In the pantheon of photography, there is always room for someone that has spent the last 50 years taking pictures of America as it has grown and changed. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art decided to honor Lee Friedlander, just such an artist, with a giant exhibit.
With an ouvre that vast, the gallery decided to go for a roughly chronological setup, showing the artist’s work from the 60es to present times in a series of walls that, mostly, each come with a thematic setup. When I say that you easily get lost as to what the next wall should be (left or right?), you’ll just as easily guess that Mr. Friedlander shows a remarkable unity of style from the first to the last picture.
In mostly black-and-white work, Mr. Friedlander establishes the common as his major theme. While portraits were his entry into photography, he seems much more interested in landscapes. In particular, he’s fascinated by the way mirrors and glass surfaces modify our perception of reality.
In a series of pictures, the center is handed over to a car’s side view mirror. We see what the mirror shows (behind the camera), while the left and right display what the camera sees directly. The effect is that of a natural triptych, especially because Mr. Friedlander loves selecting environments in which the right side is fundamentally different from the left.
Other pictures use windows and mirrors for humoristic effect, displaying the artist in the process of creation. We get a clear picture of the photographer, this way, from his early years to the round, Hitchcock-like figure of the later years. His wife and friends feature prominently. The kids only occasionally.
Aside from the “mirror” pictures, the collections shows a few other major themes in the oeuvre. A book of American monuments shows off masterful creation of scenes. One picture, in particular, remains in my mind: that of a statue photographed in front of a railway bridge. The bridge aligns with a railing just below it, creating a spectral effect in the background, erasing the horizon to a mere idea, enhancing the monument’s effect in the foreground.
Pictures of nature are consistently surprising, for they seem to always carry too much in them. Mr. Friedlander seemed to prefer pictures of nature at its most complex, with branches, leaves, slithering. The contrast between the pictures of Yosemite in the exhibit with the more famous ones taken by Ansel Adams couldn’t be more striking, for in the latter the canon is eternity, in the former it’s the passing of the instant.
Nudes seem not to be Mr. Friedlander’s forte, either. The wall of nudes in the exhibit is replete with a collection of ugliness, and it seems that the artist liked taking pictures of women in their most deformed poses imaginable.
Mr. Friedlander is alive and well, and according to the exhibit probably still working strong. He did a photo shoot at the fashion week in New York a couple of years ago, surprising us with shots that don’t look New Millennium. It is as if time had stood still for him.