I spent a good chunk of yesterday afternoon up at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art checking out the latest show up there by photographer Lee Friedlander.
Lee Friedlander is one of the most prolific modern photographers and has been shooting for the past 50 years. Along the way he has amassed an impressive body of work. Much of Friedlander’s work is focused on collections. Collections of self portraits. Collections of letters and numbers. Collections of nudes. Collections of people working. Collections of nature and landscapes. Collections of statues and monuments. He also has a series of specific projects. A collection of images from a fashion shoot. A collection of imagery from an Italian cemetery. Random sort of projects for a random sort of man.
Much of Friedlander’s work is commentary on the modern American landscape with his most significant work being a sort of documentary of America’s social landscape. This work is full of odd street photography, mundane American architecture, and the like.
Many of Friedlander’s scenes are messy and noisy and full of clutter. That telephone pole or fence in the way of an impressive building or architecture shot is not bypassed. Instead the carelessness of the anti-aesthetic is documented in his work. The gnarled fence and what it stands for becomes as important as the subject that Friedlander is shooting behind the fence. His car interior as much a part of his photograph as the Las Vegas street scene outside his car.
Friedlander is after the clutter, chaos and ugliness of life in many ways more than the beauty. When Friedlander was housebound suffering with arthritis he photographed a series of flowers. But not the kind of flowers you might expect. Friedlander focused not on the beautiful petals, but instead on the tough stems. A series of photographs of nothing but stems. The beauty largely stripped from nature and replaced by a sort of toughness that is every bit as much a part of nature as it’s more beautiful cousin.
As one of the world’s most famous photographers it is interesting to look at Friedlander’s work when juxtapositioned against the work by many of the other Masters of Photography. While Friedlander started out doing stunningly beautiful portraits of jazz and other musicians early in his career, he quickly changed direction. Rather than continue down the path of the cult of celebrity like his friend Richard Avedon or famous photographer Annie Leibovitz, most of Friedlander’s later portraits are portraits of anonymous everyday people. They are the people that mostly make up the American social landscape. Everyday people working. The back of a woman walking down the street. The fat hand with a ring on it around a lady at the race track. And in this sense he does a much better job capturing what it means to be an American than many of his peers.
Even Friedlander’s own self portraits are not the glamour shots. They are shots of him with his eyes half closed. Haphazard compositions showing the odd side to the odd man who takes the odd pictures.
If you saw any single image of Friedlander’s without knowing that it was his there is a good chance that you’d dismiss his work. You’d look at a photo of a house and a yard and say, well, ok, a photo of a house and yard. Not a particularly great photo but a photo. On the other hand when you look at Friedlander’s work as a whole, as the massive collection that it is, and if you examine the threads and paths that he moves down, you get a better sense of what the man and his photography are about. This is why Friedlander’s work is best viewed large. Best viewed large as in context with his entire body of work, and in this sense the current show at the SF Moma very much succeeds.
The SF Moma also has a number of Friedlander’s currently in print books on display as part of the show. The one that I liked best as a retrospective of his work was Friedlander, The Museum of Modern Art — well worth checking out to get a better sense of Lee Friedlander and his photography.
More on Friedlander from NY Magazine.