Google the words "Lee Friedlander" and "genius," and one of the first things that pops up is a discussion — a yearlong one — debating the photographer's merits. Detractors accuse him of being overrated, overhyped, amateurish ("You've got to work hard if you wanna be as bad as Friedlander"), and boring ("Most of the stuff of his that I have seen has left me with, well, with nothing"). Fans, meanwhile, say he's on par with the greatest photographers who've ever lived, with one advocate saying Friedlander "has help[ed] change the way we see, and what we bother to take the time to see."
I tend to side with those who view Friedlander as a genius. But I understand where his critics are coming from. He can be tiresome — a self-parody who puts himself in his photos and tests the patience of even his diehard supporters. The proof is at Fraenkel Gallery, which is spotlighting his career arc, including shots of strangers, trees, nudes, and buildings. What unites his 50 years of work is his unique gift for capturing scenes that are infused with mystery, beauty, and odd juxtapositions.
Who else but Friedlander would — as he did in 1973 — go to Stamford, Conn., stand on a downtown corner, and snap a crowded panorama that includes a statue of a World War I soldier pointing a rifle at two women? The women (one of whom is pushing a baby carriage) are oblivious to each other and the monument to heroism that stands a few feet away. On one level, the photo is poignant — a testament to the "real world," where military history is ignored by those in a hurry with their everyday lives. On another level, it is dark and almost humorous — a doughboy on the lookout for danger and distraction in urban America, where street poles interrupt his view.
There's rarely anything simple with Friedlander's photos, which is a big part of their appeal. Each is like a puzzle waiting to be solved. Take his now-iconic 1966 photo of a blonde on a sunny New York City street. Friedlander imposes himself here in a way that violates most principles of traditional photography. She has her back to us, apparently walking away. Dark buildings on both sides of the street frame and accentuate her blondness — and right in the middle of her back, jarring everything, is the shadow of Friedlander's head. He's right behind her, invading her space, whether she likes it or not. The image has a vibe that presages the movies Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy.
By breaking the rules, Friedlander stood out from his peers and helped establish a new photographic language in the 1960s and 1970s. This is his legacy. The recipient of three Guggenheim grants is still creating images that are masterful and worth dissecting. He's also still putting himself in front of the lens, even though this man-in-the-middle approach has lost its appeal.
At Fraenkel, we see Friedlander in his late 50s, posing next to a cactus, then — in his early 70s — looking at himself in a bathroom mirror. The word that comes to mind: cliché. Also: spoof. He's referencing his older photos, and/or having fun, and/or upholding a poetic tradition of self-reflection. But the photos don't have the gravitas of his other output, especially his images of musicians, which are some of the finest work ever done in the genre of music photography. Unfortunately, his shots of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, and others are nowhere to be found at Fraenkel Gallery.
What's there, though, is enough to draw the conclusion that Friedlander was blessed with a vision from the start. The first image on display — a fashionable woman in a defensive posture, leaning against a column in New York in 1960 — is a study in dissonance. Why isn't she happy? She looks like a dark-blond version of Jackie Kennedy. She is wearing all the right clothing, and seems to have it all. Is her mood sour because she's being photographed by a strange man? It doesn't matter. In retrospect, it's classic Friedlander. He points his camera where others might pause or walk on by, and the moment becomes an eye-catching riddle.
Friedlander has more in common with classic photography than his harshest critics may realize. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose book he bought as a teenager, Friedlander traveled the world looking for his muse, and found it as much at home in New York as he did in strange locales. Cartier-Bresson, who is having a retrospective at SFMOMA, and Friedlander are both noted for black-and-white images that have a certain timelessness.
The yearlong online debate about Friedlander's genius featured comments that claimed he and Cartier-Bresson represented completely different sides of the photographic coin. It's not that simple. But in today's pop-culture world, fans latch on to their favorite artists (photographers, filmmakers, writers, etc.) and build walls that supposedly distinguish between genius and inferiority, when the two traits are often alive in the same person.