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Monthly Archives: February 2012

The arrival of the “American Monuments” book, with photographs from the 60s and early 70s has me thinking about my memories from that period, my childhood.  I was born in 1957, my first memories are from the 1960s, and those memories are all in color, a little grainy and sharp and maybe faded, but always in color.  I remember seeing photographs from the 1930s, how old everything seemed—the cars, the clothes, the way people carried themselves, all in black and white.  It’s only been recently that I’ve realized that the distance between the 30s and the 60s is only thirty years—the distance between my father’s childhood and my own.

I’ve been photographing since 1977—thirty five years now—and recently began thinking about my own son, how things in my lifetime must seem so old to him—especially since I’ve mostly photographed in black and white.  Looking at the Friedlander monuments made me remember some photographs I made shortly after moving to Philadelphia, in the spring of 1981, after I bought my first medium format camera, a Bronica S2.  The camera was intended to look like a Hassablad, but the camera was heavy and had a huge mirror that slammed into the top of the camera with sufficient force to vibrate the camera, and the pressure wave would rotate the focus ring on the lens.  But at fast enough shutter speeds, the Nikon lens was sharp.  I was a graduate student, and so broke after buying the camera that I could afford a little film, but not paper, so I never even made contact prints of most of the pictures from the first couple months.  They’ve sat in a box for 31 years, untouched.

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Of course, these pictures are in response to Atget (too simple for Friedlander)—what strikes me is how  square and forward they still feel—I’m not sure I bring the same energy to the frame anymore—I’m not sure I could make these pictures now.

Later that spring, I saw the Robert Adams show “The New West” show at the Philadelphia Museum—an eye-opening experience for me—one that changed the way I saw the city that was my new home.

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The young begin by imitating, by borrowing, by stealing from those that came before—it’s the way one learns what is possible, what photography can do.  Now, looking back at these images—I know who I was trying to steal from—but these pictures are mine.  Philadelphia was not Paris or Denver–I am not Atget or Adams–but their visions, their pictures helped me find a few of my own, a way of making the strange city I found myself in something closer to home.

As a book photographic book collector with a finite budget, there are some books that I recognize that I will probably never own (and maybe never even touch):  for example, the first edition of Robert Frank’s Americans, or the first edition of Walker Evan’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men.   But who knows—I just managed to snag a copy of Lee Friedlander’s American Monuments—a book that has long been on my list of the untouchables.  (Ebay is a wonderful place—some things that seem unobtainable sometimes pop up at prices that deserve at least a lowball bid—and occasionally I win items at prices that I manage to convince myself are bargains.)

Lee Friedlander, The American Monument

The American Monument was published in 1976, shortly before I began photographing, and I once held a copy of the book in my hands, though I can’t remember when or where.  As a photographic book, it has several features that make it somewhat unique—including a screw in post binding (like an expandable scrapbook) that allows the book to be taken apart (so the prints can be exhibited).  The pages are also printed only on a single side of the paper, which allows significant control over the printing process—in most books, multiple images are printed in signatures, making it difficult to tweak the printing process to maximize the quality of any single image—so some images are almost always compromised.  The halftone negatives were done by Richard Benson, the printing done at Meridian Gravure, and the essay was written by Leslie George Katz.  The results are stunning–and not likely to be repeated.

As I remember 1976, the country was a mess—Richard Nixon had been hounded from office, Saigon fell confirming the fact that we had lost a pointless war, inflation was running away, crime was up, rock had been replaced by disco, and nobody believed the government.  Looking at Lee Friedlander’s photographs of monuments brings some of the tension of that time—while the monuments are stone and bronze, meant to last for centuries, intended to carry meaning forward for generations, the landscapes surrounding the often monuments reflect the chaos of commerce and the relentless march of time, eroding the intended meaning.  There are pictures of the Marlboro man facing off against a stone bust of Giuseppe Verdi (plate 123), a beer store behind a monument to the first Mormon Sunday School (plate 124),  and a group of shoppers with their backs to a bust of John Kennedy (Plate 131).  The most reassuring pictures are from Civil War battlefield monuments—though these pictures are tensioned by the knowledge that these sites mark the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

While there has been recent interest in republishing many classic photographic books, I suspect that “American Monuments” will not be reprinted—at least in part because the book was so much a product of its time.