Objective Correlatives


On Photography

In compiling the following list of influences and inspirations for my memoir, Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography, I had a certain, specific range of aesthetic experiences in mind. What I was looking for in this list were particular individuals, works, or bodies of work that engendered in me a deep aesthetic experience that expanded and altered my understanding of art, of myself, and of the world. In some cases these were specific experiences that have stayed with me for decades.


In 1971, I attended a month of seminars, talks, and workshops at CIDOC (Centro Intercultural de Documentación) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. CIDOC was an institute founded by the radical educator Ivan Illich, whose book Deschooling Society was published that same year. Most of the major progressive educational theorists in North America were present that month. Particularly memorable was a one-week workshop I attended that was conducted by George Dennison: “Organic versus Arbitrary Order.”

James R. Roberts, Ivan Illich leading seminar at the Centro Intercultural de Documentación, Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1971. Courtesy of the Northwestern University Archives.

The workshop met for a few hours each day, for five days. We sat spread out on a lawn at CIDOC. Instead of being a theoretical discussion of organic versus arbitrary order, the workshop was, itself, a demonstration of organic order—the order that grows outward from the relationship of the essential elements of a situation. Dennison let the discussion go wherever it seemed to flow. He was a person of wide-ranging interests and experience. There were several participants who became frustrated with the free-form nature of the workshop. The “arbitrary order”—the order imposed onto a situation—is what they brought to it. Dennison’s workshop sensitized me to the structural issues at the heart of how a photographer translates the world into a photograph.

Several years later I ran into Dennison at an exhibition of Cézanne’s watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I remember him commenting that the watercolors reminded him of late Beethoven quartets.

Paul Cézanne, Forest Path, 1904–1906.

Walker Evans

In the 1964 edition of Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography, he included a final chapter titled “Recent Trends.” He described four trends: the document, a photograph that points to something out in the world and asks us to pay attention to it; the straight photograph, a self-conscious work of art that asks us to pay attention to the picture itself; the formalist photograph, a picture that explores the structural qualities of an image or the formal nature of the medium; and the equivalent, a photograph that embodies or engenders a state of mind or an emotional state (what T. S. Eliot might have called a picture that functions as an “objective correlative”). These aren’t necessarily separate aesthetic directions. A photograph can be a self-conscious work of art that springs from a perception of the world, that is clarified by formal understanding, and that is sensitive to the psychological and poetic resonances of the image. A photograph can address all four at the same time, and the best of Walker Evans’s images do.

To this Evans added an awareness of the cultural implications of a visual style, as when he spoke of photographing “documentary-style.”

Walker Evans, Breakfast Room, Belle Grove Plantation, White Chapel, Louisiana, 1935. Courtesy of the Walker Evans Archive.

The Gubbio Studiolo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The studiolo is a small room with a door and a window. The walls are a trompe l’oeil representation of a study, with books and musical instruments on shelves and benches against the wall. Light from the single window appears to filter in and cast shadows on the bookshelves, whose latticework doors are sometimes slightly ajar. This illusion is created entirely of wood veneer. Most of the photographers I know who are familiar with the studiolo love it—I assume because we, too, deal in illusion and representation.

Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, ca. 1478–82.

Giulio Romano’s Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua

In the 1568 edition of The Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari wrote of the Sala die Giganti:

Let no one think ever to see any work of the brush more frightening, or more realistic, than this; and whoever enters that room and sees the windows, doors and so forth all distorted and apparently hurtling down, and the mountains and buildings falling, cannot but fear that everything will crash down upon him, especially when he sees in that Heaven all the Gods rushing here and there in fright. And what is most marvelous to see in this work is that the whole painting has neither beginning or end, but is all interconnected and smoothly continuous, with no ornamental partitions or boundaries, so that objects which are in the distance, where the landscapes are painted, gradually recede into infinity. Hence that room, which is no more than thirty feet long, seems like open country.

And the acoustics of the room make the air seem to crackle.

Giulio Romano, Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua, 1532–34.

Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

I’ve been in two buildings that I would call examples of “objective architecture”: Ibn Tulun and the Pantheon. By “objective architecture,” I mean a building that by design, by material and volume and light and detail, produces a specific, intended state of being in receptive visitors. Ibn Tulun opens the heart.

Berthold Werner, Mosque of Ibn Tulun at Cairo, licensed under CC by 3.0.


I am struck by how, in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the structure of the plot, of the photography, of the editing, of the pacing of the dialogue, and, importantly, of the interior of the Amberson Mansion are all of a piece. There is a unity connecting these various aspects—a unity of mise-en-scène. The experience of watching the film was an early building block in my understanding of structure and meaning in art.

Still from The Magnificent Ambersons, directed by Orson Welles, 1942. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

The Amberson mansion’s Victorian interior—its ornateness, its darkness, its heaviness, its complexity—seems a physical reflection of the characters’ Victorian repression and of their interactions: George Minafer’s weak manipulations, Aunt Fanny’s shrill manipulations, George and Lucy’s Oedipal undercurrents. The mansion is an objective correlative, but it’s not simply the interior. The film’s core is carried through in the acting, in the structure of each image, and in the camera movement. A unity of means.

The term objective correlative was used by T. S. Eliot in his essay on Hamlet. Eliot wrote:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

In photography, this relates to what Alfred Stieglitz called equivalents. This is what he titled a series of pictures he made of clouds. He saw the images as being equivalents of psychological or emotional states.

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1929. Courtesy of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

He photographed clouds because he wanted to rid the experience of the image of the associative meanings of content. He wanted the pictures to be abstract. But photography is relentlessly specific. A straight, unmanipulated photograph is a representation of the world seen at a particular moment, from a particular vantage point, within a defined frame. Within these parameters, it seems literal. So, these pictures of Stieglitz’s do have recognizable content—clouds. They are not abstract the way, say, Lotte Jacobi’s work is.

Stieglitz wanted these images to be like music. Where music is sound and structure, photographs are tone and structure. But some music also has lyrics, and a photograph can have recognizable content, with all its resonance and cultural meaning, and still stand for or, perhaps, evoke a state of mind. This is what Walker Evans meant when he referred to “transcendent documents.” Photographers sometimes find themselves attracted to certain content, not for its political or sociological meaning, but because it, for some reason, touches them—stirs something in them. This content, in this light, means something.

Stephen Shore, from Transparencies, Small Camera Works 1971-1979.

One of the threads running through the history of the medium is the redefinition of meaningful content. Photographers find meaning in something where it hadn’t been recognized before, and then, over time, that content itself becomes a convention. And when it becomes a convention, it lacks the immediacy of the original picture. “Immediacy” means without mediation. Without the mediation of visual conventions. In time the original content becomes a cliché. And the cutting edge of immediacy finds new territory to function as an objective correlative. Not new for the sake of newness, but because an artist, working within the center of the present, experiences with spontaneity.

George Eliot

Reading Eliot, I see a world where real compassion and sense of humanity are amplified by clarity of thought, unclouded by sentimentality. It is dense in subtext and in wisdom. And her English is simply a delight to read, as in Daniel Deronda:

The Meyricks had their little oddities, streaks of eccentricity from the mother’s blood as well as the father’s, their minds being like mediaeval houses with unexpected recesses and openings from this into that, flights of steps and sudden outlooks.

When I first read this sentence, Ginger and I were living in an eighteenth-century house in the Hudson Valley. Our house was sandwiched between a hill, a large rock outcropping, and a stream. Over the years it had been expanded in a way that organically accommodated its difficult site. It literally had unexpected recesses, flights of steps, and sudden outlooks.

Stephen Shore, Rye, United Kingdom, June 24, 2016.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

I remember the days, almost fifty years ago, when I was immersed in this book. Melville’s thoughts formed a backdrop to my daily experience. They sometimes still do. “Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it.” The book is like an eight-hundred-page poem.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

The Catskill Eagle paragraph seems like an elaboration of and response to Ecclesiastes (1:17–18), here in the King James Version, with which Melville would have been familiar:

And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is a vexation of spirit.

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

I must admit to a fondness for beautifully constructed sentences, with cascading dependent clauses. I think I take a certain kind of almost physical pleasure in holding the clauses and their referents in mind. For no other reason in particular, these sentences from chapter two sometimes come to mind:

As most young candidates for the pains and penalties of whaling stop at this same New Bedford, thence to embark on their voyage, it may as well be related that I, for one, had no idea of so doing. For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.

J. M. W. Turner

From Turner I learned about the balance of dynamic forces in a work of art—finding the center of the work.

Fra Angelico

Standing in front of his frescos in the Convent of San Marco brought me to tears. He speaks directly to the higher emotional center.

With such concentrated truth that his colours here seem dissolved in tears that drop and drop, however softly, through all time.

—Henry James, Italian Hours, 1909

Fra Angelico, The Taunting of Christ, 1441.


Stephen Shore’s work has been widely published and exhibited for the past forty-five years. At age twenty-three, he was the first living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York since Alfred Stieglitz, forty years earlier. More than twenty-five books have been published of Shore’s photographs including Uncommon Places: The Complete Works and American Surfaces, works which are now considered important milestones in photographic history. Shore is represented by 303 Gallery (New York) and Sprüth Magers (London and Berlin). This piece is adapted from his new hybrid-genre memoir, Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography, which will be published by MACK Books this March.