless scene – a small holding on the steppes of Ukraine.
In the same interview with Meg Ryan Shore discusses one of his detail photographs:
“Even if there’s a single dominant subject—the gourd on the floor, for example, I can also rely on the descriptive qualities. You can look at the newspaper; you can look at the tear in the wallpaper. Where the painted floor is wearing out. The ads on the newspaper. These descriptive things hold the picture ….. I don’t have to hit you over the head with something, because I know I can rely on the camera to describe it very clearly,” (5)
Students of Shore’s work will recognise his style in Bucha (fig. 2) but anyone who has had the most casual look at any of his iconic books will instantly see his hand in the picture of the gourd. His use of everyday, ordinary, banal, objects to provide windows into the life of his subjects, has been a consistent theme in all his published work. Shore believes in detail, for many years he used cumbersome 8 x 10 cameras simply to allow him to capture enough detail to achieve his objective of providing huge amounts of information within the frame. (iii)
In The Nature of Photographs Shore talks about depictive space and mental space. A photograph with deep depictive space, a mountain view for example, might have shallow mental space within the frame because there is a limited sensation of the eye changing focus as the viewer scans the picture. On the other hand a photograph like the gourd above has a shallow depictive space but has deep mental space because to read both the denotative and connotative information it includes there is a sensation of our eyes focusing on several different places within the frame.
Shore has tackled a sensitive subject which is emotionally charged for many of us but particularly so for a Jewish descendent of an Ukrainian; he has used his vast experience to create a description of the twenty-two survivors by exploring and revealing their landscape, the detail of their possessions and lifestyle and their appearance. Unusually for Shore he appears not to have spoken extensively of what he was trying to achieve in this series but general and revealing comment about his work can be found in his interview with Kuipers:
“So that’s essentially what I’m looking for: points where the various cultural forces at play at a particular time become physically manifest through architecture, through artifacts, through light, through weather, through the conjunction of things – of one building next to another, built in different periods, or all experiencing the pressures of age.” (8)
This describes his approach and intent when documenting a place and its inhabitants. He describes his subjects by positioning them against a backdrop of the cultural and natural landscape that, in one sense forms them and in another sense is formed by them.
The Pictures and the Book
One of Shore’s great skills is his ability to identify seemingly trivial details of a landscape or the interiors of his subject’s homes that communicate a disproportional amount of information about them and their lifestyle. Shore talks of the descriptive power of photographs but this attribute is super-charged when he combines two or three images in the same spread.
On page eleven there is a centrally placed portrait of two women, Mira and Beba Moiseyevna. They are obviously elderly, one stands in a floral dress, her sister sits on a makeshift bench. Behind them three tall strings of runner beans partially cover the cracked concrete wall.
On the facing page he presents two pictures, a found still life of pieces of bread on a board balanced on vintage, chipped enamelled saucepans surrounded by two storage jars, an egg box, a melon and a sugar thermometer; the items are standing on a chip board table top in front of a distressed wall and the iren frame of an ancient fold up chair.
The third image is of a stethoscope, blood pressure monitor and a wrist watch lying on a faded and worn tapestry.
Taken as a set of three the viewer is given the opportunity to see into a corner of these women’s lives. One has enough of a problem with her blood pressure to have a home testing kit. They grow their own vegetables, in many parts of eastern and southern Europe beans are an important staple because of the ease with which they grow in nearly any soil. They also make their own jam perhaps from fruit they grow or forage. Their household equipment, like their house, has seen better days and their diet is basic and simple. By turning the page we learn that they grow grapes behind a rusted and crooked garden gate and have a large family whose photographs dominate their main room.
The prints are a little more saturated and colourful than Shore’s previous publications, perhaps using the new cameras has slightly changed his choice of palette, but the stronger colours do not detract from the overall message of people living on the edge of society, making do, surviving.
Sean O’Hagen describes it as a “quiet book” (9) and this is apt, Shore’s books usually are quiet, he uses a subdued palette, photographs people in a straight and sympathetic way, and uses household objects and architecture to describe their social status. Shore neither shouts nor whispers, he just calmly tells the viewer what he has seen, nothing dramatic, no artful compositions or unusual lighting; each landscape and household detail suggests a little more about these people, dates them as part of history, and describes them as survivors of horrific times.
Notes on Text
(i) THIS PLACE explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank, as place and metaphor, through the eyes of twelve internationally acclaimed photographers. (3)
(ii) David Hurn, in association with Bill Jay might be another example. Hurn and Shore’s work has little in common but they have both combined huge success as practitioners with careers as senior educators and this combination might explain their ability to both teach and practice their art.
(iii) I was very interested to read (5) that Shore used a Nikon D3X and a Nikon D800 for Survivors having discovered that a digital 35mm camera could, at last, offer him the crispness and detail he demands. Having previously read of how the 8 x 10 forced him into a slow and measured process of composition it would be intriguing to find any articles that explained how he had altered or maintained his processes when using a small hand held camera. In an interview with Dean Kuipers in 2013 (8) he revealed that his approach is fact built on the disciplines imposed by the 8 x 10:
““See, if you only take pictures that you know are going to be good, then you’re not going to take any risks, and you’re not going to take any pictures that are in fact going to be any good. So you have to have the freedom to fall on your face and make mistakes. So the economy comes from not taking two pictures of anything. And after years of doing this, I find that I have a sense of what I want from a picture.” (8)
Interestingly William Eggleston who has always worked with small handheld cameras says much the same thing (see here) so the conclusion must be that one picture of one thing is a mindset rather than an approach dictated by equipment.
(1) Shore, Stephen (2015) Survivors in Ukraine. London: Phaidon
(2) Kramer, Jane (2015) On Ukraine Survivors. (an essay included within Survivors in Ukraine). London: Phaidon
(3) Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.
(7) Shore, Stephen (2007) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. London: Phaidon Press
(3) This Place (accessed at This Place 24.7.14) – http://www.this-place.org
(5) Ryan, Meg (2016) The Venerable Stephen Shore Shares Wisdom Through The Lens of His Latest Project (accessed at American Photo 18.5.16) – http://www.americanphotomag.com/venerable-stephen-shore-shares-wisdom-through-lens-his-latest-project
(6) ASX:TV. Stephen Shore in Conversation (2014) (accessed at ASX 24.7.14) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2014/05/asx-tv-stephen-shore-in-conversation-2014.html
(8) Kuipers, Dean ( 2013) Stephen Shore: Photos as Performance for “Station to Station” (accessed at The Huffington Post 19.5.16) – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dean-kuipers/stephen-shore-photos-as-p_b_3970314.html
(9) O’Hagan. Sean (2015) Survivors in Ukraine: unearthing the hidden stories of Holocaust survivors (accessed at The Guardian 18.5.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2015/sep/30/survivors-ukraine-stephen-shore-holocaust