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.

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