I've been in San Francisco the past several days making photographs and also checking out a lot of great photo shows. The biggie was Freidlander at the SF MOMA, a retrospective that covers 45 years and all of his major projects. If you're a fan of Friedlander, you already own the yellow covered book. Although it may be hard to believe, the show was even more overwhelming than the book. Yes, it was worth traveling 600 miles to see.
What can I say about Friedlander? The guy is a photo stud pure and simple. The range of what he has done seems unparalleled. Deserts, nudes, musicians, street work, portraits, cherry trees, tombstones, car mirrors, flowers stems, pure landscapes, family, monuments, work...life in general. There is no part of the world that seems photographically uninteresting to Friedlander, and that fact is probably what defines him best. By pursuing his own whims he has greatly expanded the realm of what is photographically acceptable. It used to be a mistake to show your shadow in a photo, or to put posts in the center of the frame, or your car mirror or chainlink fence. All of that is so normal now that it's hard to realize how radical his vision was in historical context.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is he's done all of it on his own terms. He made commercial work early on, and has accepted commissions in the years since then, but his work hasn't really been driven by either of those things. It seems to exist completely outside the market, willed forward only by him and with only him as the ultimate judge. If Goldbeck is the photographer who never took a photo he didn't think he could sell, Friedlander is his counter, the photographer who took no photo with a future sale in mind (but if you have a future purchase in mind, that'll be about $5K). Oh yeah, and did I mention his son is a well respected cellist and his daughter married one of the world's best photographers? Dude has lived a charmed life.
The one part of his career which the retrospective did not cover, and which was fresh in my mind since I'd just studied the book, was Jazz Musicians of New Orleans. Considering the mountain of work that Lee Friedlander has authored, it's not surprising that some of it is overlooked. It's just sad that it happened to be The Jazz People, which I think is right up there with his best. About half the book is portraits. Some of them are fairly well known and would be familiar to the average Friedlander fan. But what really makes this book a treat are the street shots of musicians parading. Friedlander has published a lot of streetwork over the years but not often of dynamic situations. Usually it's one or two pedestrians, or a dog, or his self portrait, or more typically with no one at all in the photo. About half of The Jazz People is candid shots of jazz bands and their followers wandering the streets. These are generally from the 50s and 60s, and you get the sense that maybe Friedlander was toying with street styles back then before moving on to other stuff. The streetwork in Jazz People is as good as it gets. The photos combine his sense of layering with his gift for portraiture, all set in shifting situations.
But I'm getting off track. Showing in conjunction with the SF MOMA was a huge Friedlander show at Fraenkel Gallery, the place just up the street which has published many of his books. Called America by car, it focused on shots out the car window. I take a lot of in-car photos and I have a page of my site devoted to them (as well as one of truck racks, self portraits, also inspired by Friedlander), so I was anxious to see this show. It didn't disappoint. Friedlander has either rented or owned a lot of cars over the years, treating each one along the way as its own photographic frame. He has said that it's impossible for him to walk by a truck without stopping to consider its photographic possibilities. Combined with the car door theme, we might guess that he's trying to say something about America's love affair with cars, some ominous Frank-like message. But after seeing this show I think it's simpler than that. Car doors make interesting forms, period. And so do old trucks. Why photograph something plain when you can take the same shot bordered by a car door? To Friedlander the world is just one big visual puzzle, and it's his job to fit parts of it on a negative.
Both the Fraenkel and the SFMOMA shows are divided roughly equally between early 35 mm and the 6 x 6 format that Friedlander's been shooting for the past few decades. Although my natural affinity is for 35 mm, I have to admit most of Friedlander's square stuff wins me over. He seems to have mastered the shift pretty easily. If I can make a massive generalization, the square stuff seems a bit more carefree than his earlier work. He uses flash much more than before, and a wider lens which lends itself to camera tilt. He seems now to be generally less interested in precision than in just packing the visual field with as much as he can.
If this shift from precision to a less controlled look mirrors the general photographic history of the past 40 years, another of Friedlander's traits defies it. Over the course of Friedlander's career, many if not most photographers have shifted from b/w to color. The normal pattern seems to be that one learns b/w and cuts his or her teeth on it before moving on the color, which is more widely seen in the arts world as the real deal. With Friedlander, the trend runs opposite. He toyed with color in his early work with musicians before settling firmly on b/w as his medium. The SFMOMA show was about 98% b/w.
I saw so many photos last weekend it's hard to pick any favorites. There are a few that stick in my mind. Unfortunately I can't find them in any of my books or online, so I'll have to describe them. One is a car door shot looking out the door at the side of a road. Friedlander's face can be seen in the mirror, and enough of his camera is visible to realize he's shooting the flash backward, at himself. The effect is so subtle that it's almost not noticeable. His face has fill-flash but it's a minor part of the photo. But it made me wonder, how many photographers have ever shot a scene aiming the flash backward? It's all screwy, it breaks all the rules, yet it works. The other photo I remember is a 35 mm image I hadn't seen before of a pocket of black birds scattered across a chainlink fence, with these ghostly white trees in the background. It looks like a scene from another planet, and unlike any of Friedlander's other photos. A reminder that as consistent as his style is, it doesn't confine him to any subject matter.
My trip to SF wasn't all Friedlander. There was some backstory to my visit involving a wedding, a murder, and an old high school friend. My hotel, picked blindly through Hotwire, wound up being a one-star in the heart of downtown. If you want to get a good sense of what the hotel's neighborhood looked like visually, just think really hard about the word Tenderloin, and all the different ways that might translate into an urban landscape. Tender. Loin. Meat. Raw. Flesh...I'm sure other words come to mind. Suffice to say San Francisco is a fantastic city. A photographer could spend his entire life on it without running dry.
My last night there I stayed with an old friend in Oakland. I've known him 30 years, since before I was a photographer. I seem to have a different relationship with people who I didn't always know as a photographer. I carried my camera as usual but it felt a bit odd to take his photo, like I was stepping into an unknown role outside our normal bounds. He was game for photos but I got a bit of the "what are you doing?" vibe. His oldest kid, 8, hammered me questions about photography. Why shoot film? Why not shoot digital? What does film look like? How do you get the pictures out of it? Why do you have more than one camera? Why do you take photos? That was the closest I came all weekend to a conversation about photography.