by David M. Roth
When film director Joel Coen called Lee Friedlander “a jazz photographer,” he wasn’t referring only to the fact that Friedlander, early in his career, photographed a great many jazz legends, but to how the artist lives by his wits, reacting in real-time to whatever passes before his lens. His observations, recorded across wide swaths of America — urban and rural, domestic and industrial — long ago catapulted him into the top rank of U.S. street photographers, equal in stature to Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, William Klein, Walker Evans, and the Europeans who came earlier, chief among them Eugène Atget (1857-1927), whose images of Parisian window reflections echo throughout Friedlander’s oeuvre.
So what, after almost half a century of such assessments, remains to be said? Gallerist Jeffrey Fraenkel, who’s represented the artist for decades, put the question to Coen, who, after sifting through Friedlander’s archive with his friend, the actress Francis McDormand, answered by curating an exhibition of 43 photos which he titled Framed, accompanied by a sumptuous catalog containing an additional 27 images, some of which appear in separate slideshow. All focus on a singular aspect of the photographer’s practice: the apportionment of space. Whether working in the Southwest, the Rust Belt or New York City, Friedlander routinely divides pictures with vertical lines, oftentimes filling the frames with still other frames — boxes within boxes that combine to underscore the grid-based structure of so much human activity. Like a jazz drummer elastically bending and stretching time, Friedlander subdivides these structures by positioning stationary objects — trees, lampposts, car windows, buildings, doors, TV screens and road signs – at or near the center of the frame.
By presenting the vast majority of these pictures in an elongated, pyramid-shaped wall installation, Coen calls attention to groups of images that share similar traits, repeated across a continent’s worth of picture-taking, from the early 1960s to the early 2000s. While this approach succeeds in drawing attention to certain conjunctions between images, you soon realize that such comparisons are not, ultimately, the point – you can look practically anywhere in the exhibition and be galvanized by images that qualify as masterworks – never mind how Friedlander composes them. The results roam as widely as the photographer’s travels, ranging from plaintive to funny to flummoxing and just plain weird.
Two images placed one atop the other, Texas (2004) and New York (1973), serve as the starkest, most emphatic examples of how Friedlander sees the world. The first shows a cypress tree bounded by two telephone poles in a bereft housing tract; the second frames a narrow sliver of the Hudson River between two steel suspension cables of the George Washington Bridge.
In Seattle, looking through the open door of a taxi, he uses windows, doorframes and architectural details to fracture the scene into eight discrete parts, three of which show women from different walks of life congregated on the sidewalk before an office tower. In the hands of say, Robert Frank, a picture like this would read as a statement about race or class, but for Friedlander, it’s simply an amalgamation of irregular geometric shapes. He applies the same compositional approach to an image taken in New York, again from inside a car, only in this, reflections from store windows, a side-view mirror and a parked SUV create a shattered, panopticon-like view of the city as a funhouse mirror.
Out west, Friedlander exercises the same impulse, but the results are more diffuse, owing to the relative openness of the landscape. Dallas (1977) shows a crowded freeway on one side of the frame and a quiet overpass on the other with a guardrail running down the middle. Those elements, by themselves, are unremarkable, but in tandem, they generate an effect that’s almost audible, akin to a cinematic jump cut that jolts the body with an abrupt volume change, as when a scene moves from a hush bedroom to a cacophonous city street.
Signs also proliferate throughout Friedlander’s pictures of the West, but rarely do we see them straight-on as we do with, say, Walker Evans whose photos routinely serve as social commentary. Instead, Friedlander shoots them mostly from the rear, turning what could be potent signifiers into neutral shapes, raw material for visual conjugation. But what’s being conjured isn’t always clear. An empty metal sign frame situated before an empty parking space in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1975), for example, produces a literal void, leaving you to wonder what message it delivered. In Memphis (2003), the photographer shot a triangular road sign so that it aligned with a pyramid-shaped building to form a giant hourglass, something that could only be captured from the angle Friedlander chose. Ajo, Arizona (1995), the exhibition’s most mystifying image, shows a picture frame attached to a chain link fence, beyond which lies an expanse of desert. But what of the image inside the frame — of an open-pit mine flanked at the rear by a mountain? Where, exactly, in physical space does it reside? Are we seeing it through a hole in the fence, i.e., the one contained by the wood picture frame? A mirror inside the frame that’s reflecting what’s behind the photographer? Or, are we seeing a found photo pasted into the frame such that its horizon line cleverly aligns with the one visible through the fence? It’s difficult to say.
Boxes within boxes are the other reoccurring visual motif in Framed. The most compelling of these were shot indoors, probably in motels judging from the décor. Among these, door-mounted mirrors, windows, rooms-within-rooms and TV screens populate these three strongest images, and in each it’s clear that Friedlander waited for decisive moments, evidenced by the corn-fed faces in Nashville (1963) and a Dali-esque eyeball that fills the TV screen in Washington, D.C. (1962). My favorite photo in the exhibit, one that stands apart from the rest, is titled Maria, Southwestern United States (1969), named for Friedlander’s wife
of 65 years. She’s looking at him through the windshield of a pickup with a quizzical expression, wondering what her husband sees in the viewfinder. Turns out, he’s focused not on her, but on clouds reflected in the window. Floating like vapor inside the cab, they form a readymade that could just as easily have been named This is Not a Truck (after Magritte).
Framed presents no unifying vision of America. Rather, it offers a unified vision of Friedlander’s method of image-making, one that reminds us that photography, though it involves many things, is fundamentally about one thing: seeing.
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Lee Friedlander: “Framed” @ Fraenkel Gallery through June 24, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.