New York

Lee Friedlander, Tokyo, Japan, 1979, black-and-white photograph.

Lee Friedlander, Tokyo, Japan, 1979, black-and-white photograph.

Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander, Tokyo, Japan, 1979, black-and-white photograph.

Walking with a friend through the Lee Friedlander retrospective at MOMA, I noticed that the two of us each had a different way of looking at almost every early street photograph on view: One of us saw the photograph a certain way right off the bat and couldn’t easily see it otherwise, while the other noticed everything else in the photo and could only see the “hook” after having it pointed out. What in one viewing looked like Americanized pieces of Cartier-Bresson poetic doubling in another couldn’t be disentangled from a set of densely stratified spatial and perceptual conundrums that at once posit the transparency of photography and question it at every level.

Take a 1964 photograph, Rome, Italy. My interlocutor saw right away in that photograph a juxtaposition of gestures that I missed entirely until he pointed it out to me: the everyday body language of the apparently sleeping man in the right foreground with his arms draped over two chair backs, hands dangling, juxtaposed against the kitsch-sacred posing of the cleric’s hands in the painting behind him. Now I see it, but the first time I went to the exhibition I didn’t see it at all. What I saw instead was the jungle of competing planes in which that gestural binarism is engulfed: not just the two chair backs in the front and the angled picture plane, but the stacked cement blocks, the wire mesh gate, the chair backs behind the sleeping man, the upturned carving and table edge to the left of him, the slightly different picture planes of the cheap religious images catching the light, the side of the car with its differently angled windows (one dark and one light), the round plane of the upturned table in the left rear, the jumble of chairs in the upper left corner, the miscellaneous bits of molding beneath that jumble, the plane of the Monet-like landscape reproduction on the lower left. And then there’s the shadowed figure of the standing man at left, whose gaze at the oblique-angled painting of the saint with which we began counters the angle of our gaze. If I follow his line of vision, I am led right past the painted saint to the hopeless perceptual maze into which the sleeping man and his shadow are inserted, almost like a sandwich-board cutout. When one then sees the initial encounter of gestures, one notices how they are part of an intricate puzzle concerning representation and seeing. The one-liner cannot be disentangled from the thicket of a visual riddle.

That riddle is woven out of the photographic “excess of fact” Friedlander himself elucidates so succinctly in a remark quoted at the outset of the MOMA exhibition and in the accompanying catalogue: “The net is indiscriminate unless you point it and then are lucky. I might get what I hoped for and then some—lots of then some—more than I might have remembered was there. I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.” Uncle Vern starts out as the main incident, but in photography, it is the bits and pieces of laundry, peeing dog, potted plants, countable trees, and uncountable pebbles that count—or must be made to count—by a mysterious intersection of chance and attention that goes well beyond the existential surrealism of the “decisive moment.” What begins as the main incident becomes the frame and vice versa in an infinite inversion of container into contents, margin into scene, that marks all of Friedlander’s later photography as well.

One of my favorite photographs in the early part of the exhibition is Friedlander’s 1969 “portrait” of his wife, Maria Friedlander, Southwestern United States. An obvious riff on Robert Frank’s images of cars, telephone wires, backyards, and his own wife, it encapsulates Friedlander’s complex signature and its ability to morph and move in new directions rather than remain an easy, self-satisfied formula. It has it all, layered onto the single opaque/transparent surface of the photograph, which is much more than the Magritte-like collapse of cloudy sky into car interior that it at first appears to be.

Not only is there one framing and/or mirroring surface after another—the first, front-plane pane of reflecting car-window glass, the closer side mirror with smaller round mirror inset within it; the angled rearview mirror, the windshield, the farther side mirror with its inset, the farther window, the tilted triangular side window, the reflection of one or more of these mirrors on the left. The photograph also has the obliquely seen steering wheel and the wheel of the distant car, echoing and mirroring the other round mirror shapes and contrasting against the angular ones. And it has the layered contradiction between flatness and perspective, as well as the confusion between interior and exterior orthogonals: the reflected telephone lines and the ribbing of the car seat and roof. And at the center, it has a snarled thicket like those that will increasingly crowd Friedlander’s landscapes in later years. Next to all of that, the putative subject of the picture, “Maria Friedlander,” becomes sidelined, or at least inextricable from the dense network of frames surrounding her “face” that keeps transforming itself into the main focus of the photograph. Or rather, the two images presented side by side in their respective quadrilateral frames—thicket and face—stand as the competing foci of the photograph.

Friedlander has been a blue-chip MOMA photographer from the moment he was chosen, together with Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, to represent curator John Szarkowski’s notion of the “new document” in 1967, to the present, when he has been knighted with his own retrospective, curated by Peter Galassi, well after Winogrand got his and just shortly after Arbus got hers (at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Met, last year and this). And in its conception of what a monographic exhibition can be, the Friedlander retrospective is no more outside a fairly limited norm than the school of American museum–ready black-and-white photography within whose parameters the photographer himself operates. But no matter: This is the very best that such an exhibition—that is to say, a triumphalist chronology of the work of a “master” in the normative arena of black-and-white fine-art photography—can be, simply because of the quality of the work in it, and because one forgets both the exhibition and the institution that hosts it in the face of that work, which meets and exceeds its own constraints much as the best work has always done in any medium and under any circumstances. This is not all that a museum exhibition can be; and Friedlander’s work is by no means all that art photography can be, especially now, when “art photography” has become so many different things. But within the limits of each, both offer up several things for which we can be grateful: an understanding of how constraints are productive, an eye-challenging idea of one of the best things that photography can be, and a privileging of the intelligence of perception and visual attention over and above theoretical and conceptual sophistication.

Who knows what would have become of Arbus’s one-of-a-kind signature if she had not killed herself after a decade of stunningly discomforting work? She always pushed the envelope, and perhaps she would have continued to do so, in a manner that Winogrand, for instance, never did. Or perhaps she would have run aground on the very standard that she herself had set. But one thing is clear: Friedlander, much closer to Winogrand than to Arbus in both style and his more lighthearted approach to the oddities of the world that photography has the power to render, never rests easy with the devices he has made his own. Indeed, those devices are themselves so restless that they provide a structure for their own continual mutation. Witness what Friedlander does when he segues from street photography to landscape, portraiture, nudes, and still lifes, from a Leica-brand rectangular format to the Hasselblad Superwide square shape, from a gritty, document look to the tonal rigors of the fine-art print, from the rough-and-ready street poetry of his early books to the elegance of his larger late ones. He’s always recognizably “Friedlander,” but that Friedlander is such a snarl of so many different things—laundry, peeing dog, potted plants, trees, and pebbles—that it is as endlessly demanding as it is rewarding.

I so love the edgy unpretentiousness and self-effacing humor of Friedlander’s earliest “Self Portrait” series that it comes as a surprise to me to find that those qualities could transform themselves into the more arty baroquisms of the later work without losing any of their edge. When the street poet goes graceful with trees and flowers, and then japoniste in Japan with cherry blossoms, reflecting ponds, and upward-looking forest clearings that appear to be downward-looking water’s edges, one might expect a decorative sellout. But no, the same attraction to perceptual snarls persists and transmogrifies, and I am instead struck by the courage of the risk taken—of courting the lovely and the lyrical with no easy beautiful-print formulas to hold onto. When one notes the detour into the female nude, one is tempted to think, ah, he’s gone all Weston on us. But no, here the maze of reflections, planes, and frames of old turns itself into a completely unpassive labyrinth of limbs, faces, pubic hair, differently shaped breasts and bellies, of such restive variety and generosity that I am repeatedly struck by Friedlander’s being the least gynophobic “male gaze” I’ve ever encountered. At the other end of the spectrum, one looks at the portraits of factory workers, and thinks, these are his latter-day Lewis Hine–ish efforts to hang on to the pedigree of a tough realist with the democratic eye of the documentary tradition. Well, they may be that, but they share the cat’s-cradle confusion of face and frame, person and environment, of the earliest work and show how the beautiful and the unbeautiful are utterly intertwined in Friedlander’s world of visual fascination.

And then there are the Western landscapes: What subject is more done, more American art-photography cliché, than that? Yet it is here that Friedlander is at his rule-breaking best, and nowhere more so than in his desert series. There his passion for intricate visual tangles, catching foreground and background in the same allover net and giving the eye no place to rest, reaches a point of frenzy, and his tendency to defy the tonal rules of printmaking reaches its apogee with photo-geographies that are bleached-out yet detail-ridden and somehow manage to convey the essence of the vibrantly hostile place all the same, as well as photography’s essential weddedness to the “excess of fact.”

But why should we care about the arc of any individual career, particularly one so canonized by this most canonical of modern art museums? Aren’t we done with the “author”? And particularly in the domain of photography, that most mongrel of media? Well, it’s not the career or the canon per se; it’s what’s in them, and what fascinations they have to share with us. It’s not the teleology of Friedlander’s personal arc that moves me; it’s what his visual sensibility has yielded, and what it teaches me as a viewer, that compels my interest. It’s what it shows me about photography’s crazy intelligence, never mind its status as art. Same goes for the canon that is and always will be this museum’s signature: It’s what’s in it, not the fact of it being in it, that counts, when it does.

Carol Armstrong is a professor of art and archaelogy and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.