Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lee Friedlander: New Mexico



To say that Lee Friedlander is a pedestrian would be an understatement. His photographs in Sticks and Stones: Architectural America are almost entirely made from a vantage point confined to sidewalks. He does not venture far from the walking paths that line city and suburban streets - especially since many are made through the windows of his car. His new book from Radius Books, Lee Friedlander: New Mexico, continues his examination of America's social landscape, and again, the sidewalk acts as his compass.

Photographers of earlier generations always spoke of venturing out into the world with camera in order to learn something about our world and ultimately ourselves. Friedlander has set such a defining example over the past 50 plus years by wading deep into the landscape whether it was a city street or a desert full of thorns. Even when he filled the frame with walls of thickets, through which one might make out a mirage of suburban homes, we may have felt there were no barriers that couldn't be crossed. Photography has a unique way of providing a firm sense of freedom and Lee has covered the photographic bases with much liberty.

Oddly, what defines much of his later work for me beyond repetition is a feeling of restriction. Speaking more of the work done along city streets and sidewalks than when he ventures into the wilds of nature, he seems to be venturing out into the world but he is following the same route. Where his work used to feel full of surprise, now it has just become too familiar. For me this is very evident in this new book on New Mexico and this may be where Lee's prolificness becomes problematic. For two decades now he has explored the super-wide square and seems to have settled into a world where the ground pitches upward and buildings stretch like taffy with every new splayed perspective. The geometry is complex and often claustrophobic. The chaos is ordered and damn if he doesn't pack a lot of information into each frame. So why do I feel so restricted with so much to examine?

In almost every photograph in both Sticks and Stones and Lee Friedlander: New Mexico we are looking over a barrier into something. Backyards, public roadways, small swaths of grass, the beds of trucks all act to keep us at bay. Looking at these photos I feel like the detached wanderer that exists on the margins of society and my only real interest is in observing the shiny light that reflects off its surface.

So here I sit writing these words and squirming because I am looking with a critical eye at America's greatest (and certainly most prolific) living photographer. I certainly don't fault him nor the publisher for releasing it, but I do hold it to a higher standard because the words of another photographer - a noted bookmaker - resound in my head - 'Is this necessary?' One of the most damning questions to ask of a book is, 'Is this necessary?' When I look over Lee's accomplishments in 33 books and counting I find it difficult to say yes to this one. It is not because this book is without merit, I think so simply because these bases have been well covered in a few other books now. Almost every photograph here is accounted for in similar versions elsewhere.

What is necessary however is for more books to have the care and attention to the finer aspects of bookmaking which this slim volume achieves. The designers Skolkin + Chickey (Half the Radius team with Darius Himes and Joanna Hurley being the other) have created a beautiful home for this work that extends from the choice of materials to the binding style. Their clean design reflects the open air and brightness of the landscape that is found in the American southwest. The dustjacket features an elegant tip-on reproduction and a quick peek under the jacket reveals debossed type on the raw book boards that make up the cover material. The reproductions are superb with Thomas Palmer preparing the separated files.

Lee is a bookmaker so no doubt I will acquire more titles as he releases them. My wish is that I could get more out of them and be compelled to wear their covers thin with use. Instead, a few of the latest have sat on my shelves like old but cherished trophies whose only chance of getting damaged is when I subject them to an annual dusting.

7 comments:

Vincent Borrelli said...

Nice review Jeff. I get a similar initial response to the work. However, I always let Lee's work simmer for a while and revisit it later. He is always a few steps ahead and I oftentimes discover the brilliance of some of his books years later.

Jeff Ladd said...

Vincent,

I agree. I read Darium Himes thoughtful response to what I wrote on his website/blog (www.dariushimes.com) and there are many ways to perceive this work and its importance as a book. Lee Friedlander: New Mexico was conceived to accompany the exhibition so in many ways it is an extremely elegant exhibition catalog if one makes that distinction. I am not crazy about creating that hierarchy so I'll stick with it as a book.
I thought Darius's notion of Friedlander's comfort and enjoyment as a wanderer were spot on. Lee's joy of the world is sensed in all of his work so it fits as another chapter in his apparent unstoppable curiosity.
The repetition is bothersome to me but I'd rather that than none at all. I can say that Friedlander is possibly the only photographer who hasn't burned out but still plods along with incredible consistency. Who else has lasted so long. Even the great HCB faded and eventually moved to drawing.

Anonymous said...

"Who else has lasted so long."

Note: Still-working architectural photographer Julius Schulman recently turned 98.

I know he's not usually mentioned in comparison with fine art/documentary photographers, but still...98!

Stuart Alexander said...

Many have commented, most notably John Szarkowski, on how most photographers do their best work in their earliest years and that rarely does a photographer sustain excellent work beyond a ten year span. Atget kept getting better and arguably did his best work in the last four years of his life.

Jeff Ladd said...

Atget? Never heard of him.

BC said...

I enjoyed reading this review and agree with your your criticisms. It seems like so many seem to ignore the flaws in Friendlander's more recent work because of his stature in the field and importance of some of his previous work. I wish that publishers would go back and print modern editions of some of his classic work like 'Factory Valleys' which is now priced out of reach of most collectors.

Jeff Ladd said...

BC,

Hmmm. Your wish sounds familiar. You know about my Books on Books publishing project right?