Street signs are imbued with a vibrant quirkiness. Candid, revealing snapshots of drunken partygoers take the viewer back to a New York City bar in the 1960s, during the height of the Warhol days. A watchful black-and-white shot taken from the interior of a moving car gives the observer a hint of the Las Vegas skyline in the background, while infusing the image with the photographer’s subtle curiosity. Simple visual devices such as these manifest the intense connection that exists between photographer and viewer. In his photos, Lee Friedlander knows how to make this relationship apparent. With the click of his camera—guided by his superlatively observant eye—he transforms the seemingly mundane into events that are quite the opposite. Using unique angles and stunning lighting, he effortlessly transports the viewer into his lens—his eyes—and for a moment, into his world.
Currently, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) houses a mammoth retrospective of Friedlander’s work. Nearly 400 photographs are being showcased, covering his expansive career from its launch in the 1950s to the present day. Friedlander once described his subject as the “American social landscape”; he portrays his American landscape with an immense amount of depth and clarity. His unique take on life is visible in his photos of commonplace objects and the scenes of window displays, bedrooms, and crooked tree limbs that he has chosen to capture. His art alchemically transforms everyday objects (ignored by and idly passed by most who encounter them) into thought-provoking imagery.
The SFMOMA exhibit contains some of the most sublime photography I have ever viewed. The works displayed reveal both the huge range, or perhaps simply because of the ingenuity of the work itself. Whatever the case, SFMOMA has showcased Friedlander’s work in a way that truly represented the evolution of his craft and the span of diverse themes that he encompassed throughout the years.
I adore the candid quality of his photos—the way they evoke a sense of voyeurism and vulnerability in its subjects, even if he is the subject. One of my favorite series of his work is his self-portraits. The originality and genius of them are in the gentle reflections and shadows that represent his image.
The most renowned example of this is New York City, 1966, which is the iconic image of Friedlander’s perfectly outlined shadow, naturally photographed on the back of a woman’s blond head, donned in a fur coat. The understated obviousness of it is brilliant. There is something so simple, yet so remarkable about this image, that to me, there is no wonder why it is one of his most famous. It also fiddles with the idea that everyone is a shadow and fleeting shades of dark and light—coming and going, following, moving with time, and disappearing when the sun goes down or at the end of our lives. It has a playful, humorous quality too that is automatically likeable, and it reveals a sense of his personality that can sometimes be lost in somber photographs. Like most of his work, they all tend to border on mischievous rather than serious. Prime examples of his lighthearted nature are his party photographs. Nashville, Tennessee, 1971 shows a guileless glimpse inside a social gathering—a snapshot of the 1970s party scene full of coifed, seventies haircuts, alcoholic beverages, and intoxicated dwellers mid-sentence and, most likely, mid sip.
Friedlander’s series of fashion photographs from New York fashion week in 2006 evoke a seamless quality that makes the viewer feel as if they could fit impeccably in between glamorous couture gowns, emaciated models, and frenzied hairstylists. They are photographed with an effortless, natural grace that provides the illusion of painless photography that any amateur could accomplish. When in reality, anyone who has ever taken a photograph knows it’s not quite that straightforward, and it takes a brilliant photographer like Friedlander to shoot with that much sincerity. It’s this type of uncomplicated, undemanding, yet breathtakingly honest photography that is my favorite. In them you can identify with the people being photographed. You catch glimpse of a bit of yourself: a bit of susceptibility, a bit of candor, and beauty in its most authentic form.
Friedlander can be viewed at SFMOMA until Sunday, May 18, 2008.
Photo courtesy of SFMOMA