San Francisco

Lee Friedlander

Friends of Photography

Early on, in the late ’60s, Lee Friedlander’s photography was acclaimed for its skittish alienation effects and headlong artlessness. Looking at his pictures now, you realize how willfully their images have been managed, whether the compositions are helter-skelter or nominally empty. (That willfulness can be overbearing. Friedlander is also notorious for the stupefaction his monstrous puns and one-liners can induce; it’s a chronic case of humor running afoul of its own logic.) Friedlander doesn’t come off as alienated, as if the culture has pushed his sensibility aside; you sense that he has arrived on the scene from elsewhere as a designated observer, a live wire, an often haplessly disruptive goof out of step with, yet transfixed by, the ways of modern life. Such distancing (not just esthetic but at the core of his vision) might be innate or coolly devised for the peculiar, often spooky clarity Friedlander is after and usually gets. He shows the duress—a collective darkness in broad daylight—that vision comes up against in threading its way through the perplexities of present-day urban spaces. Typically, confronting one of his ’60s cityscapes, you see the spread of detail but can’t see what’s happening in the mix. What John Szarkowski calls Friedlander’s “found cubism” tends to be a cluster of un-right angles jiggling across the frame. The landscapes, gorgeous or bleak, are uninviting or anyway impassible. The New York views with their multiple reflections and occlusions (often one and the same) permit few avenues of either access or escape; most of the interiors and whatever people inhabit them look abandoned, and the rooms’ contents are rendered not just untouched but unreachable. Such an intensely photographic world view is a corruption in the literal sense that Wallace Stevens intended when he wrote “Realism is a corruption of reality.”

This 30-year retrospective at The Friends of Photography’s Ansel Adams Center shows Friedlander’s footloose range without digging deeply into his particularity. The choice of portraits, especially, seems to err on the sentimental or arty side: instead of the famously piquant shot of R. B. Kitaj with a woman’s leg draped across his lap, we get a looming close-up of the sensitive painter nuzzling a cat. The two best portraits in the show, nonetheless, respectively demonstrate how powerfully plain and on target and, conversely, how suddenly complex and fraught Friedlander’s vision can be. Eric Friedlander, Florida, 1974 amounts to an emblem of tousled ’70s teenhood (the bright, stand-up aspect of the same generation whose dark side Eric Fischl would portray a few years later), while a contemporaneous image of the boy’s mother, entitled Maria Friedlander, New York City, New York, 1976, taken as she strides down the hall, wrapped in a bath towel and crisscrossed by light and shade, is shot through with affection tinged with the barest touch of domestic malice.

In the late ’70s, while photographing factory valleys by day, Friedlander began taking nude portraits of women in their homes at night. The nudes are specific in fleshiness, character, and place. For the unsettling rightness of their realism, there is nothing like them in contemporary photography, or, for that matter, in painting. The closest parallel among painters would be Philip Pearlstein, who once wrote of treating the nude as a found object and whose paintings feature relations between bodies and furniture comparable to those in Friedlander’s photographs. But, unlike Pearlstein’s pictures, Friedlander’s are not studio setups, and his women are less performers in a perceptual charade than actual people who look to have sat or stretched out prone for a session of down-to-earth, mutual self-revelation. The nudes are living subjects first and last, and objects of perceptual and formal contemplation somewhere in between. Friedlander’s shadow, the photographer’s perennial index of his art’s built-in subjectivity, doesn’t fall across their bodies—only one of the women in the pictures shown here even acknowledges him or his camera as another factor in the room—but you can feel his observant presence, and a kind of nutty sympathy, in the images’ every angle and curve. Nudity here is grand-scale but so classically clear-eyed as to be incidental: from roughly the same period, a couple of photographs of adolescent girls in sandals and shorts at the seashore—Naples, Italy, 1982 and Galveston, Texas, 1975, the latter recalling the torsions of Edward Weston’s mid-’30s beach nudes—belong in spirit to the same series.

Bill Berkson