Radius Books, Santa Fe, 2008. Hardcover with dustjacket. 80pp., 45 duotone illustrations. 11¼x12".
New Mexico Photographs by Lee Friedlander. published by Radius Books, 2008
Lee Friedlander's windows to the world have been coming at us at a steady clip for about five decades now, a series of news bulletins from the under-mapped monochrome continent, Friedland. Whether framed by a car window, sun-spattered and expansive, or hermetic as the atmosphere in an oxygen tent, it's been pretty easy to spot one of his pictures — regardless of subject. Over the years, he's wandered and whizzed through the city, the town and the country; photographed himself and his wife Maria at their most handsome, haggard and humdrum; immortalized (in color) the musical giants of Atlantic Records's golden age; given us chaotically felted plant forms, Spartan views of small-town civic monuments, profoundly human real-naked-ladies, quasi-modernist Italian funerary monuments, distorted flower stems in glass vases, et al. The connecting thread is an understanding of space and light — a point of view that's hard to sum up in words, but is as readily identifiable as the opening notes of a song you committed to memory in high school. It's all just right there, seemingly spontaneous. Inevitable.
You may or may not follow Friedlander's visual logic right away, but you can be sure there is one. The reasoning behind his choices seems nonlinear in the sense that thought is being sieved through visual wit, like curds through cheesecloth. Though the compositions are generally quite serious (light, shadow, texture, line and substance being used with deliberation), the effect is often one of deadpan glee, as if the photographer was tickled pink at what he discovered through the viewfinder. Part of this feeling is achieved by the use of an omnivorous depth of field which makes everything take on an equal, almost centripetal visual importance. Out of the corner of the eye, animated pieces of the picture seem to flow, to jostle, to muscle forward and outward. Confronted straightforwardly, all the elements nest innocently in the frame. Scale betrays distance, but size may have nothing to do with importance. While Friedlander is by no means the first photographer to question what photographs do and how they function, his unembellished eye is still fresh. The pictures in this latest collection are a reminder that the view he's been cultivating all this time has become, if anything, richer, more direct, and more all encompassing. His is the vision of a skeptic, not a dyspeptic.
New Mexico by Lee Friedlander. Published by Radius Books, 2008.
The images in the book are laid out as a meandering visual journey through twelve years of work in New Mexico. Since we're in America, it feels fitting that we begin and end in the car, looking out through the window-frame at the nominally rational human scene. The sequence takes us first through the urban, then the suburban, and then gradually into a rural world where a spare hierarchy of objects, shadows and spaces becomes progressively more matted into gnarled weeds, branches, fences, porches, rocks, steps, tree trunks and whatnot. Ultimately all sign of humanity's design choices are swallowed up and happily replaced by something more intelligent and elegant. It's an engrossing and relatively seamless transition from the world that we've decreed to the underlying one that, it seems, is true. The branches, rocks, sky and occasional water seem to configure themselves effortlessly into a graceful and cohesive harmony that all our floundering asphalt and rigid grids can never better. Friedlander is hardly a Romantic nature poet, but he handles natural subject matter with a beautiful assurance, a lack of sentimentality, a genuine affinity.
Somehow, it's peculiarly fitting that these "natural" images, like the rest of the pictures in the book, were made using a square-format camera. The compositions in the human spaces subdivide, scalpel and subdue the square into geometric or raggedly patched fragments; the rural/wilderness images sew the picture space into complicated, delicately shaded samplers. The human environments are a disturbing amalgam of emptiness and aborted value: blank-faced churches and memorials are paced off and caged by utility poles and rickety fences, parking lots and pickup beds. The nagging absence of meaning in the system we've built around ourselves is so consuming that it's invisible to us unless mirrored back as an abstraction.
The more plants, earth and water predominate, the less the sun seems to pummel us, the wind to whip us, our past to grapple us to the ground. Is this what the photographer is saying? In the end, I don't have the faintest idea whether Friedlander intends us to feel a particular way about the world he sees, and I'm not sure it matters; I'm just grateful that he keeps asking such great big beautiful questions.
Phil Harris has been photographing for 30 years; he lives, works and teaches in Portland, Oregon. In 2000, he published a retrospective monograph, Fact Fiction Fabrication. His work is held in many public and private collections throuhgout the US and Europe.