Progression of Art
Nashville is drawn from Friedlander's early series Little Screens. Six images from the series appeared in a 1963 Harper's Bazaar photo-essay. This image captures a portion of a room, likely a motel room, illuminated by a television. The only human figure depicted is on the screen, a televisual portrait in extreme close-up with the woman's eyebrows pushing against the upper edge of the frame. Friedlander's presence is implied by a man's dress shirt hanging from the bathroom or closet door. Walker Evans had introduced the Little Screens series as "deft, witty, spanking little poems of hate" which encourages the spectator to read the image as a comment of the rise of television, though the precise nature of any social critique remains somewhat ambiguous. However, just as photography would unsettle painting's supremacy in the art academies, so too television, art film, and video art would question the limits of still photography. In this sense, Friedlander's scrutiny of the proliferation of television screens seems somewhat prescient.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection
Self Portrait, Provincetown, Massachusetts
From his earliest days, Friedlander has approached the self-portrait in a raw and unorthodox manner. Here for instance, he confuses the hierarchy within the frame by positioning an illuminated light bulb between himself and the onlooking spectator. As with most of his self-portraits, Friedlander's presence is either secondary or compromised by other elements in the image. Historian and curator Rod Slemmons suggested that Friedlander "provides us with a new visual world in which obstruction, confusion, and accident are the driving forces" and when the spectator is challenged in this way, she or he is given license to draw their own conclusions from the picture. It is often said of photographers that they 'paint with light' and here the photographic artist is caught between the two light sources - artificial and natural (the latter pours in through the window to Friedlander's left) - by which he 'paints' his pictures: a self-portrait, in other words, reminiscent of the painter and his palette.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection
Maria, Las Vegas
One of Friedlander's favorite subjects is his wife and muse Maria. At first glance, Maria appears to conform to the adoring 'sitter' convention one has come to associate with classical portraiture. However, on closer inspection we notice that Maria is in fact framed within a frame, sharing the inner frame indeed with her silhouetted husband. The picture does avoid his more complex and evasive framing tendencies, yet Friedlander's secondary presence manages to upset the equilibrium of the scene since it serves to remind us that Maria's returning gaze is meant first and foremost for her husband. Putting that detail to one side, Maria is posed in medium close shot, illuminated by the rectangular shards of light that pass through a horizontal (venetian) window blind. Friedlander brings then a chiaroscuro effect to a set up that bears a resemblance to a still from a 1940s film noir. This portrait was to feature in Maria, a collection of images of his wife, sometimes seen with other family members, shot between 1960 and 1992 (the year of the books first publication). The book featured a conversation with Friedlander which he brought to a close with an epigraph to Maria borrowed from Patrick White's novel The Tree of Man (1955):
"Then he stirred his tea again, and from the round red eddies of tea contentment began to radiate. She sat opposite him, smelling of scones and permanence. There would be every opportunity to learn her off by heart."
Gelatin silver print
Given the time and place to which it belongs (1970 New Orleans), we are able to locate quite specific meanings in an image that sits squarely within Friedlander's 'social American landscape' cycle. Though major civil rights victories had been won - notably 1964's Civil Rights Act and 1965's Voting Rights Act - more indirect forms of segregation endured well into the 1970s. Yet New Orleans is by no means a straightforward political 'statement'. Rather, it demonstrates Friedlander's talent for transforming seemingly inconsequential subject matter into more puzzling, more nuanced, narratives.
We see two white females in surroundings that are clearly unfamiliar to them: they are in fact tourists (or aliens) and we deduce this because they have stopped to take pictures of an out-of-frame event with their instamatic cameras. Their actions are in contrast to the black woman occupying the right of the frame. She is headed in the opposite direction to the tourists and her back is turned to Friedlander's camera. Patently unfazed by the off frame 'event', she is in her familiar surroundings - seemingly one more anonymous denizen of New Orleans - and she appears to be going about her usual daily business. Given what one knows of the political climate of the day, and given the way in which Friedlander's frame is divided up (one third to the black woman, two-thirds to the tourists), one might be drawn to the conclusion that Friedlander's image is an artful and understated critique on the complex dynamics of American race relations. Critics of the photographer might be inclined to put the argument that Friedlander was little more than a tourist himself, and that he too is engaged in collecting snapshots of his travels (albeit with a professional standard Leica). But we know from his biography that Friedlander was very much at home in America's multiracial southern milieus and he had formed close personal and professional ties with the Jazz and Blues communities.
Gelatin silver print
Father Duffy. Times Square, New York City
Friedlander's photographs are celebrated for their ability to captivate and beguile the spectator. His images are elusive and as such his photography functions on its own terms as a system of signs for which one constructs her or his own meanings. Nowhere is this facet of his work more evident than in Father Duffy. Indeed, this image, which adorned the cover of the exhibition catalog for his 2005 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, stands out as one of Friedlander's signature photographs.
Father Duffy is part of a series on American monuments in which Friedlander proposed a new look at romanticized political, military, and religious icons. At a denotative, or literal, level this image shows a monument to the Irish-American chaplain and war hero (Father Duffy) though it (his) name is lost (forgotten) amidst the disorderly encroachment of buildings and hoardings. On a connotative, or unspoken, level Father Duffy hints at a tension between old forms of religious authority and the new religion of consumerism: skyscrapers have replaced steeples, advertisements tower over the cross - we are implored to 'Enjoy Coca-Cola' - while even blank billboards, to the upper right, lower left and left center edge of the frame, seem to speak the new truths of postwar consumer culture: 'watch this space' they say. When asked about the American Monuments project Friedlander's remarks were typically opaque: "there's something sweet about it in some way" he said, and though the series could be "fascinating" he also declared it "dumb as hell". The fact that Friedlander preferred not to 'explain' his work was, according to the historian Graham Clarke, part of its strength. Friedlander "purposely distorts the world we take for granted", wrote Clarke, and suggested that his main gift to his art was that he allowed photography to be "part of a larger way of seeing and constructing meaning".
Gelatin silver print - Museum of Modern Art Collection
Shadow, New York City
In another of his iconic images, Friedlander exploits a common photographic 'mistake' by allowing his shadow to encroach on his frame. Though this technique was not unheard of - Eudora Welty employed the effect as early as 1942, her full-length silhouette cast on the phallic Ruins of Windsor, and Friedlander's contemporary Garry Winogrand allowed his shadow to fall on a couple holding chimpanzees in 1967's Central Park Zoo - this self-reflexive trait became Friedlander's trademark.
Shadow is, on one level, another of Friedlander's many New York City street photographs though it clearly does not conform to the usual conventions of 'social landscape' photography. Rather, Friedlander's presence almost insists that the image be read as a commentary on the nature of the relationship between the photographer and his subject. Though we can find Friedlander's shadowy presence in images across different subjects (Maria, for instance), this photograph carries a more sinister tone. Connotations abound as the hunter stalks his unsuspecting prey: a female draped in faux fur no less. Yet once more, the meaning in Friedlander's work is illusive. We are tempted to read the image as a statement on male voyeurism though it is not clear whether or not Friedlander wanted the viewer to take this work seriously. Speaking of his liking for shadows, Friedlander commented that "At first, my presence in my photos was fascinating and disturbing", as it is here indeed. But, he continued, "as time passed and I was more a part of other ideas in my photos, I was able to add a giggle to those feelings".
Gelatin silver print - International Center of Photography Collection
Central Park, New York City
Of all the photographic categories, 'the landscape' can boast the longest history. Moreover, the landscape begets the closest historical correlation between photography and academic painting with the landscapist in both specialisms often becoming preoccupied with chasing a representational precision that might affect in the spectator a heightened awareness of the natural and platonic world. Indeed, Friedlander has tended to shy away from landscapes because of the pointlessness of photographing scenes that, in his words, are already "just too perfect". This image was borne in fact of a commission that only then inspired Friedlander to develop a completely autonomous landscapes collection.
The resultant series was based on parks and municipal locations brought together under the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th century American landscape architect. Friedlander turned his Hasselblad - the sharp focus and high contrast bringing the image its superior graphic quality - on New York's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the Niagara Falls State Park with the results being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the auspicious occasion of Central Park's 150th birthday. Friedlander's take on the 'manmade' landscape avoids the picturesque style that characterizes panoramic landscapes. In contrast to his cityscapes and portraits the natural objects in the Parks collection are stripped of connotation. Indeed, the exhibition's curator Jeff L. Rosenheim suggested that Friedlander had treated the objects in his lens as "living works of art" that deserved to exist strictly on their own terms.
Gelatin silver print