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Tag Archives: Edward Weston

The Western Landscape is a classic subject for American Photographers ever since the invention of photography—one might even argue that photography invented our vision of the American west, with views by O’Sullivan, Muybridge,  Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams (and many others).

Lee Friedlander has turned his delightful eye on this subject.  In the 2005 epic retrospective book, “Friedlander”, the last section (68 photographs) is devoted to “Landscapes”.  This work seemed to be something of a continuation of “The Desert Seen” (1996) in that iconic views are frequently relegated to the background of photos that seem to feature sharply focused rocks and trees in the foreground.

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

In 2008, Friedlander published “Recent Western Landscapes”—a book I pre-ordered on Amazon, but never received a copy of.  Apparently the book sold out before any copies were shipped to Amazon.  I’ve never managed to find a copy at a reasonable price, so have never held that book in my hands.

So when “Lee Friedlander:  Western Landscapes” was available for pre-order on Amazon in mid-summer, I ordered a copy, fingers firmly crossed.  It arrived a few weeks ago, but I gave it to my wife so she could wrap it as a Christmas gift.  Weighing in at 7 pounds, and 14 X 15 inches, with 189 full sized plates, each reproduced at 12×12 inches, the book feels epic in both scope and size.  The printing can be described only as perfect, in the sense that one cannot imagine that looking at an original silver print could offer more pleasure than the reproductions presented in the book.   (Given my modest means as a collector, purchasing an original Friedlander print is well beyond me, but purchasing a second copy of this book and desecrating the binding with a razor so I can frame and hang at least some of these images may be a temptation I can’t resist.)

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

The book begins with a series of images from Point Lobos—the neighborhood playground of Edward Weston.  There are many other easily recognized places—Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Zion National Park, Arches National Park—as well as numerous images of seemingly anonymous tangled trees.   There are a handful of images from the Canadian Rockies, and one from Mexico.

I must confess one disappointment with the book, albeit a personal one.  My first reading of the book was to look at the pictures, one by one, hoping to find some Alaskan Landscapes.  In “America by Car”, Friedlander included eight images from Alaska, all dated from 2007, so it seemed reasonable to hope that a few of Alaska’s majestic views caught his attention.  I did not see any recognizable views on my first reading, but examination of the captions at the back revealed one image was from Alaska—plate 145.

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

At first glance, this image is, in my humble opinion, one of the least interesting images in the whole book, a disappointment to someone who has spent a significant part of his life attempting to photograph the Alaskan Landscape.  The foreground appears to be a grassy bank—not typical of Alaska–it looks like a road cut—which occupies more than half the frame—and beyond that, some scruffy trees, and a sliver of a river in the distance.  Only after looking at the image for a few minutes did I recognize the view—one I’ve seen many times, though never photographed in the way Friedlander did—it is a view of the Susitna River from a tourist pull-out on the Parks Highway about 130 miles north of Anchorage.  The pull-out was built to provide a view of the south face of Denali, a splendid view when the weather is cooperative, with the braided channels of the Susitna River in the foreground and the mountain in the distance, a view that could be seen—in clear weather—by pivoting ninety degrees to the right from the Friedlander picture, and walking a few hundred feet to the tourist viewing area.

My question is, why did Friedlander include this picture, rather than one of the iconic mountain?  The simple answer, and probably the most likely, is that the mountain was hidden by clouds during the time Friedlander was there—a guess suggested by the clouds that appear in the upper right corner of the frame.  From the “America by Car” images, Friedlander includes two pictures of rain on the windshield of his car—weather typical of late summer.  While, on average, the “mountain is out” one day out of five, there are streaks of bad weather where the mountain might not be out for weeks at a time.

So why did Friedlander include this picture at all?  Is it intended as a snub at Alaska—a “this place is really overrated” statement?  Or is it an admission of defeat—between the weather and the almost exhausting array of possible subjects, he walks away without an iconic frame to include with the others?  Or is this picture an inside joke–a deliberate look away from the iconic view?   Of course, the picture is mute.

There have been multiple books on the American west that don’t include a single image of Alaska—so having one—even boring—picture included is perhaps a way of saying that Alaska is included in his view of the west.  There are at least two other states represented by a single image in this collection—Nevada and Idaho.   Maybe “the West” is too big for any single photographer, or single book.  But he includes two photographs from New York—hopefully at least west of his house.

When in China, the trip involved participating in “discussion” with Chinese photographers—although direct conversation was difficult because of the language barriers (even with a translator that spoke very good English, some concepts were difficult to convey).    There was an exhibit associated with the event, so the most effective conversation was visual—the western photographers got to look at Chinese photographers work, and they got to look at ours.   One of the most obvious differences between the work was that all of the Chinese photographers were working in color, while about half of the western photographers were working in black and white.   Even in color, the Chinese work was in sharply brighter colors—to my western eye, at least some of the pictures appeared to have the saturation knob turned a little higher than my comfort zone—

Discussion in Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

So the question was asked, why the difference?  And the answer, of course, is one of traditions—I and most of the other western photographers were working in the context of and in response to a landscape tradition defined by American photographers—my own list includes O’Sullivan, Watkins, Muybridge, Weston, Ansel Adams, and Robert Adams—with not a single color image in the bunch.  It seemed to me that the Chinese photographers were working in response to the tradition of Chinese landscape painting—and within the realities of the Chinese landscape—which includes a brash color pallet, which can be seen walking down almost any street in China.

Street Scene, near Zhungzhow, China, August 2011

Street Scene, near Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

On Labor Day Weekend, shortly after returning from China, my family and I took a trip out into the landscape.  I took along both my digital camera (right now a Canon G12) and my trusty 8×10, loaded with black and white film.

Liberty Falls, September 4, 2011

Part of the discussion in China had to do with color being closer to nature, and therefore a more accurate representation of the world, as if to say that black and white was useful only before the invention of color.  But a photograph is always something less than nature—a two dimensional representation of what was in front of the lens—and sometimes something more—usually a carefully selected moment in time, sometimes with exposure adjusted in the camera or in the presentation, sometimes parts of the image manipulated to emphasize parts of the image over others.

8-6038 Liberty Falls

So which is better?  Here, the digital color image feels real to life, the green trees and the hint of fall colors add an accent to the image.  In the black and white image, the water and it’s motion lend a sense of stillness to the scene.  The black and white picture appears older—more settled—mostly because of the tradition it refers to—even though the two images were made  a few minutes apart.  I like both images, but probably the black and white will become part of my finished work, while the digital image (and the fifteen other similar exposures I made there) will disappear on my hard drive…

In keeping up the spirit of the posts here, I usually try to find some reflection of the artist I admire in my own work.  Weston’s work is sculptural, his prints are full of volumes, shades rendered in order to create sensuous forms (though some have suggested that his peppers are sexier than his nudes…).   What I discover when I look at my own work is precisely the inverse problem–deliberately using a flat surface as a subject, to be rendered as a photographic print–with sometimes surprising results…

Bottle Pack, Tanana River, 1999

Bottle Pack, Tanana River, 1999

Tire, Tanana River, 2007

Tire, Tanana River, 2007

I can’t even say for sure why I think these pictures reference Weston, except I admire his acceptance of subjects and his commitment to finding form, which he described as the strongest way of seeing something…