Image from Topographies by Stephen Shore showing a house and a lawn from above, surrounded by brown dry land

The big picture: Stephen Shore’s America as seen from a drone

Inspired by an exhibition held nearly 50 years ago, the pioneering photographer’s aerial images depict the coming together of nature and humankind

An integral figure in elevating the perception of colour photography, Stephen Shore is known for his engrossing images of the American everyday. His new body of work, published by Mack, sees him once again trace the outlines of the USA but from above, taking a bird’s eye view – or rather a drone’s eye view – of myriad landscapes.

The earliest images in Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape were shot in 2020, but the reference point for the work traces back as far as 1975, when William Jenkins curated the group exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape in upstate New York. The show, which was somewhat divisive at the time, included work by Shore (true to form, his were the only colour photographs to feature). Those artists were grouped together under a movement of the same name – one that took traditional landscape photography and moved the dial towards human traces and the built environment.

Image from Topographies by Stephen Shore showing a winding waterway running through a grassy landscape from above
Top: 45º19.11801N, 111º49.764033W; Above: 46º21.458793N, 110º43.432813W. All images from Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape by Stephen Shore, courtesy the artist and Mack

The raft of photo books in this vein that are published each year are testament to the lasting influence of this group and the undying desire to transform the mundane into an artistic subject. As put by Steidl, which published a book of images from the 1975 New Topographics exhibition in 2009, “Even today, the catchphrase New Topographics is used to characterise the work of artists not yet born when the exhibition was held.”

Like that show, Shore’s Topographies casts its eye over the meeting point between humankind and the natural world. Yet this body of work takes the perspective to new heights as his lens travels over the landscapes of Montana, Wyoming, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Nebraska, Wisconsin and beyond. The image captions correspond to the coordinates of where they were shot, if anyone wants to retrace Shore’s steps.

Image Image from Topographies by Stephen Shore showing a car park from above that leads onto a riverbank filled with small boats and rubber rings
45º38.786N, 111º31.43025W
Image from Topographies by Stephen Shore showing two cars at a crossroads shot from above
45º39.611201N, 110º33.555856W

Richard B Woodward writes in the book’s introduction that, in these works, “people are nowhere present but everywhere apparent. These are photographs about the particulars of the physical world. For better or worse, and to varying degrees, people are responsible for what we see here – directly through their working of the land and indirectly through their administration of it.”

For instance, he explains, the weather influences the characteristics of a landscape, which then drives and shapes the development of everything from agriculture to infrastructure, followed by a sea of visible consequences that cascade down from that and leave their trace on the landscape further still.

Image from Topographies by Stephen Shore showing a residential building with a red roof from above, which is separated from a junkyard by a grassy field
45º59.717453N, 110º39.642398W
Image from Topographies by Stephen Shore showing a quarry from above
42º34.3974617N, 73º52.1432W

At Photo London in 2019, where he was named Master of Photography, Shore presented a then-new body of work called Details, in which subjects were photographed up close and blown up to be “much larger than in real life”, the photographer told CR at the time.

In Topographies, he’s playing with scale again, this time zooming out rather than in. This vantage point illuminates the links between parts of daily life that may seem unconnected but are actually closely intertwined. Yet these are no Edward Burtynsky abstract epics of the industrial environment – they’re firmly in the realm of Shore’s everyday.

Image from Topographies by Stephen Shore showing a white two-storey house in the middle of a vast flat rural landscape
46º11.409946N, 110º44.018901W

Topographies: Aerial Surveys of the American Landscape by Stephen Shore is published by Mack;