Lee Friedlander

Centre National de la Photographie

A man walks behind a woman in the street. The shadow of his head is projected onto her back, her fur collar momentarily giving him a crew cut. This double anti-portrait—one figure’s back, definitively anonymous, the other one indicated only by a kind of negative presence, a shadow—is not only a self-portrait, but a gift to those attuned to and interested in questions of sexual difference.

A comparable allegorical potential may be found in many of Lee Friedlander’s photographs, above all in the series of self-portraits, most dating from the ’60s, presented in this show. Seen together, these images outline a sort of fictive autobiography that resonates in an interesting way with the numerous artistic practices that currently play with identity: Friedlander’s titles, invariably citing a place and a date, suggest a banal, miniscule odyssey, punctuated only by memories of street corners, hotel rooms, or landscapes seen from car windows—the protagonist most often in the background, in shadow, or captured in a reflection (another way of deferring presence), except on those rare occasions when Friedlander turns the camera, positioned or held at arm’s length, toward his own face (as in Philadelphia, 1965, 1965, or Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1968, 1968).

These photos also revive the oldest stories of the history of drawing and of painting: Dibutades’ daughter tracing the contour of the shadow of her fiancé on a wall: Narcissus crouching by the water, gazing at his own reflection. The most virtuosic of these works combine the two motifs, and Friedlander excels in building an unlikely anatomy for himself (as in Wilmington, Delaware, 1965, 1965). The absence of all psychological content—of that so-called “quality of introspection” so often tediously evoked by the self-portrait genre—is one of the most delightful aspects of his work. Friedlander appears here time after time, as an impassive conductor (Haverstrow, New York, 1966, 1966), or as a fine young fellow, with the fixed grin of someone being photographed by a mother-in-law (New York, 1966, 1966), or as a rather menacing figure against a backdrop of photos of undressed girls (Chicago, 1966, 1966)—all this in a tongue-in-cheek tone that negates any truth in the image. In most of the remaining photographs the artist stays out of the picture, and is only presented to us reflected in some somber little puddle or in the fragmentary echo of a shop window.

The pathetic fate of Peter Schlemiel, recounted in Adelbert von Chamisso’s The Man Who Lost His Shadow, 1814, is represented in reverse in Friedlander’s work. His shadows provide him with an object of inexhaustible photographic bliss: the shadow—the flattest of all images, almost real—and sometimes the reflection, insert themselves into the spatial depth of the photograph as an ultrathin element sandwiched between layered surfaces (Friedlander’s shop windows, with their insistent combination of transparency and superposition, resemble a Duchampian verre). At other times, the shadow functions as the minimal sign of the photographer’s desire to figure in the image. It changes an elementary error—one that any novice knows how to avoid—into a crucial element of composition. It is also, then, for this capacity to make the right mistake that one likes Friedlander.

Jean-Pierre Criqui

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll