My Humble Homage To Stephen Shore’s “Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979”

The image above is taken on the shore of the Snake River, a few yards from the bike and pedestrian bridge that connects Jackson, Wyoming with the smaller town of Wilson. Wilson Beach, as the swimming area is called, is a section of the Snake with braids and channels that are shallow enough for children to swim safely from mid-summer onward, when the potato farmers on the other side of the Tetons in Idaho have ceased calling for high allotments of water to be released upstream at the Jackson Lake Dam. It is a peaceful, fun, American swimming hole. I call the picture Snake River, Jackson, Wyoming, 2020. There’s a reason why.

The picture above is Stephen Shore’s Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest photographs taken in the second half of the 20th Century. It belongs high in the pantheon of Western United States landscape photographs, but it is so much more.

The “M” of the river bend mimics the “M” of the mountains in the same way that Cartier-Bresson’s man leaping across the puddle in Behind The Gare Saint-Lazare mimics the dancer in the poster on the wall behind him. It presages Stephen Wilkes’ great Day To Night series of images, where, from a position high above the action, he is able to focus in on individuals moving across a crowded scene. Shot with, presumably, a large-format camera using Kodak Portra or some other pale, blue-tinted film of the late 1970s, this image, to me, captures a moment in time so perfectly, it may as well be one of Gregory Crewdson’s staged tableaux.

I love street photography and landscape photography in equal but different ways. The best landscape photography naturalistically captures the sublime. There can be tremendous drama, as in Sebastião Salgado’s amazing Genesis project. But while beauty is more of the point in landscape photography than in street photography, the best landscape images, to me, have beauty as not so much the object but a byproduct of otherwise elevating the Earth and sky as twin actors in a drama that inspires awe.

Shore — the once-young tyro who, along with William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, elevated color photography to museum status — made his mark capturing the humdrum banality of American towns and cities. His work was only incidentally beautiful. He started, we have grown to understand, as a conceptual artist whose approach to photography could be glimpsed on many levels. His Yosemite picture above was, for me, the key to unlocking, and appreciating — loving — his work.

For years, I have had his image in mind as I’ve spent time in U.S. national parks, particularly Grand Teton National Park. The image above was taken about eight miles south of the entrance to GTNP, but that’s not the point — everything in Jackson Hole can be viewed as part of the Teton park. I walk the levee by the river fairly often when out in Wyoming, and almost always bring a camera. This past Sunday, carrying the Leica M10-R — not a large-format camera, but a capable tool — I walked by this scene and something inside me — that voice that shouts to a photographer that there is a picture worth making, if only you can — directed me to take this image.

It’s an act of conceit to think any image I would take is worth mentioning in the same paragraph as Stephen Shore’s image. And yet, even as it is consciously/unconsciously derivative of his great image, this image stands, to me, as one of the best pictures I’ve ever made. I offer it as an homage to Stephen Shore’s great picture, before which I genuflect.

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