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Tag Archives: Lee Friedlander

As a photographer for nearly 40 years, now approaching 60, I began making photographs in the “dark ages” of photography—when the act of making a photograph required a darkroom.  A photograph was made on film, exposing a negative, which was a physical object, used to make a print, also a physical object.  The creation of a print required time and materials.  The making of a good print also required experience and skill.  Once a photograph was created, it persisted for a long time—I have, hanging in my home, at least a dozen photographs that are close to or more than 100 years old.

Objects 1

Atget, Friedlander (press photo), and the ass

There were some major disadvantages to the making of photographs the old way.  The process was time consuming, the materials were relatively expensive, and most photographic prints tended to be small.   My recollection is that a roll of black and white film in the early 1980s cost about $1, (about 3 cents per 35 mm negative) a package of 25 sheets of paper cost about $12—this is after the Hunt Brothers attempt to corner the market on silver—so not terribly expensive by my standards today, but sufficiently expensive to limit my ability to make lots of pictures, especially when I was young and poor.

Objects 2

Double Evans (LOC), loon, and pine cone

Even more limiting was the way the photographs looked—a black and white silver print looked a certain way, and it was relatively difficult to change the appearance of the photograph in any significant way.  Most photographers embraced the idea of a “straight print”, meaning that an image would be created by the optics of a lens, recorded on film, and converted to a print though a second lens, but with no attempt to change the content or the look of the image.  A “good photographer” was one who understood the materials he was working with, and managed to create beautiful objects.

Objects 3

Clockwise from top, Friedlander (press photo), Loman Brothers, anonymous, and Evans (LOC)

Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I witnessed the beginning of digital photography, during the space program in the 1960s.  TV had been around for a few decades before I was born (it was invent in 1929), but the resolution was pretty bad.  Only during the space program did NASA begin to create higher resolution sensors in order to create still images that could be sent in a digital stream back to earth.

Now, almost all photographs are digital.  There is no film, no negative.  Memory chips have become incredibly cheap.  When I first began making digital photographs in 2001, memory chips cost about $1 per megabyte, so a 3 megabyte picture created by my first digital camera cost $3 of storage to hold it, roughly 100x more expensive than a film negative in the 1980s.  But the chips could be downloaded and cleared, so used over and over again, and storing images as Jpegs allowed more images to be stored on a chip.  During my first few years of working with a digital camera, my shooting was limited by both the small size of the chips and the high cost of the rechargeable batteries—at first I could shoot maybe 50 pictures a day.  I eventually discovered that I could buy disposable batteries for about $10, and chips started getting cheaper, so I soon found I could shoot more pictures—I remember going to the Grand Canyon for the first time in May 2002, and shooting a few hundred pictures in one day (just checked my Lightroom database—I could do about 300 pictures per day then).  Now I buy 16 GB chips for $6 each, each one holds about 2000 Jpeg images   When I went to China in 2011, I shot about 6,000 pictures on a seven day trip.  I don’t even clear the chips anymore.  Chips are cheaper, per image, than negative sleeves.  And, yes, that was a test of your age—at one time negatives were stored in plastic or glassine sleeves, which you hand wrote the “metadata” on—the date and place the pictures were made.  They cost about a penny per negative.  At current chip prices, an image costs about three tenths of a cent to store on a memory chip.  300 for a buck.  Not bad.

Back in the dark ages, all photographs were made with cameras.  Now, the majority of digital images are made with cell phones.  People used to pull out their wallets to show pictures of their kids.  Now they pull out their cell phones and show pictures of their cats.  It used to take days or weeks to get film back from the drugstore—now people text or tweet an image to the world in seconds.

Object 5

Neil and Buzz, a week before the moon, July 1969

I remember watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon in 1969 on a black and white television at a neighbor’s house—an event that had been anticipated for a decade—probably the most expensive piece of television broadcasting ever made.  It was news, but only because somebody finally did something that required heroic amounts of money, brains, and luck, something we weren’t sure that humanity was capable of.  I remember the first news event I learned from the internet—the death of Princess Di—my wife was puttering on the net and saw the news come up only minutes after the event.  And then there was the live video feed from the wing of Sully’s plane in the Hudson…  Some untrained non-journalist with a $100 cell phone broadcasting news to the world.

My 20 year old son has convinced me to make an Instagram account.  I don’t really know what to do with it.  My one instinct is to use it to post pictures instantly—to see something, to make a picture, and to post it within seconds—isn’t that what the instant thing means?  I’ve done that a couple times, but somehow it seems a bit unsettling—to commit an image that quickly to the world. Maybe I could have done better.  Maybe I look like a fool.

On the other hand, in following several younger photographers, it is apparent that many people, or at least some of the ones I follow, don’t do posts that way—they shoot images with a “real camera” (a digital camera, not a cell phone), then load them to their Instagram account days or weeks or months later.  A lot of the photographs are manipulated in some way—one photographer always reduces the color saturation, another does major shifts to the hue of the color, and makes composite images.  A lot of the photos look like model shoots.  My son goes out and poses for pictures that appear on Instagram.  I only follow a handful of people, about the same number follow me.  I don’t “like” that many pictures, and my audience apparently doesn’t “like” my pictures that much either.

Object 4

Anonymous Itinerant Photographer

OK, so maybe it’s time to discuss my Luddite tendencies.  Over the past year or so, I tried hitting the “send to iPhone” button on my Sony Camera, but even though my Bluetooth connection was established between the two devices, the camera just got stuck, the picture never got transferred.  After several attempts over several months, I eventually discovered that I needed to download “the app” from Sony onto my phone.  To download “the app”, I had to use the iPhone App store.  My “Apple ID” didn’t work.  I reset my password, tried to download the app.  My phone went into the Apple version of the Windows “blue screen of death” mode.  I had to go to my computer, google the magic reset combo for the phone (I kept trying to do a reset with a paperclip—discovered the absence of a reset hole).  I just tried it again—after a 30 minute struggle, I managed to get my phone to talk to my camera—and transferred one picture.  Not sure I could do it again.  Not sure I want to do it again.

What I have been doing with my Instagram account is occasionally making an IPhone picture of a print I’ve made—kind of like the long way around to get to an instant digital picture that will immediately vanish into the infinity of all the other digital images out there on the internet—but somehow it helps me knowing that somewhere in the process, the image exists on paper.  It is, or at least it was, a real photograph.  It is an object. Like the photos on my wall.  Maybe that image will still exist in a hundred years.  Or maybe not.

OK, to join the endless self-promotion—which my son tells me is the point of all this–I Instagram at dennis_witmer_photo

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 I went to China, now just over two years ago, one of the things I experienced for the first time was the Chinese political speech.  These speeches were shouted from written scripts, one word at a time, as loudly as possible.  During the conference (which I and nine other American photographers participated in), many of the speeches were simultaneously translated into English for us foreigners.   I don’t remember much of what was said—I’m not sure if this is because the speeches seemed so trite when translated into English, or if the translation into English stripped all speech of subtlety, but either way, sitting through the speeches was moderately annoying, though the tea they served was very good, and the speeches ended soon enough.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I think all of the English speakers were somewhat concerned about how what we had to say might be translated into Chinese—one of my first moments after meeting my host at the airport was being asked if I would like any snakes—I politely refused—I’m not especially fond of snakes, and being offered them in plural form after 30 hours in airplanes and airports is not what I expected–but the offer was repeated until finally I understood that what was being offered was, in fact, snacks…

And one of my favorite moments in the conference was when one of my fellow conference attendees made a comment in his talk in which he stated that “the landscape is my mistress”, which another, more experienced international traveler, noted was probably translated as “I fuck the earth”.

Whatever.   I’ve had enough conversations with Chinese friends to appreciate the difficulties in translation.  What we say and think in English may or may not translate into Chinese or the Chinese mind…

But one thing I do remember from the speeches—the Chinese repeatedly referred to “great Chinese photographic theoreticians”.   In America, I’ve never heard of any photographic theoreticians, let alone a great one. We have ph0tographers, we have curators, we have gallery directors, we have photo editors, we have photographic critics–but none of these positions correspond with “photographic theoretician”.   It apparently is a title that offers neither salary nor tenure, at least outside of China.  I always assumed that photography was an empirical enterprise, defined by observation rather than by theory.

But, of course, just because there is no official title does not mean that we are lacking in photographic theoreticians.  In the short lecture I was expected to give, I referred to Robert Adams as a “great American photographic theoretician”, a title that I’m sure he would object to with vigor, but one I hoped would translate into whatever status was given to the Chinese photographic authorities.    I can think of no better discussion about the meaning of photographs and their importance to our lives than his wonderful essays.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I once studied Physics (let me be clear—I am not a Physicist—I once referred to myself and several other students as “Physicists” in front of one of my professors—he corrected me to point out that we were, in fact, not Physicists—I asked him what made someone “a Physicist”—he stated that it was when one had actually “done some Physics”—I asked him how one knew that they had “done some Physics”—he told me that someone would tell me when I had “done some Physics”—something that I can state with certainty has never happened—so I am not “a Physicist”—but I once was student of the discipline)—where theoreticians were many and experimentalists were few (due at least in part to the huge cost of experiments in high energy particle physics)…

But I know there are photographers that are working with photographic theories that I don’t understand.  Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Timothy O’Sullivan, and, of course, Eugene Atget have all made photographs using formulas beyond my comprehension.  But I do sometimes try to replicate their results…

Nearly 30 years after his death, Garry Winogrand is still generating controversy—this time because he had the poor taste to die with his work incomplete—with 6500 rolls of film either undeveloped or completely un-edited.  The question seems to be, if Winogrand snapped the shutter, but never saw the image as a photograph, is it a “real” Winogrand?

This seems like a strange question, really—and gets to the heart of what a photograph is—and what it means to create a work of art—both questions becoming more interesting as our viewing habits pass from paper to pixels.   Some photographers work like some painters—taking control of the entire process from selecting the camera and film and paper, producing finished prints, and editing that work into finished book projects—Robert Adams and Lee Friedlander both work this way.  But lots of artists work with others—in teams—Ansel Adams used assistants for most of his working life—as did Andy Warhol and nearly every painter since then.

Winogrand began by doing his own printing, but really never had the patience for it—there are stories of people coming to visit his apartment to be confronted with endless stacks of unspotted prints—most of which seem to have ended up in the Winogrand archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon—and eventually ended up using the services of a very good printer who created many of the “finished” (signed by Gary Winogrand) images in circulation.   I once read that Garry Wionogrand always developed his own film—I went to my book collection and found the reference—a 1981 interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein—now available on YouTube.

Winogrand was living and working in LA in 1981 when the interview was done—one thing he mentions is that he’s working on photographing ‘the entertainment business’.     Which is a useful piece of information—I purchased one Winogrand image about 5 or 6 years ago—bought it off of E-bay, where it was identified as being from his “Mothers and Daughters” series.   The image is signed on the back by Garry Winogrand, but the signature is small and very careful—perhaps this was one of the many prints he signed en-mass shortly before he died.   It does not look like the signature of a large living photographic lion.

Garry Winogrand, "Mothers and Daughters', 1982

Garry Winogrand, “Mothers and Daughters’, 1982

I have never heard of Winogrand’s “Mothers and Daughters” series other than the E-bay description for this item.  The image may be from 1982—there is a designation “1982-157A” written in pencil on the back of the print—a date consistent with both the bottle of Perrier on the table, and the look and feel of the image.   The sun is shining bright—almost straight down—looks like lunch time.  There are three pairs of mothers and daughters in the picture, as well as a Ringo Starr look-alike, and Snoopy, dressed in tails at the nearest table (I bought this print because my son is fond of Snoopy).   There seems to be a look being exchanged between two of the daughters—the central figure—a black girl of about 10—and a girl with luxurious curls in the foreground.  While the central figure seems somewhat apprehensive, she is being guided by her mother, who is smiling and walking confidently towards the camera.  I’ve never seen this photograph published anywhere—but it is definitely a Winogrand—and shows that, at least on some occasions, he could still find subjects worth photographing, and catch the picture at the perfect instant.

The fact that Winogrand died so soon and left so much work un-edited meant, of course, that others would inevitably sift through it.  John Szarkowski was the first to try, but found that he lacked the time, energy, and eventually the patience for a definitive edit of Winogrand’s late work.  (He did predict the new look at Winogrand’s work—“…that a squad or platoon of scholars will eventually sort it out by motif and date, and construct piece-by-piece a model of what this remarkable artist tried to do, and what he achieved, in the last years of his life.”)

The new Garry Winogrand exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the accompanying hefty catalogue, is the next attempt to complete the task that Szarkowski described.   What is surprising in the new volume is not only the attention paid to Winogrand’s late work, but the number of new images found from Winogrand’s early work, in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Many of these images were marked on Winogrand’s contact sheets, but were presumably never printed (or acceptably printed) by him.

There have been several strongly written complaints about the book design of the catalogue—especially about the layout of the images—but worth noting is that the book was designed by a committee of three—and the spreads contain two, three, or four images—including some verticals—so the book design had to accommodate a variety of layouts—not an easy problem to deal with—and not every spread looks perfect—but the book definitely captures the energy of Winogrand’s photographs.  This is accentuated by placing the images as close together as possible—leading to a legitimate complaint that the book doesn’t lie flat (it does just fine if you are willing to break the binding) and some of the images suffer—but the images definitely converse with each other across the spread.  And, as a whole, the pairing and sequencing of the images is a major part of the fun of the book.

Winogrand (1 of 1)-2

To die early and leave the editing to others is not without its risks, however.  I once heard a group of photographers discussing Winogrand—“He’d run over his grandmother to get a picture” one of them said—and it wasn’t intended as a compliment.  And the new volume contains a picture of somebody’s grandmother who apparently got run over—and the editors of this book have placed next to an image a group of well dressed men, some with faintly bemused smiles, but one laughing joyously, looking across the gutter at the poor woman.  I can’t decide if this sequencing is a mistake, a very funny joke, or if some photographic scholar is going to rot in hell (filled with nothing but endless prints of “Moonrise over Hernadez, New Mexico for all eternity) for this pairing—but it certainly shows the power left to the editor if the artist dies and leaves someone else in charge.

I watched  the Garry Winogrand interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein earlier today—sat through to the bitter end, when it seemed the interviewer wanted Winogrand to make some profound pronouncement about his photographs and their meaning.  Winogrand fails completely to do so—he looks away from the camera, distracted, and then mutters, “it’s about living life, that’s all”.  Which, perhaps, bookends his 1964 Guggenheim application “we have not loved life” quote.

One can accuse Winogrand of running over his grandmother to get a picture, or of not getting his work done—but one cannot accuse Winogrand of not loving life.  His photographs remain powerful because he, with his camera, collected slices of life.  Who can blame him for being like a butterfly collector who would rather chase live butterflies in the field than endlessly rearrange those already on pins in the case?    In the end, he left us more than he knew—pictures he himself never had the time or inclination to finish.  But he did his work—he had his camera, he got the shot, he took the film home, and kept in a safe place.

But back to the question posed at the beginning of this post—When is a photograph finished?  The best answer I know is one given by John Gossage in the introduction to “Snake Eyes”—“The viewer completes the work of art”.  Which I think is to say, Winogrand left us with many photographs, only some of which saw completion in his lifetime.  The fact that he did not have the time or energy or inclination to develop his film or edit his contact sheets does not matter—he saw faster and better than anyone else, and got what he saw on film—the rest can be done by others.  A photograph is finished only when people stop looking at it.  Until then, it still has life.  And Winogrand’s photographs, individually and collectively, are full of life.

Lee Friedlander’s new book “Mannequin” arrived this week—a book precisely described by the title—103 photographs of Mannequins, all of them from store windows, and nearly all of them female.  The one surprise in the book is the fact that only one image in the entire book was made before 2009—Friedlander’s use of the reflections from windows to create layered pictures has been one of his standard motifs over his entire career—but when I went looking in his previous books, I could find almost no mannequins—lots of glass with human figures behind, lots of posters and photographs of people behind the glass—but only a handful of images that could be considered mannequins.  Perhaps the reason is that Friedlander has, until now, been largely focused on unintended juxtapositions—but the only place mannequins are used are in carefully arranged displays in mostly upscale shopping districts—a landscape that Friedlander has not shown much interest in up to this point.

Lee Friedlander, Mannequin, New York 2009

The only male mannequin appears as fey and frail, with a fluffy bunny on his t-shirt, timidly touching the hip of the female form in front of him—a bold, dashing figure with a huge gun coming out of her camouflage skirt—a woman off to conquer the world, completely uninterested in the man she is obviously leaving behind.

Lee Friedlander, Mannequin, New York 2008

Friedlander has always been a contrarian, always showing us things that we mostly pass without seeing.  The years since 2009 have not been kind to many, as the bank crisis, the housing market collapse, and the loss of jobs have affected many.  The mannequins, though, are still on the job, trying to sell whatever is placed on them, looking outward with indifference that seems often to border on scorn.   The mannequins always seem to be living the life of the young, beautiful and rich.  Our lives are on the other side of the glass—we can’t touch what they have—we are not so protected.

I became aware of the work of Eugene Atget when I was about 20—his work was accessible and promoted in the US, especially by the Museum of Modern Art under John Szarkowski—and I was aware of the flow of his influence—to Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander and Robert Adams, and to my own work.

Josef Sudek is a European photographer of about the same era as Walker Evans (about a decade older),  a photographer I knew by name and a few images—but he was not an artist I paid much attention to, until the past few months, when his work was brought to my attention by Bruce Haley.  His work has not been published much in the US—there is a book by Aperture—“Josef Sudek, The  Poet of Prague” that  was published, so he has not been completely ignored—but not until I purchased several of his books published in Europe—“Sad Landscapes” and “Prague Panoramic” did his work come alive for me.

Part of the charm of Sudek is the economy of his methods—he limited his finished work to contact prints (like Edward Weston), and he worked exclusively in Prague and the nearby regions (like Atget with Paris).    But the beauty of his work comes from something far deeper than his choices of photographic methods or from working in a limited geographical area—it seems to come from a deep sense of love for his home.   Some of his pictures come from views from his window—of a lovely misshapen tree in his yard, viewed through the condensation on his window in winter.

Josef Sudek, "Window of my Studio", 1951 from "Pigment Prints"

Josef Sudek, "Window of my Studio", 1950 from "Pigment Prints"

But Sudek’s grandest work is his panoramic views of Prague—pictures made over many decades that describe the city in all kinds of light and weather.  Sudek brings a coherence to the work by the use of landmarks on the horizon—churches, smokestacks,  the shapes of hills—to provide the viewer with a sense of continuity between pictures, a way of reassuring the viewer that he has not traveled far between pictures.  In book format, this creates a sense of coherence to the entire collection—like listening to a grand symphony, where all the parts are connected, all working towards a grand finale.

The fact that Sudek lost an arm during World War I, lived through the Soviet occupation after WWII, and witnessed the failure of the Prague spring of 1968 before his death in 1976 makes Sudek’s work all the more poignant.  His work in “Sad Landscapes”  (published only after the fall of the Soviet empire) is of panoramic pictures taken in a mining region north of Prague, and shows a landscape abused and damaged by mining.  It now reads as a metaphor of the oppression of the occupation—but he includes, even in the middle of this injustice, glimpses of beauty, of humor, of hope.    And, always, beauty.

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.

Image

Image

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.

Image

Image

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.

When I began making photographs in 1977 in an art photography class at the small college I was attending, the art majors all talked about the importance of defining a “style”, a unique look to their pictures.  As an alien in this world (I was a physics major), it made little sense to me why one should go about defining a style (physic majors didn’t really bother about such things—just keeping up with the work load and not flunking out was hard enough) let alone how.   Besides, most of my effort was spent learning the rudiments of the craft, at the start how to avoid the worst mistakes, then later how to control the process, and trying to imitate photographs in magazines.    I must admit that I did not know why some photographs published in books were thought to be better than mine—I was especially appalled at the scratches and cracked emulsions of Atget—hell, I could do better than that.  Of course, most of my photographs from that period have, over the years, found their proper place in the world, in the trash can.

8-5732 Canwell Glacial River, August 2010

I’m not sure when I first became aware of how powerful the viewpoint of a single photographer could be—maybe it was first from books,  Robert Frank’s Americans, or Walker Evans Message from the Interior.  I do know that seeing the Robert Adams “New West” show at the Philadelphia Museum in 1982 was transformative.  Those pictures were so simple, so obvious, so clean—a style so transparent it seems not to be a style at all (I think that was how Szarkowski described Walker Evans, but it seems even more true of Robert Adams).    So I began imitating Adams, photographing the landscape as I thought he would have, had he lived in Pennsylvania rather than in Colorado.    But I soon discovered that imitation is not as easy as it looks—pictures fail in many ways—but sometimes the failures are instructive.   East coast light is different than Colorado light—I think that was when I started paying attention to Atget’s use of morning light—and trying to use it, pointing my lens into the sun, using the glow.  But mostly I just kept making photographs.

Now I’ve been making photographs for 33 years, and I haven’t thought about developing a style for a long time.  But a few weeks ago I had a discussion with another photographer about how Lee Friedlander’s work is so distinctive—you can pick out one of his pictures out of a book—you just know it’s a Friedlander.  Then we pulled a box of my photographs off the shelf, and started looking through them, pictures from this summer, Alaskan Landscapes.   And halfway through the box, like some kind of epiphany, hey, these are my pictures.  These are pictures I made, and in making them, I made many decisions—what camera to use, where to go to look for photographs, where to stop the car, where to set up the tripod, how to frame the picture, when to trip the shutter—and in printing, how big to make the print, what settings to use on the printer, what paper.  And in looking at them I suddenly realized that I make different decisions than any other photographer I know—in subject, in framing, in presentation…

8-5740 Tundra, Petersville Road, September 2010

I own these pictures. So is this my “style”?  Damned if I know.  I’m still just trying to do my work…

OK, so Friedlander didn’t show up in person, but he sure was here in book form–

Friedlander Night in Fairbanks, September 6, 2010

I pulled my Friedlander books  off the shelf (35 of them, if my records are correct), invited some friends over, bought a jug of wine and three pounds of burger, and all of us were amazed (and intimidated) by the volumes of work…  Fortunately, no wine was spilled, and the conversation was wonderful.  Maybe we’ll do it again, after his next 35 books…