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Monthly Archives: November 2009

Timothy O’Sullivan was the first great photographer of the western landscape, but began his career as a cameraman for Mathew Brady, photographing the American Civil War.

Timothy O'Sullivan  Tertiary Conglomerates, Weber Valley, Ut, 1869

Timothy O'Sullivan Tertiary Conglomerates, Weber Valley, Ut, 1869

Which is a dramatic photograph, well seen, but only a few years before, O’Sullivan made a similar composition

Ruins of Richmond

Ruins of Richmond

And his use of figures in the landscape

Timothy O'Sullivan, Hot Sulphur Springs, Nevada, 1869

Timothy O'Sullivan, Hot Sulphur Springs, Nevada, 1869

which uses a figure of the same scale as a photo from a few years before

Timothy O'Sullivan, Harvest of Death, 1863

When Robert Adams wrote that early explorers considered the western space to be sublime, a redemptive landscape, he must have been referring to the experience of O’Sullivan, who saw (and smelled) the horror of the American Civil War.

For those of us born after Ansel, the western landscape conjures images of majestic pristine wilderness–but O’Sullivan is nearly a century older, with pictures full of silver mines and farms–he began photographing twenty years after gold was discovered in California, before Little Big Horn, but concurrent with the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Part of the success of O’Sullivan is due to his ability to travel into a bleak landscape and photograph, but then to get on the railroad back to civilization, to look at his photographs, in safety.  Another part was his use of the colloidal plate, that required exposure and development of the negative while wet, requiring the need for a portable darkroom, but providing the instant feedback of an image in the field.

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In keeping with the spirit of the list of photographer’s that have influenced me, I’ve been thinking about Friedlander’s influence on my work.   It’s a bit of a tough call to point to any single photograph and call it an imitation Friedlander–his work is too diverse for simple copying.  It’s more in an attitude, a way of filling a frame, a way of telling the truth and a joke at the same time…

Thirty Below, College and Old Steese, February 2008

Thirty Below, College and Old Steese, February 2008

And here’s another image that I did and I know Friedlander would probably never do,  but if if I saw it with his name under it I wouldn’t be surprised, just trading licks, man, smashed, busted, and maybe beautiful…

Busted Birches, Fairbanks, 1992

Busted Birches, Fairbanks, 1992

Lee Friedlander makes my list of photographers worth paying attention to, even though his photographs are completely different than the others on the list.

Lee Friedlander, Lee Avenue, Butte, Montana, 1970

Lee Friedlander, Lee Avenue, Butte, Montana, 1970

Many of Friedlander’s photographs are of scenes so banal that it seems impossible that anyone could make a photograph that could possibly hold our interest, but somehow he succeeds.  Many of the pictures are visual jokes, like the picture above, a self-deprecating play on his own name, can one imagine a worse street to live on?  He has published something on the order of 50 books, many of them self published, but a key to his work is in “American Musicians”, published in 1998, of work mostly done in the 1950s and 60s, photographs of musicians for album jackets, including many jazz greats, including some of my favorites,  Miles Davis and Stan Getz.  I think of a comment that a critic made about Stan Getz–“he blew smoke rings around god”–all those wonderful notes  in the smokey air–and it seems to me that Friedlander is doing the same thing in his photographs–they are jazz, full of phrases verging on chaos, but always somehow coming together, resolving perfectly, the band sharing a laugh at the end of the song.  I own many of Friedlander’s books (the ones I can afford), my favorites include “Letters from the People“, (amazingly still in print), the MOMA book (just out in paperback, cheap), and “Nudes” (astonishing mostly because the bodies actually look real…)

Lee Friedlander, Lake Louise, 2000

Lee Friedlander, Lake Louise, 2000

Friedlander has taken on a wide variety of subjects, and he has taken on the western landscape–Jeffery Fraenkel called the results “Ansel Adams on crack”.  And he did visit Alaska, with two images in his “Portraits”  book.