America is “like a friend who is not perfect,” the photographer Lee Friedlander once said. Such imperfection never stopped Friedlander from making America and other imperfect subjects the focus of his art for half a century. A mammoth retrospective exhibition of Friedlander’s photography that began at the MoMA in 2005 and went overseas for several years now returns to the United States at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In the catalogue to the exhibition, Peter Galassi notes Friedlander’s “signature nonchalance: distanced but full of curiosity, ironic but playful and often witty.” The face on the television at the foot of the bed in Galax, Virginia (above) looks back at us with the same nonchalance that Friedlander uses to look at his world—conscious of its flaws while celebrating its joys and pleasures.
Galassi, Chief Curator of the MoMA’s Department of Photography, brings an encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of Friedlander the man and the photographer to his essay, which spans not only the different phases of Friedlander’s career but also takes the time to place him within the larger context of the still-being-written history of the “infant” medium of photography. Growing up in Washington State, Friedlander chose photography as his destiny early on, working in a camera shop assisting the local professional, and otherwise putting all other education aside as he schooled himself on the world of photography. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson were early influences. Through Evans, who became a personal friend to Friedlander, Lee discovered Eugène Atget, whose cityscapes influenced such photographs by Friedlander as New Orleans, Louisiana (above). “They invented what we now call the history of photography,” Galassi writes, “a lifeline of pictures, many of whose most creative protagonists had not enjoyed—or been hampered by—the arrangements and ambitions of high art.” Galassi wonderfully shows how that history of photography was literally written on the fly, and how Friedlander helped shape the course of that history.
Friedlander allowed himself one passion other than photography—jazz. “I was dumbfounded,” Friedlander said of hearing Charlie Parker play. “I somehow knew exactly where he was coming from. He made me understand that anything is possible.” Galassi beautifully relates how this jazz sensibility merged with Friedlander’s photography, riffing on how the two art forms paralleled one another. “Each art arose unbidden from vernacular roots in the early part of the twentieth century and reached greatness in a hurry,” he writes. “Neither was something you could learn in school. There was no academy, but by 1950 there was a tradition—a collective maturity, shaped by distinctive individual voices, that welcomed and challenged fresh talent to enrich it further.” Friedlander’s love of jazz allowed him to create portraits of jazz and blues musicians distinguished by their warmth and tact, such as his portrait of Miles Davis (above; a similar shot was later used for the cover of a Davis greatest hits collection). “Lee’s pictures show who these people were when they weren’t being who they were,” Atlantic Records producer Joel Dorn once said. Davis, famous for his intimidating “Prince of Darkness” persona, comes across as an insecure, deeply introspective figure in Friedlander’s photograph.
Lee Friedlander, Father Duffy. Times Square, New York City, 1974; Purchase, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2005 Lee Friedlander
Friedlander’s consciousness of photography’s history as an art spurred him early on to collect his photographs in books, giving shape to the huge mass of work sprawling across the decades. Over two dozen books now allow anyone to have access to Friedlander’s work and, more importantly, how he envisioned it presented. From tomes dedicated to quirky self-portraits to the life of everyday factory workers (“for him,” Galassi writes, “work isn’t about things; it’s about people”), Friedlander brings the same sensibility that sees the flaws and beauty of the world and people around him. The American Monument, a 1976 collection of photographs of statues, “makes hay with the foibles and failures of our civic pronouncements, and yet makes room, too, for heroism and communal pride.” The statue of Father Duffy (above) seems lost in the sea of Times Square commercialism, neatly questioning the place of such values of Duffy’s heroism amidst the noise of modern existence. Photographing such works during the dark days of Vietnam and Watergate, Friedlander published his works during the Bicentennial year as a chanticleer call reminding us of what was once good about America and what could be good again.
Lee Friedlander, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1999; Collection of the photographer © 2005 Lee Friedlander
Looking through the almost eight hundred images in the catalogue, half of which appear in the exhibition, you wonder at the versatility and expansive nature of Friedlander’s photography. Just when you begin to expect an artist of the concrete jungles, you discover the Friedlander of natural beauty, as in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (above), which one critic described as “like Ansel Adams on crack.” Speaking of the beauty of his native Washington State, Friedlander says, “I was indigenous to it. I felt part of it, then and now… The same wonder still exists and I feel the same connection and belonging. It is mine, and I am its.” America, that “imperfect friend,” remains a friend not just despite the flaws but also for such moments of perfect natural splendor.
Lee Friedlander, Nude, 1982; Purchase, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2005 Lee Friedlander
If Friedlander’s takes on nature are like druggy Ansel Adams, his nudes are a poor man’s Edward Weston. At first, I couldn’t help but mentally compare Friedlander’s nudes (above) to the high art conceptions of Weston and find them flawed. These flaws, however, are their beauty. “The nudes nicely elucidate the circular fecundity of Friedlander’s art,” Galassi writes, “in which the described and the description—the inexhaustible quiddity of the world and the ways photography can explore it—follow up on each other like the chicken and the egg.” Friedlander’s nudes, many of whom were personal friends of the artist, are not sexy or pornographic in any sense. The decidedly un-model-like women seem vulnerable and real in their living room settings, free of fantasy and freed by the acceptance of their physical imperfections captured by Friedlander’s camera. Friedlander dismisses the concept of ideal beauty with the power of fact, which proves both more powerful and beautiful in his eyes.
Lee Friedlander, California, 1997; Robert and Joyce Menschel Fund; The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2005 Lee Friedlander
Like those by Rembrandt, Friedlander’s self-portraits show him at different ages striking different poses and guises, such as in the quirky self-portrait titled California (above). The artist who made so many images of the dappled nature of reality doesn’t flinch on turning that same eye upon himself in all his imperfection. Snapshots are famous for catching life at its most real, completely unstaged. Friedlander excels in bringing a snapshot mentality to his photography, both capturing reality and putting a personal signature upon it. While the 1955 photographic landmark The Family of Man argued through photography that we are all the same, regardless of place or time, Friedlander’s body of work seconds that emotion and adds the important coda that we are all the same—imperfect, and beautiful for and not despite our imperfections.
[Many thanks to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for providing me with a review copy of Peter Galassi’s Friedlander and for the images from the exhibition.]