Lee Friedlander is a natural observer and careful organizer.
Just take a look at his 2005 photograph of a Santa Fe street titled “1684-26: Santa Fe, New Mexico”. The viewer might wonder exactly what he was taking a picture of—the telephone pole that is slightly to the left of center? Or perhaps the house between the telephone pole and the parking meter? There are obstructions at every turn: objects cut off unexpectedly, an unwieldy bush on the left pressing itself up against the telephone pole unattractively, the shadow of the pole leading the eye nowhere—it disappears off the right side of the composition. This is not a photograph of beautiful things, the viewer might hear herself mumble. But it’s really beautiful.
Which is exactly the point. This is not how most people using cameras take photographs. Most eyes looking through viewfinders idealize the world, pretty it up, edit out the rotten parts. They rely on beautiful subjects to make beautiful pictures, and that’s easy (and boring). Friedlander allows the world to present itself as it is—uncomfortable, thrown together, and humble. The camera’s viewfinder is a surrogate for Friedlander’s eye, which observes the underlying order in all that appears haphazard.
Between 1995 and 2005, Friedlander focused his camera on New Mexico, a subject he has returned to regularly since the 1960s. Nearly fifty in all, these photographs are on view through January 15 at Andrew Smith Gallery.
The world in Friedlander’s photographs is the eye-level, everyday world in which we all walk and drive. He often photographs what most of us edit out of our daily field of vision: telephone poles, road signs, fences, truck beds, the frame of the car window though which we admire the mountains. And he renders these banal objects so exquisitely that one wonders why we don’t give them equal time. As observers ourselves, we are clearly missing much.
Friedlander is a formalist, concerned with how he divides the rectangle of the photograph, how light and shadow divide space, and how foreground and background relate and merge. Many of his landscapes have strong verticals, horizontals, and diagonals, which Friedlander uses to create additional frames for smaller stories within the frame of the photograph.
The side and front car windows are both frames in “1499-14: New Mexico”. The edge of the car door splits the photograph in half, simultaneously splitting the roof of the gas station in the background. On the left side of this split a car points to the left; mirrored on the opposite side a car points to the right. The driver’s side window is open half way, splitting the window frame and the rear view mirror frame in half. The edge of this window cuts exactly between the two buildings reflected in the rear view mirror. All of this cutting-in-half is not accidental. This is the photographer, seeing what is ironically beautiful about this particular perceptual moment. In the midst of banality there is geometry and beauty. Foreground and background merge into a single visual field that can be cut into neat sections like a construction paper pie.
Friedlander has been photographing the landscape from his car for decades now. There is a truthfulness to these images that is jolting; we like to pretend the car isn’t part of how we experience nature, but for many of us, it is the only way we experience the landscape. Friedlander not only reminds us of this, he shows us how the car can be a compelling part of the visual story.
In other compositions, Friedlander pacts the photograph nearly edge to edge with leaves, bushes, trees. It is difficult to see through the brush, and if we do, as in “1684-18: Santa Fe” we might see a glimpse of something (in this case, the American flag). Again, this is a natural and realistic representation of how we see the world. Our vistas are often dense and obstructed. If Jackson Pollock made photographs, they would look like these: all-over mark, edge-to-edge, lacking a focal point or a way through.
The urban landscape is divided into vertical strips in many of Friedlander’s works. In “1499-3: New Mexico”, a nearly vacant intersection is host to a row of skinny poles (roads signs, telephone poles, and a stop sign) which stand like cartoon characters on a triangular island. Their shadows cast long, dark, diagonal lines toward the viewer. There is nothing emotionally or psychologically striking about these objects or this space. What is striking is Friedlander’s intuitive ability to recognize the moment when the bland becomes miraculous.
Considering the time in which we are living, when the magical Disney-like years of massive wealth and privilege are gone and we are, like our grandparents, finding inventive ways to conserve and stretch our resources, these photographs seem especially poignant. They are not about excess, glamour and status. They don’t rely on beautiful faces or places.
After the events of the last year, we know we can’t rely on glitter. Friedlander shows us that we don’t need to.
Lee Friedlander: New Mexico
Through January 15
Andrew Smith Gallery
203 W. San Francisco Street, Santa Fe
This review was originally published in the November 21, 2008 issue of the Journal Santa Fe, in the column Object Lessons.