A Controlled Wildness

Those with any knowledge of American photography who run across the distinctive work of Lee Friedlander for the first time probably find themselves baffled. They would easily be able to identify the influences – and they are numerous – that have fed into this great photographer's work, but like many other viewers, they'd probably be hard-pressed to explain why the images are so unsettling, and so obviously brilliant in their own right.

The first and probably most primary influence on the way Friedlander looked at the world has been the equally great Walker Evans. You see this in the younger photographer's obvious infatuation with street signs and billboards, with people just strolling along city streets – his adoration of street life itself. Here there are also touches of Eugene Atget, as well as Robert Frank and Edward Weston, whether you consider the subject matter or the composition of any given shot. And in Friedlander's multitude of landscapes, you also see distinct traces of Ansel Adams.

But what I didn't understand until I dipped into the massive compilation of the photographer's work done by the Museum of Modern Art, simply titled Friedlander, was how he made all these subjects his own, even when they resemble the images of his predecessors. In discussing Friedlander's landscapes – and the photographer is obsessive when he's in pursuit of any given subject – Jeffrey Frankael of the Frankael Gallery in San Francisco once noted that his work very much resembles Ansel Adams, but it's like an Adams on crack (this insight comes in the course of Jonathan Galassi's introductory essay to the book). I have never read a more succinct description of the Friedlander's style and its effect on the viewer.

Galassi goes on to say that as far as he knows, Friedlander is "a reasonably sober fellow," so there must be another explanation for the controlled wildness of his pictures, especially his landscapes. Continues Galassi: "Those of us who only look at photographs need to remind ourselves periodically that making them is a physical adventure in which (if the photographer is any good) obdurate realities and elusive intuitions figure far more prominently than memories of pictures past. The obstructions, overlays, reversals and elisions of Friedlander's current landscapes were already at work in the city pictures of the early '60s; what is remarkable is how vital and surprising they remain. As Willem de Kooning put the familiar but indispensable axiom, 'You have to change to stay the same.' "

MoMA's nearly 500-page book on Friedlander samples from each of the decades of his long career, beginning with the '60s, and provides examples from all the areas the photographer has pursued: portraits, self-portraits, monuments, working people, nudes, flowers, landscapes and architecture. As Galassi puts it, "For decades now Friedlander has been all at once a humble maker of straightforward documents, a protean creator of modernist forms, and a charlatan weaver of postmodernist webs. In any given picture he may seem at first to be wearing only one of these guises, but we don't need to get terribly deep into the work to see that they are all aspects of a single persona – an unrepentant rake incessantly repeating photography's original sin. All that has changed, really, is that Friedlander's renderings of his affectionate regard have grown ever more ample and sensuous."



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