Nevermind Walter Benjamin's pronouncements on art and mechanical reproduction. SFMoMA's Lee Friedlander retrospective will quickly convince you that the original remains king.
Friedlander's early prints are rich and luminous. There are true blacks, clear whites, and fine, delicate gradations of grey. On the printed page, the photographs lose something of themselves. They fall flat. Page through the exhibition's massive catalogue, and you'll quickly see what I mean.
I mention this, because we are so accustomed to reading photographs, so accustomed to interacting with photographs as reproductions or pages in books, that we forget that photographs are material objects. And Friedlander's his skill as a crafter of objects.
Friedlander's prints are careful, clean, and precise. In person, they display a polish that is often at odds with the photographer's loose, often messy, aesthetic. New York Times critic, Andy Grundberg, described Friedlander as "genial, unpretentious, and even humane."
Friedlander's eye is drawn to disarray. His landscapes, so unlike those by Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, bristle with detail. Life, Friedlander admits, is a dirty, messy deed. The best moments are those generated on the fly. And so Friedlander gives us odd angles, faces chopped at the forehead or chin, streetscapes interrupted by telephone poles and fire hydrants.
Balance that disarray against the prints' own luminosity, against Friedlander's precise control of tone and shade, and you begin to see the contradictions within his work.
Today, Friedlander's photographs no longer seem quite so revelatory. But if we view his work in historical context, if we understand Friedlander's oeuvre as a reaction to formalism, and as a protest against modernism's insistence on a pure aesthetic sphere, then we begin to see where Friedlander broke ranks.
Peter Galassi, the exhibition's curator, argues that Lee Friedlander is not a modernist. Friedlander does not seek to distill photography to its essence. Rather, Friedlander turned his lens outward, eager to document the world. His work lies at the intersection of journalism and art. Strongly influenced by Robert Frank and Walker Evans, as well as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Friedlander did not just photograph the street. He photographed in the street. He wanted to be in the thick of things, experiencing life with the camera.
At his best, Lee Friedlander is an intelligent, playful photographer, attentive to photography's surreal possibilities. Though he is capable of turning out tight, formal compositions, Friedlander possesses a trickster streak, and the retrospective is thick with visual puns. On an average day, Friedlander is Dickens, masquerading as a photographer -- prolix, prolific, writing paragraphs packed with looping sentences.
Galassi describes Friedlander as "addicted to photography." The Friedlander retrospective gives ample proof of his addiction. He photographed everything.
We walk through room after packed room. The photographs multiplying before our eyes, creating a storm of visual noise. There are simply too many. There's a wall of nudes, another wall of "alphabet photographs," yet another wall of fashion photographs. There are photographs of trees, photographs of monuments... Taken as a group, each set makes sense. They relate to each other, they tell stories, even say some clever things. Yet one doesn't read a gallery wall in quite the same way as a book. I longed for more white space, for a moment to rest.
I felt Friedlander's power as a photographer most keenly in those moments when I felt compelled -- despite the exhibition's overwhelming visual noise -- to pause and look again. That happened, once, at the very beginning of the retrospective. "Baltimore, Maryland" (1962) is deceptively simple, just a lamp and a chair, sitting side by side, yet the print seethes with richness and luminosity. Friedlander gives us the very essence of these objects, as outlined by light. They seem to exist solely as apparitions of light, yet we can almost touch them. They are so voluptuous, more voluptuous, even, than the real thing. He does it again partway through the show. In another photograph, a scattering of camellias, pale and ghostly, float against a sea of dark, glossy leaves.
They forced me to stop reading, and start looking. In these moments, Friedlander offers more. He gives us, not just a one-off moment or a clever one-liner, but something like pure sight. What happens when the camera cuts through the world's bewildering array of signals and noise? You'll have to visit to find out.