New York

Lee Friedlander

Zabriskie Gallery

The 56 photographs here included portraits from the past 25 years, covering many of the themes Friedlander has pursued—for example, one wall presented photographs of black jazz and blues musicians, while another featured photographers and artists. Overall the work was hung in a loose order, beginning with a picture of a naiadlike girl standing on a backyard swing and ending with photographs of Friedlander’s wife and children, and a final shot of Friedlander himself seen through the windshield of a pickup, hands clenching the wheel, staring wearily ahead at the camera and the road.

To some extent the photographs could also be seen as reflecting the stylistic shifts Friedlander’s work has gone through, from the raucous, sometimes almost vicious humor of his early street photography, through the meditations on light and form in his photographs of flowers and trees from the mid ’70s, to the stately environmental portraits and gentle mill-town landscapes of his book Factory Valleys two years ago. But such comparisons were thwarted by the nature of the show. In each phase of his stylistic development Friedlander has dealt with a particular kind of subject, from urban welter to bucolic greenery, but in this cross-section of photographs of individuals, from all periods of his career, such stylistic differences tended to recede in importance. What the show pointed up instead was the essential unity of Friedlander’s work, a unity based on his continued exploration of ways of conveying meaning in photographs—both as highly illusionistic, machine-made records, and as pictures.

Friedlander’s style, based on the techniques and equipment of magazine photojournalists, has been largely one of caricature. With flash and wide-angle lens he has sometimes, especially in his early work, turned his subjects into bitterly funny cartoons of themselves; the edge of cruelty in this was turned most tellingly against Friedlander himself, in the photographs in his Self Portrait (1970). These alienated images were conveyed through an almost systematic violation of the norms of so-called good photography, or—to see it more positively—through a deep acceptance of the meanings of the photograph, however much they might contradict convention. The radical croppings and the burnt-out and out-of-focus foregrounds (greeted with outrage when his photographs of cocktail parties were shown as slides at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid ’70s) exploited aspects of the photograph usually condemned as signs of inept craft. Friedlander, though, used them not simply to lampoon his subjects but more importantly to retrieve for photography the territory of bad taste—an aim that parallels the implicit and explicit programs of many art movements in this century.

In the work here Friedlander manipulates not only formal characteristics particularly important in photography—focus, cropping, overlapping figures—but the traditional tools of all portraiture, and of theater: pose, gesture, props. Working in an essentially photojournalistic mode, he discovers these elements in a scene rather than imposing them on it; whatever meanings they suggest thus appear to be inherent in the scene itself. But instead of using these devices as visual emblems of a person’s public image, to confirm and flatter his subjects in their personas, Friedlander uses them to pose questions about the people in his photographs. What does it mean, for example, that collector Arnold Crane’s bald head, in a 1974 picture, provides a visual rhyme to the stark white Hollywood-modern pole lamp in the foreground of the image, or that Crane’s vented white shoes also echo the streamlined, slotted bell of the lamp? In the case of a photograph of a young girl dressed in her Sunday best, who’s singing up to the microphone she kneels in front of (North Carolina, 1962), it’s not hard to guess the situation that’s being depicted—it’s probably some fundamentalist Christian service. But to identify the event in this way is by no means to exhaust the meanings of the photograph; its metonymic suggestion of the girl’s subjection to the social (and parental) power of the microphone is arguably as important as its function as a simple record.

Because the camera provides complete pictures so readily, taking responsibility for the implications of one’s work is an act of special significance and urgency for photographers. Gaining mastery as a photographer can even be seen as a process of gaining control over the frame and what’s in it. Friedlander has consistently refused to treat photography as merely illustration, refused to limit the potential for meaning of his photographs in the supposed service of some preconceived end. Trusting one’s photographs, as Friedlander does, is closely related to trusting oneself. His radical reliance on his pictures to tell him what they (and he) mean is at the heart of his greatness.

Charles Hagen