Looking Back

by Ed Osowski

To paraphrase Harold Bloom, influence works in a number of ways.[1] It can be a tyrannical force, exerting a power so strong that the artist who struggles to learn from it never escapes its influence. Or, when an artist with great creativity and independence confronts the influence of a predecessor, the successor learns, uses the influence of the past to sharpen and focus a new way of seeing, and deliberately casts the power of the old into new shapes and new directions.

“Like a One-Eyed Cat,” a retrospective look at the career of Lee Friedlander, gathers 154 photographs that survey his work from 1956 to 1987. In his short, but insightful essay, “Lee Friedlander: A Precise Search for the Elusive,” the Seattle Art Museum’s curator of photography, Rod Slemmons, who organized the exhibition, lists those photographers from whom Friedlander learned: Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan. But, as with all true artists, Friedlander took certain cues from them, understood and appropriated their angles of vision, and created his own distinct, humane approach to photographing the social landscape. What emerges, as Slemmons puts it, is Friedlander’s “surprising ways of seeing.”[2]

In 1956 Friedlander moved from Los Angeles, where he had studied briefly after high school in Washington, to New York City where he quickly began to earn a living as a freelance photographer. His commercial work included assignments for the magazines Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and Holiday. Marvin Israel, the influential art director of Harper’s Bazaar, knew Friedlander’s work and encouraged him to continue his interest in photographing jazz musicians. Columbia, RCA, and Atlantic Records, for which Israel worked, regularly purchased Friedlander’s photographs to use as album covers.

Critical attention rapidly followed for Friedlander. In 1963 he was first exhibited at the George Eastman House. Then John Szarkowski, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, showed him in 1964 (in the influential “New Documents” exhibition which included Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus) and again in 1967. One-man exhibitions followed at MOMA in 1972 and 1974. To date, eleven books devoted solely to his photographs have been published.

Jazz is another influence Slemmons locates in Friedlander’s body of work. (The exhibition and book’s title comes from Joe Turner’s 1954 “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.”) Slemmons writes, “The devices of scale shift, reflection-reversal, distortion, repetition, counterpoint, and formal association by shading and contrast are all familiar to jazz musicians. Friedlander used these devices in his work to suggest open-ended alternatives to normal seeing.”[3] His aim is to allow coherence to emerge from the seeming chaos he photographs, “to see clearly but not obviously.”[4]

The key phrase in Slemmons’ description of how Friedlander’s work resembles jazz is “open-ended.” When one thinks of Robert Frank, of Garry Winogrand, whose work could also be described by Slemmons’ passage quoted above, and then one thinks of Friedlander’s photographs, Friedlander’s work seems to be free of the ideological edge that defines the other two. Friedlander seems freer, looser. It is not surprising that he dedicates Like a One-Eyed Cat to “the memory of my parents who came to America,” a dedication that seems to carry with it affection, love, and optimism, and unstated belief in the possibilities of the American dream. If Frank, Winogrand, and Arbus are jagged, assaulting, and troubling, Friedlander is softer, gentler. His works do not grab for attention, do not jump out and engage one in a frenzied argument, but, rather, invite the viewer in for a dialogue, a conversation that demands slow and patient looking and reading, meditation almost. If Frank and Winogrand and Arbus could be called “hot,” then Friedlander is “cool.”

In the photograph “Woodmen, Wisconsin, 1974” (Slemmons points out that Friedlander is deliberately reluctant to provide titles for his works beyond location and date because to offer more “information” would limit the viewer’s freedom to address the photograph openly and to “establish context and meaning from internal evidence”[5]), Friedlander’s unique vision becomes apparent. It is a wonderful photograph, possessing the feel of a snapshot (a look Friedlander favors) yet rich in its reliance on metaphor and tradition. It recalls the feel of paintings by Botticelli or the English Pre-Raphaelites. In it a girl stands on a garden swing. Her pose lacks all traces of sophistication, guile, or fear. A towel in her right hand waves gently and repeats the movement of her hair and of another towel waving from the photograph’s right edge. What could be a disturbing element, a disembodied arm that holds on to the rope beneath her left hand, carries with it no hint of threat or danger. That disembodied arm is an element one finds again, in other forms, in Friedlander’s work. An amateur photographer would have corrected the photograph, would have included the person standing to the girl’s left. But Friedlander finds these “mistakes” a way to stop us, to slow us down, to get us to reconsider precisely what makes a photograph “correct.” The disembodied arm is related imagistically to Friedlander’s shadows that appear in one photograph after another in Like a One-Eyed Cat. These shadow images of the self remind us that we are looking at a work that is the vision of one person, that the photographer’s role is crucial to what is see, and photographed. The arm, these shadows, are, in a sense, artifice, clues for the viewer that the photograph is one step removed from the reality it represents. “Woodmen, Wisconsin, 1974” is a photograph of youth, beauty, calm, and loveliness. That such qualities may be elusive, at best, qualities we find only too rarely, does nothing to undercut the photograph’s appeal to our imagination and our sentiments.

Friedlander played an important role in selecting the photographs in Like a One-Eyed Cat and a number of them force the viewer to consider where sentiment ends and sentimentality begins. In a photograph of his two young children dancing, “Anna and Erik Friedlander, New York City, New York, 1964,” W. Eugene Smith’s photograph of two young children emerging from a forest (in the exhibition and book The Family of Man) comes immediately to mind. What also comes to mind from this photograph and others of his wife, Maria, and his son and daughter is how apparent his love for his family is. If the camera can be used to pry, to strip bare, to expose, Friedlander uses his for another purpose. The snapshot-like photographs of his family are pages from a family album in which warmth and love dominate. In a photograph of his wife asleep, her arms, folded over her head and across her face, suggest not a pose of defense, but rather of ease and acceptance.

Photographing women is, politically, not an easy task. The anti-feminist impulses that dominate our culture can emerge in subtle and not-too-subtle ways. One thinks of Garry Winogrand whose photographs of women reveal a great amount about how we as a male-dominated culture manipulate and control women, how uneasy we are in their presence, how anxious women make men. By contrast, Friedlander’s images of women (for example, four party scenes that function as a critique of Winogrand’s vision, and a series of nudes) approach their subjects with subtlety, care, and integrity.

Friedlander’s personal photographs, of family and friends, possess a clarity and calm that, initially, sets them apart from his works that document the social landscape. In the latter works, all things are a jumble of conflicting signs and messages, a maze of objects, visions and views reflected, fractured, all competing for attention. In “Hillcrest, New York, 1970” the side view mirror of an automobile divides the photograph, prevents us from seeing completely the subject before us, and reflects back to us an image of the photographer himself. Friedlander returns to the framing and dividing device of a car mirror to interrupt our vision and to depict the fragments and competing images from which meaning must be taken. Storefront windows, bars, tree limbs, machinery, fences – all are devices that reappear in one photograph after another. They block how we see, what we see, and by so doing, as the photograph records, present something “new” to see as well as a photographic analysis of the act of seeing.

The physical arrangement of Like a One-Eyed Cat at the Dallas Museum of Art presented the viewer with certain problems. (Its stop in Dallas was not on the exhibition’s original itinerary and one applauds the museum’s last-minute success in finding funding for the exhibition to include a venue in Texas.) Half the works were hung along the walls of the ramp that slices the museum and will be familiar to anyone who has visited the facility. Because the ramp is the principal axis through the museum (along which museum-goers move from one exhibition space to another and off which other services, for example, the gift shop, radiate), it did not allow the photographs to be shown to their best advantage. But the photographs hung along the busy ramp were principally examples of Friedlander’s “public” photographs – of urban scenes, of monuments. In a smaller gallery one found the remaining works. This space was also not without its problems, however. A partition at the rear of the room gave no indication that there were several works displayed behind it. The small gallery did offer the chance to reflect, free from the busy commotion of the ramp, upon Friedlander’s Japanese landscapes and his commissioned series of computer workers in Boston and Wisconsin. In the small gallery the consistency of Friedlander’s vision became clear. For, while the content of the photographs in the small gallery replaced the content of the photographs on the ramp – urban and industrial scenes replaced by views of the natural world, nudes, and individual workers in the workplace – the photographs depended on the same webbing of light and dark, a network of obstacles to our clear vision, patterns reflecting upon patterns (of trees and leaves reflected in water, of fish seen through water, of a kimono shot through a window, of hands entwined in endless yards of computer cable) to force us to realize that Friedlander is not a photographer that one “gets” quickly.

Only by intense and intent looking (what the computer workers in a project commissioned by MIT in 1985-86) do the elements in a Friedlander photograph cohere. When that cohering occurs, when fragments come together to produce a new whole, when separate elements come together to create something new, then Friedlander’s ongoing commitment to finding unity in fluidity becomes apparent. His aim, as Slemmons concludes in his essay, is to help “us to understand better the relationship between seeing and knowing.”

1. Bloom, Harold. Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).
2. Friedlander, Lee. Like a One-Eyed Cat: Photographs 1956-1987 (New York: harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Seattle Art Museum, 1989), p.111.
3. Friedlander, p.114.
4. Friedlander, p.115.
5. Friedlander, p.114.
6. Friedlander, p.117.

Ed Osowski is a librarian with the Houston Public Library System. A frequent contributor to SPOT, he also writes for the Houston Post.