Stephen Shore Revisits America’s Evolving Landscapes

In 'Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape', the photographer uses drones to shift his perspective, capturing the country from the air

BY Jonah Goldman Kay in Books , Opinion | 14 MAR 23

When the exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ opened in 1975 at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, it heralded a re-evaluation of the role of landscape photography in art. Curated by William Jenkins, the exhibition featured photographers – including Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Stephen Shore – united by a vision of the American landscape that emphasized the banal rather than the overtly romantic. Though this focus on the mundane led some to see the exhibition as detached or emotionless, these photographers eked out the sparse lyricism of these homogenous landscapes, and found beauty in the austerity of suburbia.

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Stephen Shore, 46°11.409946N, 110°44.018901W, from Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape (2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK Books

Almost 50 years later, Shore has decided to revisit the architecture of contemporary American life in Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape (2023), published by MACK, shifting his perspective to capture the country from the air. In early 2020, Shore photographed the vast expanses of rural Montana, aided by recent developments that improved the camera quality of commercial drones. During the pandemic, Shore expanded his scope to locations on the East Coast, including North Carolina, New York and Virginia. Partly driven by his interest in suburban aesthetics and partly the result of post-9/11 airspace restrictions, Shore focuses on exurban and rural areas where man-made developments abut the natural world.

The photographs in Topographies reveal an increasingly utilitarian terrain built for and by the automobile. In this new American landscape, roads are the most ubiquitous feature: they meander through neighbourhoods, divide commercial buildings from each other, and dart across vast swaths of farmland to connect increasingly dispersed tracts of housing. From the ground, the distance between buildings makes it impossible to discern relationships between structures; each property is an island unto itself. This is the final form of the 1970s boom in suburban development that Shore first captured in ‘New Topographics’. Stretched over an even greater distance, the correspondences between the unyielding tendrils of exurban sprawl are comprehensible only from above.

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Stephen Shore, 45°36.400296N, 111°34.501908W, from Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape (2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK Books

Shore’s foray into aerial photography also extends the conceptual underpinnings of his original project. Though none of the photographers in the 1975 exhibition shot from an aeroplane or a helicopter, their work was conceptually indebted to aerial photography. For his own contributions to ‘New Topographics’ – photographs of homes in Massachusetts and Saskatchewan – Shore deliberately obfuscated the horizon and played with scale and dimension. With the democratization of drone technology, Shore was able to revisit these techniques more directly. Few of the photographs in Topographies are shot from a 90-degree angle, as they would be if created for surveillance purposes, yet the images tend to feel flat and the horizon is often cropped out. The word ‘topography’ is generally used in reference to details on maps, which are themselves derived from photographs taken from aeroplanes or, increasingly, drones and satellites. If in ‘New Topographics’ Shore used aerial photography’s visual language to create seemingly objective photographs of the American landscape, in Topographies he implements this vernacular in its native medium.

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Stephen Shore, 45°40.185653N, 111°1.104876W, from Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape (2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK Books

It is tempting to try to find clues in Shore’s aerial photographs, and to read these images as reactions to a host of contemporary political causes: an anti-capitalist paean against the idea of growth, a lament for the loss of communal space or an investigation into the architecture of a contemporary plague of isolation. Undercurrents of environmental anxiety and urbanist critique flicker in the background, manifesting in a recurring fascination with clear cut forest and a focus on the absurd amount of infrastructure required to connect single-family homes that could easily be placed in adjoining lots. Yet Shore’s vision of the American landscape holds true to its associations with topography: these photographs are more descriptive than dogmatic. Shore’s observation in his essay ‘Photography and Architecture’ (1997) that ‘a photographer trying to communicate his or her perception of the currents below the surface of things has to find instances where these currents are visibly manifest’, rather than manufacturing such instances themselves, continues to ring true. As was the case in his works from the 1970s, this opens a door to a more discreet examination of the conditions of the American landscape.

With five decades of hindsight, it’s clear that the works in ‘New Topographics’ weren’t inhuman or cynical: they were nuanced reflections on changes to the American landscape, the impacts of which would not be understood for years to come. Similarly, the ubiquity of drone footage and the technological advancement of satellite-imaging technology make it easy to write off these photographs as hobbyist. Shore seems to court this, offering coordinates, dates, times and elevations that are easily replicable using Google Maps. But these photographs are snapshots of a dynamic landscape, which hold within them an archive of the politics and world events of the moment they were captured. Shore’s camera has presented its vision of reality – the onus is on the future viewer to fill in the context.

Stephen Shore's Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape is available to purchase from MACK 

Main image: Stephen Shore, 45o19.11801N, 111o49.764033W, from Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape (2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK 

Jonah Goldman Kay is a writer and researcher based in London, UK