Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Still Like a One Eyed Cat

The performance by Eric Friedlander (previous post) set me to thinking about his father’s family snapshots – Eric and his sister splashing in the surf, the family (minus Lee, of course, who was always behind the camera as all good fathers are) squinting in the sun at picturesque places in the southwest. Some of them, however, had the quirky humor and lightning eye of Lee Friedlander’s “serious” work all over them. He once referred to photography as a “generous medium” – his photographs are filled to the edges of the frame with detail (just like mine are) but somehow his often make sense (just like mine often don’t). In his best work every fence post, rock and billboard reinforce the ostensible subject of the photograph.

One of my favorites of his is “Laughing Dog”. At a glance, it is a low-rise city street scene with a kind of L.A. suburban look – bright sun and hard shadows, quite a bit of space at the edge of broad, vacant streets at a corner. A small black dog sits alone on the curb. Pretty dull, eh? Look more closely and note that the dog is yawning – the angle of his jaw looks like he is laughing – and the angle of his open jaw repeats endlessly all over the entire photograph. The curbs, street sins, building details … keep looking. I don’t know that he saw that at the instant he took the picture, but if he didn’t there would have been little reason to push the shutter button.

Friedlander, born in 1934 in Aberdeen, had built himself a solid (as in: making a living) career as a commercial photographer doing album covers (jazz and blues being his other passions) and assignments for magazines and corporate annual reports. His breakout show in the art world was in 1967 at NYMOMA with Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. He and Winogrand were the stars of the then-new snapshot aesthetic. What I saw of the snapshot aesthetic in local shows left me baffled. I had seen reproductions in magazines of both Friedlander’s and Winogrand’s work – that had also left me baffled. In 1989 the Lee Friedlander show “Like a One Eyed Cat” was at the old Seattle Art Museum in volunteer park, curated by Rod Slemmons (then curator of prints and photography for SAM – now curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago). My reaction to it was “OH, that’s what all the fuss is about!” Friedlander’s are well seen (Edward Weston’s term), meticulously printed photographs presented as if they are casual snapshots. At first glance that is exactly what they are but a second, more careful look shows me that they are much more. I had the same reaction to seeing a show of Gary Winogrand's prints a year or so later. Most of the other snapshot aesthetic work I have seen before or sense is, well, casual snapshots indifferently printed and presented as casual snapshots.

Barbara and I were speculating about what distinguishes Lee Friedlander’s work from Cartier-Bresson's. Both make relatively small prints, both insist on excellent print quality, both record the instant that the frame fills with an edge-to-edge coherent image. Barbara perceptively notes that if Cartier-Bresson’s prints are theater then Lee Friedlander’s are improv. HCB’s photographs give me the impression that he was watching a carefully rehearsed performance put on specifically for him to photograph. Friedlander’s are as if he happened upon the improvised performance and was delighted by it. Lee Friedlander notes that when he was about 15 he heard Charlie Parker’s music for the first time and instantly understood what Parker (the ultimate improviser) was trying to do.

I confess that Lee Friedlander’s more considered later work – the landscapes and the photographs of the cemetery in Italy -- are not to my liking. He street photographs and his compelling portraits of jazz musicians, however, remain on my A-list.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Famous? Whom?

Barbara and I went to a performance by Eric Friedlander at the Kirkland Performance Center last Friday. He is a cellist and composer – but not what you think. He writes and plays jazz, folk-rock, indie pop and other genres not often associated with cello. Moreover, he not only bows his cello but plucks it – think guitar (his other instrument) with four strings. He has played for and with many big name artists but this was a solo performance of his own music. He played, spoke directly to the audience to explain the context in which his music lives, and showed photographs taken by his father, Lee Friedlander. (You just knew there had to be photography in here somewhere, eh?)

Until Eric was 17 or so his family took an extended road trip – a couple of months – every summer. These were working vacations for his father who both photographed for his personal work and for the many assignments he did for commercial clients – and he took family snapshots. The family, Lee and his wife Maria, Eric and his sister gypsied back and forth across the country in their pickup truck with a camper shell on the back while Eric and his sister watched the world go by, daydreaming from the over-cab picture window of the camper. The music in this performance represents memories – wonderful or not so much, exciting or tedious – of these trips. The photographs Eric used in this performance were a few of the family snapshots his dad took. A filmmaker friend supplied Eric with grainy, home-movie looking, black and white film of (mostly) southwest scenery viewed from a moving car. The films ran during most of the music.

I’m often not keen on multimedia performances but this one really worked. Much of the music is dissonant and harsh but heard in context and accompanied by the visuals it was very effective. There is a CD of the music, “Block Ice and Propane” (the two staple necessities for an extended camping trip) but I doubt that the music would interest me by itself.

As an aside, Eric Friedlander uses a cello with a carbon-fiber body for his traveling instrument. Nearly indestructible, it is a beautiful, graphite-silver grey with a clear, commanding, exceptionally strong voice. He even used a practice mute on it for one moody piece that demanded a soft, dreamy voice.

He stated in his introduction that he had been reluctant to put this program together because he didn’t want to use his father’s fame to promote his own career – a valid concern for an artist with coattails that he could easily grab. Lee Friedlander has some pretty serious coattails – three Guggenheim fellowships, landmark shows at NYMOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and most other major art museums (SAM in 1989), roughly ten published books of his work.

Still, my next thought was that outside the more-or-less hardcore photography community Lee Friedlander’s name is likely not a household word. Just for fun I did a brief, unscientific survey of about 60 well-educated, literate acquaintances. The oldest is nearly 90 and the youngest 16. I excluded only those acquaintances that I know to be passionate about photography. The survey question: “Do you know who Lee Friedlander is?” Exactly one person answered yes.  I should have excluded her because her late husband was a devoted photographer. Three people proposed that Friedlander must be associated with the local jewelry shops of the same name.

I’ll bet that there were more people at the performance because of Eric Friedlander’s having played for Courtney Love than because of his dad’s photography.

“Famous” – at least as measured by name recognition – and “photographer” seem not to play well together unless the person in question is Ansel Adams or, perhaps, Annie Liebovitz.  I’m sure that the same is true of other artists. A couple of years ago, the Seattle Symphony featured John Lill, a spectacular British pianist with a string of accolades a yard long, who played Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano concerto. I had never heard of him even though I’m pretty passionate about classical music. My daughter tells me that a world-ranked bagpiper, Jori Chisholm, lives in the Seattle area. Did you know that?

Now an NFL quarterback or Lady Gaga would probably fare better on my survey.

Part 2 of this post (coming soon to a computer near you) will have to do with Lee Friedlander’s photography – seeing some of it at his son’s performance reminded me of how much I like it.