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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Saigon fell confirming the fact that we had lost a pointless war, inflation was running away, crime was up, rock had been replaced by disco, and nobody believed the government.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.

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