America the Beautiful

Lee Friedlander Photography Retrospective at SFMOMA Depicts the Mundane of Everyday Life Rendered Meaningful


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A retrospective collection of one of America's great witnesses, photographer Lee Friedlander, opened last month for a three-month stay at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Moving from his early Leica everyday miniatures, through nearly five decades, to his later large format Hasselbad Superwide portraits, the well-traveled show offers a sensitive and joyful (though cluttered) collage of America.

The whole of Friedlander's argument about America is encapsulated in the image of a warehouse exterior where his shadow shares space with the words "American Temporaries." His work is restless, a dotted path around our country's corners. This is a land of travel, of disposable goods, of nostalgia-time and memory slipping away under the weight of turnover. Friedlander's success is that his work is never a put-down, an aversion to our messy habits. Rather, he takes great delight and finds humor in these inconsistencies of taste and respect and privilege that characterize our country (and its self-identity).

Friedlander's sense of humor defines the appeal of his perhaps most famous series, 1976's "The American Monument," exemplified in an image of Mount Rushmore: his camera looks at the high-windowed tourist trap opposite the monument and a pair of elderly visitors outside (the husband with his own camera, the wife with her binoculars), looking back at the monument proper, which we see reflected in the panes behind them. Like the self-portraits-like all his great photographs-his photographs multiply the planes of activity on which light and life play. His camera-eye is fast. His images dart in different directions, teasing the eye to look around, to find and to relish trivial details. His America, though often muted and barren of people, is a celebration of acceptance, an affirmation of our collective pursuits of happiness. (As opposed to Diane Arbus, his contemporary, who saw this stew as a rogue's gallery to admire, and maybe love, but only ever at a safe distance.) For instance, factories and their workers, like these tourists at Mount Rushmore, loom larger than the monuments in this America.

Friedlander's America is a bowed space: streets and minor monuments appear bent by his short lens; flesh weighs people in place; faraway light, often obfuscated by trash and chain link fences, or reflected in display windows, offers a lift. The light-weight, 35mm Leica camera (made famous mid-20th century) that Friedlander used early in his career gives a photographer the freedom to shoot on the fly, and many of the early photographs look like happy accidents. Friedlander shows a willingness to smudge the image, to blur and halo objects, or to hide them in shadow-including himself. The cheeky self portrait series published in 1970 is perhaps best known by the New York street scene picture where his shadow falls on the back of a blonde wearing a fur coat.

The true highlight of the exhibit, and perhaps Friedlander's entire career, is the wide wall collection of "Letters from the People," published in 1993. Here the arrangement of the photographs breaks free from the strict grids the rest of the series are housed in: this group starts low on the wall in the lower right-hand corner and pushes left, up the blank space, to an euphoric high, exulting in the ordinary, punctuated below by two photos, separated by a wide berth of white; one reads, "WIN L." The surge of pictures on this wall-of window dressings, postcard racks, street signs, graffiti, gutters-show Friedlander's great love of the abject. But it's not a romanticization of poverty. Rather, his eyes see plainly, if stylishly, that these elements make our world, and make us, as much as any monumental busts.

Love the abject with Ryland at [email protected]

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