Communication Breakthrough: Stephen Shore Makes an Instagram Connection


Big Timber, Montana.
All Photos © Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore fondly recalls his Polaroid SX-70. Shore, known for color images of everyday America, in books like Uncommon Places and American Surfaces, loved the immediacy of the SX-70. “Whatever you observed and chose to picture was right there,” he says of that ingenious little device.

Immediacy was always on his mind. So was sharing. “People would give away SX-70 pictures. ‘I’ll take your picture’ was followed by ‘Here, you can have it.’”

Today he’s shooting immediate images with his iPhone 5 and sharing them on Instagram. “The idea of sharing immediately I find greatly pleasurable and satisfying,” he says. “To see the image right now, and then communicate it, to tell people this is what I’ve observed, what I’ve noted, seems to be the step that was missing for all of us…until now.”

Car Wash.

New York City.

Beyond communication is the personal satisfaction of what he calls the “notational quality” of smartphone images. “There were certain pictures you could take with an SX-70 that if you took with a Hasselblad and printed the same size as SX-70s, wouldn’t be as good. They would look too studied, too serious.”

Shore has been director of the photography department at Bard College since 1982, and each semester he teaches a view camera class. He recently had a student who was overwhelmed by the camera. “Her pictures weren’t very good, and she knew it, but to tell me, as her teacher, that she wasn’t a dud, that she really had an eye, every week she would send me a picture she took with her iPhone, and those pictures were terrific.

“So I told her to select an iPhone picture she really liked, set up the 4x5, and take the same picture—to use the iPhone essentially as a sketch pad.” But when she did that, she corrected the angles and horizon lines, and the 4x5 images missed the mark. “She used a spirit level on the 4x5 and everything was ordered,” Shore says. “I said, ‘No, actually take the iPhone picture,’ and she did, and it was terrific.

“There was a freedom with the iPhone. Part of what the serious camera was doing was putting pressure on her: ‘I have to take a good photograph!’ It was making her self-conscious. But when she picked up her iPhone, it was freeing; the picture could be spontaneous and without restrictions. I think that may be why people like using the iPhone—there’s a lack of inhibition.”

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York.

Red Hook, New York.

See, Then Share
Shore feels that “tossing off of inhibitions” changes our appreciation for what we observe. “I’m sitting in the back of a taxicab: what’s in front of me? I’m in an elevator with three other people: what am I looking at? I’m walking down the street: what am I seeing? I’m using all this source material to decide what to photograph and also how to structure the picture, not to make it composed like a photograph, but to make it look like seeing.” The photos he takes with his iPhone aren’t stories. “They’re one-liners,” he says.

Shore is mainly interested in posting pictures that are made pretty close to the time he posts them. “Part of the pleasure for me is the pleasure of paying attention, so when I’m in the back of the taxicab my mind doesn’t shut off. Paying attention all the time is a very interesting way to go through a day.”

The responses to his Instagram postings often reveal what his one-liners mean to people, what memories they call up. “People have mentioned having photographed similar scenes and places. I get the responses I never got before there was social media—more emotional reactions, memories and feelings. I spark these things, and I know right away what effect my photos have.”

It’s a different kind of communication, a different conversation, than he’s ever had before. It’s not like viewing images in a gallery, on the pages of a book, or at a website; it’s an immediate sharing of experiences and observations.

New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York.

Tivoli, New York.

“The community is part of what I love about Instagram,” he says. “There’s a group of people seeing everything I post, and they know I’m seeing everything they post, so there’s communication that’s built up over time. I have a real sense of their visual thinking, even though I don’t know them.”

Stephen Shore’s website,, features a selection of his past and present images and information about his books, including the recent release of a new expanded edition of his classic, Uncommon Places. You can drop in on his Instagram feed at