The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ended August 29, 2005.
Few would argue against mounting a Lee Friedlander retrospective, not when the photographer has spent nearly a half-century developing and extending a vital, freewheeling, endlessly curious approach. But with some 500 photographs on the walls of MOMA, this sprawling overload of a show lacks the sort of curatorial selectivity that might help us absorb Friedlander's output, build upon his strengths and leave us more dazzled than dazed.
Instead, Chief Curator of Photography Peter Galassi has decided, perhaps in tribute to Friedlander's prolificacy, that more is more, and so we get more shots than anyone could possibly require of tree branches obscuring our view of Grand Teton scenery--or, for that matter, of Friedlander's comic shadow falling on his subjects as he shoots. For Friedlander fans, and photography lovers in general, that's a minor complaint; the gems of "Friedlander" are easily enough mined, while Galassi's overkill is at least rigorous: he arranges things in tight groupings that carry us from period to period, celebrating the artist's multifaceted consistency.
The show's only color shots mark the start of Friedlander's career in the 1960s as a freelance magazine and album-cover portraitist. This wall of iconic musician portraits--Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others--reminds us that Friedlander staked out a bold yet sensitive close-up technique before running wild, as it were, in the streets. And Friedlander's street photography is always a revelation--the famous embrace of overlapping visual information, of things reflected in shop windows, of foreground and background converging in the random dramas of modernity.
At their best, Friedlander's visual puns never seem self-conscious or gratuitous so much as wonderfully fortuitous, and very often they provide some relief from his crammed, in-your-face style. A 1964 photo of a street vendor in Rome, for example, depicts the man slumped in fatigue, his face an accidental echo of the worn visage of a Catholic saint in a painting that he's got for sale. A well-known shot of a black dog on a sun-bleached street corner in Albuquerque, New Mexico--it is as if this animal is the only living thing for miles--is cheered up by the barely noticeable sight of a restaurant, "The Dog House," on the far right. And Friedlander's wonderful 1971 image of a war memorial statue in Vermont, "To Those Who Made the Supreme Sacrifice," locates an old woman crossing the street in the middle distance, the folds of her dress almost magically similar to the folds on the gown of the statue in the foreground.
These shots, and others like them, are where Friedlander most obviously shines, bringing a true decisive-moment perfection to his rambling, hipster oeuvre. Roaming the bleak, small-town streets and bland suburbs of America, taking photos as he drives from nowhere to nowhere, he celebrates freedom, mobility, and the democratizing fact of photography, often to excess. Indeed, most of us who've ever fooled with a camera have taken the sort of picture-within-a-picture car photos that capture the rear image in the side view mirror along with whatever's in front of us, and many of Friedlander's car shots are not much better.
Still, he will startle us with a measured beauty that makes the most of his foregrounding style, as in a shot of a peacock in Hawaii, its spread fan of feathers darkly blending in with the lush foliage all around. And as a black-and-white portraitist, Friedlander delivers images of family and friends, some famous, with a warm specificity that conveys what it must have felt like to be in that space at that moment--as in his decades-apart photos of the painter R.B. Kitaj, who evolves from a fire-eyed young artiste--his girlfriend spread nude across his lap--to a serene older man on a sofa. As for Friedlander's nude studies, they are robustly sensual, unflattering, evoking the canvases of Kitaj and Lucien Freud.
But those nudes, we can tell, are not definitive of Friedlander. The great, and not-so-great, outdoors are his ultimate visual playground, and since the 1990s, when he finally gave up his 35-mm Leica in favor of a Hasselblad Superwide, his work has widened to larger, square, richly detailed studies, the picture plane jammed with textures and violent visual rhythms. The naked, overlapping branches of trees in national parks are twinned with images of jagged chain link fencing, crooked posts, stripped wiring, and construction-site detritus in places like Miami, Florida. Chronicling this natural and man-made architecture of a dead, tangled America, Friedlander still haunts the Democracy--dryly, uncompromisingly, seeing things his way.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.
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