Greetings from Amarillo: Stephen Shore’s postcard play

This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies

Greetings from Amarillo – “Tall in Texas” (1971) is a set of ten 3½x5½-inch postcards made by the American photographer Stephen Shore. Each card shows a landscape image of Amarillo’s built spaces: the sunned faces of public buildings, yawning intersections with motorists passing through. A saturated Texas sky crowns the streets and makes the metal frames of the cars glint. Shot using a Leica 35mm camera, the photographs are flattened by a grainy, almost thick, technicolour, which renders space as untraversable patterns of block and line. On the plain, off-white verso, information has been given and withheld. Sparse text includes Shore’s name, a box with the words ‘PLACE STAMP HERE’ stacked inside it, and details of the printing company, ‘Dexter Press, Inc’. But the postcards identify their unusual subjects with only their street addresses. Why in the locational titles, “Double Dip: 1323 S. Polk,” for example, or “Doug’s Bar B Q No. 1: 3313 S. Georgia,” is Amarillo left out?

Stephen Shore. American National Bank Building, 7th & Tyler. 1971. Offset lithograph, 3 1/2 x 5 1/2″ (8.9 x 14 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. 2013.

Shore made the postcards when he was twenty-four. They are a kind of homage to a Texan city he had begun to visit intermittently from New York by rental car with his friend, Michael Marsh. At the turn of the 1970s, the North American continent seemed newly and invitingly expansive to the artist, who now looked westwards after two years photographing in the Factory, Andy Warhol’s Manhattan studio. The postcard piece was among the first in a series of road-trip projects that would become something of a methodological regimen for new landscape work as the decade wore on. More immediately, it signified for Shore a conceptual re-orientation as well as a geographical one. In Greetings from Amarillo, he left behind the fine black-and-white prints of the Warhol years and turned instead to the vernacular and mass-produced imageries which Warhol had himself used as material for picture-making. The same year he thought up the postcards, Shore curated an exhibition at 98 Greene Street Loft in New York City and called it “All the Meat You Can Eat.” Marsh was there to help, as was friend and curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Weston Naef. The show was a series of installations displaying the trio’s collections of photographs and found images, including crime-scene pictures, pornography, and postcards. Here was the Factory’s influence plainly writ. Shore admitted it was from Warhol that he learned to take ‘a kind of ambiguous delight’ in popular culture.[i] At the same time as landscape was rooted in Shore’s practice, a new and Warholian delight ensured that the means of its reflection was too. In an exploding image culture, landscape could shift between the real and the simulacrum, and it was the contingency of this happening that Shore’s work started to explore.

Fifteen years after Shore made Greetings from Amarillo, Jean Baudrillard published America, and began it with the short epigraph: ‘Caution: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear![ii] The French theorist travelled the US and described what he saw as a ‘perpetual simulation, […] a perpetual present of signs.’[iii] By leaving ‘Amarillo’ off his postcards, Shore, I think, was playing with the distance which the image places between itself and the real thing. Anticipating Baudrillard, he recognised the work which landscape does to the land as the medium of its representation, its own sign. Places can be shaped or misshaped by the parallax of an intervention like the taking of a photograph. But histories of place have already been interpreted by the layers of social and economic actions which organise landscape. One of the postcards, showing a wide road stretching through the city to a vanishing point, is simply labelled “Polk Street.” The baldness of the two words gestures to the choices which attend the memorialisation of a figure like James K. Polk, the eleventh President of the United States and an architect of policies for westward expansion, including the annexation of Texas from Mexico in 1845. Historical violence is embodied by landscape; it gets cemented into its infrastructural blueprint. Images might be able to communicate something about place, though the message comes with a warning. In their mirroring, what we see might be somewhere or something other than what we imagine.

Things shifted again when Shore got the postcards, 56,000 in total, back from the printers. To produce Greetings from Amarillo he had employed Dexter Press, the nation’s largest postcard manufacturer. Unbeknownst to Shore, colours were altered in production – skies made deeper blue and grass made more brilliantly green. ‘They never asked, they just did it. They are the pros,’ he later conceded.[iv] Shore ordered such a large number because he was convinced that ‘a New York art audience would love to see the city of Amarillo as a Conceptual project.’[v] But he miscalculated. Though there was interest among Pop artists (David Hockney, R B Kitaj and Eduardo Paolozzi each bought a set of cards), Shore was left with thousands.[vi] Absent of buyers, he would take bundles on subsequent road trips and covertly place the cards in the racks of tourist shops throughout the US. Still years later, friends who found one would send it back to him, a joke made at the expense of human credulity – or would that be photography’s obdurateness? The postcards, tethered to the map by only a street name, could be made to speak for any number of places. Locations which had been dis-located and re-presented somewhere else, as somewhere else, could become prototypical, almost mythic. Shore’s photographs represent not the places themselves but the slippage between place and image, or the fictions which attend our interaction with landscape. This Polk Street might be any Polk Street, might even be any other street, and Greetings from Amarillo seems to ask whether it matters much which.

[i] ‘Stephen Shore in a Conversation with Lynne Tillman’, in Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places: The Complete Works (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), pp. 173-183 (p. 174).

[ii] Jean Baudrillard, America (1986; repr. London: Verso, 2010), p. 1.

[iii] Ibid., p. 82.

[iv] Mark Haworth-Booth, ‘Amarillo – “Tall in Texas”: A Project by Stephen Shore, 1971’, Art on Paper, 5, 1 (2000), 44-47 (p. 46).

[v] Christy Lange, ‘Survey: Nothing Overlooked’, in Stephen Shore (London: Phaidon, 2007), pp. 39-111 (p. 52).

[vi] Ibid., p. 52.

About Thomas Cornelius

Tom Cornelius is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at UCL. His project takes the photographer Stephen Shore’s oeuvre as a framework through which to rethink canonical histories of American landscape photography. Tom’s PhD is funded by the UCL Critical Histories of Art Studentship. He holds an MPhil from the University of Cambridge and a BA in American Studies from the University of Manchester. He has also worked for several years in galleries and museums, most recently Tate and the Founding Museum in London.
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