New photography exhibition seeks out the implausible in the everyday

Steve Dinneen
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Stephen Shore, Badlands National Monument, South Dakota, July 14, 1973; image © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

Photographer Stephen Shore’s most striking work comes from his epic tour across 1970s America in search of what could be called the “extraordinary ordinary”. Many of his pictures depict the everyday life of Americans that, frozen in time, divorced from the mundanity of life, seem unbelievable. Badlands National (pictured) shows a tiny, unremarkable house, a car parked out back, an air conditioning unit poking out of the side. But set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, this little house seems absurd, at odds with the grandeur of its surroundings.

Another by Joel Sternfeld – McLean, Virginia, December 1978 – shows a stall selling pumpkins and “sweet cider”. A woman unhurriedly peruses the produce; smashed pumpkins line the foreground. It could be a scene from countless American towns. But in the background a house-fire rages and firefighters atop a crane battle to extinguish it. There’s a disconnect between the two, a tension between the quiet, everyday scene and the destruction so nearby.

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These two pictures are part of a new exhibition at the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, exploring the uncanny in contemporary photography. Magical Surfaces, features the work of seven photographic artists whose work examines what German philosopher Friedrich Schelling described as “everything that ought to have remained hidden and secret and has become visible”. Other works appear to be taken from real life – Julie Monaco’s landscapes, or David Claerbout’s photograph of Elvis Presley – but are in fact digitally created or altered; something in them tells you that things aren’t quite what they seem.

• Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography is on at Parasol Unit until 26 June

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