Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Ghost of Lee Friedlander

I used to think I hated Lee Friedlander's photography, but the more time I spend with his pictures, the more I think they're beautiful. Maybe it's the fact that his wife Maria is so obviously his favorite subject. Or that I think he forces himself to take self-portraits, despite hating his own reflection. There is no vanity in them. There is no imago, no hubris: the trajectory of the imagined self is decidedly downward, into the grit of city gutters, the chipped and peeling paint of airless motel rooms, the uneven tread of nameless roadside stopovers belonging to no one.
He navigates his imperfect world like Kerouac, all earnest exuberancec, but with the desperate melancholy of a man unconvinced of his own existence. Like Sylvia Plath’s doomed literary surrogate, he seems to chant as he wanders: I am, I am, I am. The images become the record of a search which has no resolution.

Friedlander gets thrown together with Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand a lot, probably because they were featured together in the 1967 "New Documents" exhibition. I don't think they're anything alike though.

Friedlander's work is governed by his feelings of being an intruder in his own world. In his self-portraits, he's slipping away- it's unclear whether the Lee on the page or the Lee behind the camera lens is the more authentic self. Roland Barthes called it a "micro-version of death."
I think it's hard to connect to Friedlander's pictures--especially his self-portraits--because we cannot fully inhabit them. A splintered reflection, a murky shadow; it cannot serve as proxy. We were not there, we did not capture, and we were not captured.
He's checking with every snapshot: "Am I real? Was I there? Do I exist?" It's a question that's never answered.


  1. Really enjoy the two photos you posted (the top one on a more technical appreciation of seeing the grass and stones and being able to visualize what a great shot they would make under his shadow, and the latter for a legitimately interesting photo born of a startlingly simple concept).

    Not sure I agree (or fully understand I suppose - are you saying the real world is imperfect, or the world that they captured was imperfect?) with your Kerouac analogy, I thought the world I read in "On the Road" was highly romanticized.

    I should take a look at the rest of his pictures - the two here (to me) suggest a different sort of existential dichotomy... actually, not so much of a dichotomy as a fusion.

    The first photo (imo) is a gorgeous blend of man (complete with a camera and bag of equipment) with the natural environment. There's something inherently uncivilized in the "spiked" head and the scattered rock pattern. What I see (and take away as a viewer) from the photo is a man embracing the natural world, visually becoming one with his surroundings as he takes in his environment (and simultaneously leaves a - now changed - impression upon it as well).

    The second photograph I assume is of his wife, and I think is the stronger of the two. To me, it's about his relationship with his wife. While he's clearly left an impression (of sorts) upon her - in his own mind it seems insubstantial. That his supposed impression is in actuality little more than a shadow. To me it speaks of the same sort of insubstantialbility you wrote of, but directed more at his role in his marriage than at his own existence.

    If the majority (or entirety!) of his self-portraits are nothing more than shadows, I can definitely see how a consistent theme of intangible impact would lead to questions of existence - but I think that's something that needs to come out of a whole body of work (strangely enough) rather than a few examples.

    It's interesting in this case, as it would appear that the individual parts seem (dualy) greater than their sum.

  2. I see Kerouac and Friedlander as appreciating the world in a similar way--they're creating (art)works, but that seems peripheral to the fact that they're just wandering around being fascinated. To me, a lot of their work is documentary in that it's a record of living, of searching for something. Is it romanticized? Absolutely, but I think that's because both of them are, in their work, kind of searching for something that can't be found--a concrete sense of self, a world that makes sense... Romanticizing the versions of themselves and their lives that come out in their art makes that reality tolerable.

    I love the grass photograph too. The soil and rocks and brush become arteries, organs, and skin. He's sinking into the earth.

    He did a whole photography book of his wife, Maria, which is my favorite book he put out. This photo isn't actually from that book though, it's from his "Self-Portrait" book. I love that a self portrait for him is a photograph of his shadow cast on Maria, but the appeal of this photograph, for me, is more superficial: I love her expression. It's completely indulgent. You can tell that this probably happens a lot, that there's probably a camera between the two of them often, and she loves him still.

    I recommend you take a look at Self Portrait (1970). About 85% of the portraits are shadows, murky reflections, or bits and pieces of him. We rarely get a clear picture of him. It's really strange, really frustrating, and really beautiful.