Monday, April 30, 2007

Cherry Blossom Time in Japan: The Complete Works

Lee Friedlander is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most prolific photographers of the twentieth century. For more than forty years he has produced work that covers all genres of photography and he has left his own thumbprint on each one. Self portraits, landscapes, nudes, portraits, family photographs, architecture, music, streets, monuments, still life, workers, typography, the media. Have I forgotten any? The only genre not in his repertoire that I can think of is war. That would be something to see, Lee Friedlander in Iraq.

As we know Lee is interested in making books. He has published around 30 titles since 1970. In the past six years he has been averaging at least two a year. It has been a little hard on the wallet to keep up with him. Seems like in the past if Lee published a book it would wind up on my shelf, but in the past years I’ve been more selective. Several have not made it. I never bought Stems or Staglieno or Kitaj or Apples and Olives or the book of square self portraits published by the Fraenkel Gallery in 2000. Several others that I have bought wound up being very lonely and neglected.

This past year the Fraenkel Gallery published Cherry Blossom Time in Japan: The Complete Works.

This is a book that is hard to ignore with its hyper neon color scheme on the cover boards. The book’s design is interesting in itself. Lee’s books seem to be very design conscious lately in a good way. They try new forms in which to house the pictures and Cherry Blosson Time does this nicely. It is essentially split into two books. A vertical book and a horizontal one. A colophon and plate list in the center of the book serves as a dividing line. The back cover board is the “front cover” for the vertical book and vice versa for the horizontal book. It is an interesting solution to the problem in book design of giving the same “real estate” on the page to both horizontal and vertical 35mm images. Often a publisher will compromise by just designing a square book which in most cases comes off as traditional or having a conservative feel.

Another non-photographic aspect of this book is that it includes almost no text. Other than the colophon and plate list, there is one short quote by Friedlander and a poem by Waka of Narihira (825 – 880). There is something to be said for a photography book that just houses images and excludes dissertations on why the work is necessary or “valid.”

But all of what I’ve written above has nothing to do with the photographs.

It was on four trips to Japan during cherry blossom time that these 73 images were made, the last of which in 1984. Lee’s work has shifted since then. His world of today is more chaotic and claustrophobic and although he “orders” it in a way that makes it essentially palatable, these pictures seem to come from a calmer place.

This work is often compared to Japanese scrolls and I could regurgitate the same but I think, at this point in our collective consciousness, when we see light and bamboo and Koi fish in anything, we think “scroll.” One thing that Lee does that corresponds to the qualities of a “scroll” is that he often confuses us as to spacial relatioships and, at times, what is up and what is down. Scrolls, when turned from holder to holder, create an infinite variation of “croppings” to the image. As the scroll moves, often the boundries of land to sky and continuum of land is confused. We also have such moments looking through these photographs (though oddly enough more so in the horizontal images and rarely in the verticals).

The book has a similar feel of a “Friedlander edit.” Meaning, there are many images that work in similar formal ways that are included anyway. That usually makes me “not see” the images after a while, but that isn’t the case here. Desert Seen (or in my case “unseen”) is a good example of a book where my mind shuts down after the midpoint. These images continue to carry me and my interest through both sides of the book.

The printing is a Thomas Palmer (separations) and Meridan printing combination. The images read beautifully on the page. The paper stock is a very nice choice. More so than some of his other titles of late, this is one that will not be neglected on the shelf.

I imagine I will continue to take pleasure in letting Lee provide me my daily moment of Zen.

Book Available Here