The world according to Lee Friedlander is an unmistakable place. The combination of intention, point of view and subject matter is so distinctive that you could pick one of his photographs out of a lineup every time, though the variety of his work still manages to stun. The Museum of Modern Art, where a retrospective exhibit of Friedlander's work opens on June 5, needed almost 500 images to adequately display his accomplishments. Over half a century, he has photographed nudes, landscapes, himself, street scenes, jazz musicians, factory and office workers, patriotic monuments, plant stems, cacti and graffiti. And that list gives only an inkling of his scope. The MoMA show makes it easy to believe that Friedlander, 70, has shot contemporary life, right down to the vacant lot on the corner, from every angle, in every weather. Anything is a candidate for his camera.
Consider the photograph above, made in Las Vegas in 2002. It's part of a series where a car interior is used to frame a picture within the picture, a favorite Friedlander tactic. It's fair to say that most of us would have gone out of our way not to take that picture. Or we would have gotten out of the car, thereby removing the very "obstruction" that makes the shot work. On the other hand, who hasn't, while idling at a stoplight, chuckled at the inset picture superimposed on the view by the sideview mirror? No one is better than Friedlander at finding art in the commonplace. And, as happens so often in one of his images, there is sly humor and slapstick. The shot, with the Statue of Liberty holding down center stage, forces a double take. It's a joke with a point: look harder. No, this is not New York, this is Vegas, a corporeal mirage, a cloud-cuckoo land complete with--queue the Three Stooges yuck--clouds.
Friedlander's career is like a history of photography in reverse. He began as an heir to the unsentimental, streetwise realism of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Maturing, he became influenced by photographers of earlier generations, such as Eugene Atget. His current work, clotted, densely composed landscapes that echo William James's description of life as a "blooming, buzzing confusion," have something of the ecstasy of seeing that's found in the work of William Henry Fox Talbot and other photographers of the 19th century.
Walking through the Friedlander retrospective at MoMA is like watching a man discover his true nature. From the '50s to the present, the sensibility doesn't change much. From first to last, there is this hunger to see and record the world in all its gawky beauty. But over the course of his life, Friedlander has ceded more and more of the terms of composition to life itself. There is an increasing artlessness to the compositions, a lack of contrivance. Instead, what you get is the pure joy of looking at the world--and looking hard.