BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

Lee Friedlander

BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 14 NOV 05

No photographer has captured the kaleidoscopic landscapes and endearing vernacular of American culture with more patience and delicacy than Lee Friedlander. In numerous series, including self-portraits and portraits, party scenes, images of factory-filled valleys and workers, and western landscapes he has made the United States seem at once strange and familiar, like a relative whose face is changed in a dream but remains essentially the same. Even by the standards of his field he is extraordinarily prolific. MoMA’s exhibition of over 500 photographs may have been overwhelming (the doorstop-like catalogue contains a couple of hundred more), but their generosity and humour have led some to use adjectives such as ‘friendly’ or ‘open-hearted’ and belie the seriousness of his project. As curator Peter Galassi notes in his accompanying essay, Friedlander’s complex but unassuming art often seems to reflect the medium’s own capaciousness.

In his early work street photography informed by the art of Eugène Atget, Walker Evans and Robert Frank quickly gave birth to nonchalant but sophisticated pictorial gamesmanship: picture frames, windows, mirrors, reflections, and shadows competing for attention. Images of blaring TV sets in unpopulated interiors are pure Pop. By the 1970s Friedlander had become startlingly adept at finding order in chaos. A marching band assembled on a sunny day in Philadelphia in 1973, for example, is packed into the bottom half of the rectangle in a rippling frieze of sequins and snowy feathers, bare tree branches forming a narrow fringe against the sky. Shapes and textures rhyme constantly – lush palms with old-lady perms in San Francisco in 1970, a Persian’s mottled fluff with blotchy leaves outside a window screen in Houston in 1977.

Friedlander’s fondness for producing books of photographs inspired the show’s groupings by theme. The American Monument (1976), a collection of shots of civic monuments across the country, is especially memorable, with its deftly varying tones and contexts. The signage and graffiti in Letters from the People (1993) similarly find poetry and wit in public expression. Other works are matter-of-factly beautiful. Just as Friedlander has incorporated intrusive, ‘ugly’ foreground elements such as telephone poles or payphones, so he has also been unafraid to render scenes – a potted rose bush, a preening peacock – that in less nimble hands would be saccharine or picturesque. Recent landscapes, shot with a Hasselblad Superwide camera, are tapestries of exuberant detail.

One group of photographs suffered in the context of this rewarding show: the nudes that Friedlander began in the late 1970s and completed in the early 1990s, which are visually inventive but uncharacteristically stylized and coldly erotic. In his painstakingly thorough, often illuminating essay Galassi points out that, while unabashedly accepting the genre’s politically incorrect baggage, they privilege fact over fantasy. He compares Nudes (1991) to Ernest J. Bellocq’s palpably carnal yet poignantly individual early 20th-century portraits of New Orleans prostitutes, which Friedlander introduced to a grateful art world in 1966 after making prints from negatives purchased from a Big Easy acquaintance. ‘Friedlander’s nudes are not portraits […] but their candour recalls Bellocq’, Galassi writes. ‘The photographer’s voracious curiosity is as unabashedly disclosed as the bodies of the women.’ Yet in many ways their work could hardly be more dissimilar. Affect-less where Bellocq’s women are lively and natural, Friedlander’s models stare blankly or turn their faces away; objects glimpsed in their homes offer little warmth. Nevertheless, Friedlander’s masterfully controlled lighting, his poses and compositions, stunningly echo Henri Matisse’s odalisques.

More revealing are images of jazz and rhythm-and-blues artists which Friedlander shot for himself and for clients such as Atlantic Records during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was finding his mature voice. Providing a counterweight to his more familiar gently ironic stance, these include relaxed black and white shots – a pensive Wooden Joe Nicholas in a New Orleans backyard, say, or Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine hanging out in New York with club owner Morris Levy – and dramatic, sculptural colour headshots of icons such as John Coltrane and Aretha Franklin. Friedlander prefers black and white for non-commercial work, but the forcefulness and particularity of the colour portraits, which were set off from the rest on view by being hung on a yellow wall, suggest that, had he chosen to, he could have expanded the possibilities of colour photography as much as William Eggleston or Stephen Shore. A radiant shot of a regal-looking Miles Davis taken in 1969 evokes court portraits by Hans Holbein, with its areas of almost solid jewel-like colour surrounding Davis’ wonderfully detailed face. Sadly, the recent destruction of New Orleans, where this most American of photographers came into his own by documenting the country’s most idiosyncratic musical form – whose rapid, untutored development Friedlander has compared to that of photography – makes such vivid images seem all the more precious.

Kristin M. Jones writes about art and film for publications including Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal. She is based in New York, USA.