Tuesday, 15 April 2008



At 74, the famous photographer continues to frame the world with a distinctive eye for composition or structure. Themes remain largely urban, yet desolate, means traffic in pictorial coherence, stick to black and white in establishing scale, depth and proportion for the familiar, careless and overlooked. Yet the approach now carries a certain smooth routine, almost nostalgia. Composition on these terms seems to belong to an earlier era for photography, or perhaps signals a decisive swing in fashion. Friedlander’s show at the Fraenkel Gallery, SF, furthers his car-bound views of recent years, reminds us of photography’s history and contested resources (see also Posts 12, 21 and 27).

Friedlander belongs to a generation inspired by photo-journalism, typified by Life magazine and the Magnum agency of the 40s and 50s. This approach placed a premium on spontaneous engagement with the subject (or strictly, object); with inventive and unexpected angles and circumstances. Photography’s formal properties, the picture planes available to lens, exposure, focus, film and print options, were all to be demonstrated by urgent and interesting situations, by a contest with motion and opportunity. The emphasis on fleeting gesture or atmosphere, understandably earns the name The Decisive Moment, or ‘the art of waiting’, pointedly underlines the difference between stills and movies.

It is not the only approach in the period, of course, but through popular publication becomes the dominant one. For followers like Friedlander the challenge arises in the kinds of events recorded, the means these allow. In particular, Friedlander is notable for the absence of people or figures, apart from the photographer’s shadow or reflection, and so largely motion and sense of moment. Then there is the level, frontal angle of his pictures, the deadpan or prosaic attitude this creates. The photographer’s shadow or reflection reinforces this flatfooted presence. There is none of W. Eugene Smith’s economy of volume and tone, or surprise in expression, for instance. Instead Friedlander relies upon reflections, pictures and text within the frame and deep shadows to create spatial ambiguities or to abstract the picture. Often his photographs appear almost as collages or a layout, to defy a unified picture plane, all the more striking since this is rarely a question of camera angle or darkroom manipulation.

The pictures in this sense are intensely formal, concerned less with freezing motion at a fascinating point than with freezing perspective or orientation from a fascinating point, with testing expectations for picture and object. Photographic means here are less a question of timing than of lens length and focus. This would be unremarkable were it not that the photographer remains dedicated to the quotidian, to urban and familiar settings. He rarely shares any of the exoticism or eccentric flair of precursors such as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Brassai for example. Rather, he uses the everyday to underline his formalism, uses his abstraction to affirm the everyday.

Friedlander is grouped with fellow NY-based photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Joel Meyerorwitz, following his inclusion in MOMA’s 1967 survey New Documents by distinguished curator, John Szarkowski. Yet, there too, Friedlander shares little of their interest in sudden behaviour or anecdote, extreme specimens or outsiders. Actually the show’s true theme was the steady dissolution of the photo-journalistic project, of the way The Decisive Moment inevitably turned into other things. Spontaneity was pursued to the trivial and chaotic, reporting on circumstance ended up with the marginal and freakish. The Decisive Moment slowed to the indecisive prospect.

What seemed like the salient characteristics of photography finally invite revision, but developments there are the work of another post. Here it is enough to see Friedlander’s part in this history. However, his methods are not quite neutral or strictly distinct from material, either. In giving greater emphasis to reflection, to ambiguities and pattern that defy consistent depth, Friedlander eventually builds a world for himself. The things that once tried his photography are now the material that sustain it.

In recent years, as he once more drifts around America, his wide-angle lens maintaining perfect focus from foregrounds of new car interiors to distant architecture and display; framing has become all. The stoic confrontation with the pictorial quirks of the everyday has been streamlined to a drive-by. Rejecting motion to The Decisive Moment ironically ends up depending on the photographer’s mobility. At the same time, the confidence in the status quo, in the little things, regional difference and character, has gone. America under this view becomes simply so many rival frames or windows, reflections and refractions, an elaborate pageant or charade, only to be appreciated in transit.

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