When Stephen Shore first started using a cheap plastic camera loaded with Kodak color film to snap the passing parade of life in New York in the early 1970s, hardly anyone thought the pictures he was making could possibly be art.
"TV was in color; magazines, ads and snapshots were in color - everything was color except art photography," Shore recalls. "People were saying you can't make art in color. Obviously, I didn't buy that."
To the surprise of many, Shore and a handful of others - among them Jeff Wall, William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld - went on to pioneer the expressive possibilities of color photography, turning what previously had been at best an effective tool of commercial illustration into a cutting-edge contemporary art medium.
Tomorrow, Shore and Wall will be in town to talk about how far photography has come since then - and perhaps where it's going, too - when the Baltimore Museum of Art kicks off "Conversations with Contemporary Photographers," a series of public discussions about photography organized by Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Fried and BMA senior contemporary art curator Darsie Alexander.
The 7 p.m. event marks the first of four talks at the BMA that will explore photography's role in contemporary art and society. Subsequent discussions are planned for March 21, April 12 and April 26 and will include talks by internationally renowned artists Thomas Demand, James Welling, Thomas Struth, Mitch Epstein, Anthony McCall and Tacita Dean.
"The series is a way for us to introduce some of the most pressing and provocative issues in contemporary photography to a Baltimore audience," says Alexander. "Photographs have infiltrated our visual thinking. They help us conceptualize our histories and shape our memory. So our series is an attempt to address the question of how photography has changed our perceptions of the world as well as how it has affected contemporary art."
Besides the talks, the BMA will mount an exhibition of Italian artist Luisa Lambri's large color photographs of Hooper House, the celebrated Baltimore residence designed by modernist architect Marcel Breuer. That show, which offers an intriguing visual counterpart to the discussion series, opens March 7.
Shore, who today is recognized as one of the grand old men of contemporary art photography, acknowledges that many people simply couldn't fathom what he was doing when he started shooting in color.
"Some people thought my work was just boring," Shore recalls. "But I was trying to pay attention to the things I saw all the time. And being a fairly normal person, I saw a lot of banal things - food, bedrooms, streets, houses. I wasn't looking for the dramatic or the unusual but for what the world really looked like if you looked with clarity and heightened awareness."
Shore's unadorned color snapshots of everyday people, places and things were a whimsical breath of fresh air amid the era's often pretentious black-and-white art photography. But that's not how they were received at the time.
"Today, my work from the '70s is easier to see because it has a patina of age and it even looks like a slightly different culture," Shore says. "Back then it just looked like the world we were living in."
Which, one might add, was precisely the artist's intention.
Shore thinks the most significant developments in photography today are driven by the Internet and the ocean of imagery it has suddenly made accessible to people around the world with the click of a mouse.
"We're living in an age where everyone can have a public voice through the Web, when anyone can shoot a photo or video with their cell phone and post it on YouTube," he says.
Shore gives as an example the 2005 terrorist attacks on London's subway system.
"People rushing out of the tunnels took pictures that Time magazine ran while the event was still happening," he says. "They may not have been formally complex photographs but they had an energy that was extraordinary."
On the other hand, a lot of what's on the Net is just junk, Shore concedes.
"It's a very mixed bag," he notes. "We're in an age where anyone can be heard, but not everyone has something to say."
Still, Shore thinks the information explosion ultimately will benefit both fine art photography and its audience.
"There are some incredibly beautiful online magazines, there are more print magazines than ever and there's been a rebirth in the quality and diversity of photo book publishers like Phaidon and Aperture," he argues. "So in terms of availability, I've never seen a better time. People of quality aren't getting lost."