Nothing, it seems, escapes the lens of Lee Friedlander, who at 73 is one of the country's most prolific and expansive photographers. A genial bear of a man now living in upstate New York, he is as influential in his way as the more popularly known landscape genius Ansel Adams, portraitist Diane Arbus and fashion maven Richard Avedon. Friedlander's work is far more idiosyncratic than theirs, but he is so productive and persuasive that he has left his indelible stamp even on their signature subjects.
In preparation for "Friedlander: Photography," opening Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, dozens of cases last week disgorged nearly 500 of his black-and-white images of America in all its chaotic amplitude: storefronts, jazz musicians, cars, TV sets, weird lamps, street signs, patriotic monuments, families and friends, fashion models and worker bees, nudes, flower stems, tomb sculpture, shadows, trees and tangles, vernacular architecture, reflections in mirrors and windows.
"Encourage people not to be afraid, not to let the numbers discourage them, because this is a project you can take in varying depths," said guest curator George Slade. He is overseeing the Minneapolis presentation of the show, which is on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
"If you've been working for 50 years as Friedlander has, you've produced a lot of work," Slade added. "It's a challenge to take in every picture individually, but the point is to get a broad sweep of what a long and productive career looks like."
Designer Roxy Ballard, taking a cue from MoMA's installation, has arranged the photos in loosely chronological groups of up to nine or more images. Most are 8-by-10s or even smaller, and can be taken in at a glance until something especially arresting snares your attention.
You find yourself puzzling over whatever prompted anyone to take a photo of such a mundane thing -- a phone book reflected in a window, a sun-bleached intersection, a cacophonous New York corner, a dry bush in Death Valley. Then, within a nanosecond you're mesmerized by shimmering light, or an astonishing interplay of lines and shadows, or a film noir drama unfolding on the street.
"There is always some little visual fillip that hypercharges his pictures for me," said Slade. Citing a Friedlander landscape of Canada's Lake Louise with craggy boulders in the foreground and a water-mirrored mountain in the distance, he said, "That picture is cut from very familiar cloth, but has a tension that gives it new life. He's saying, 'You may think that all photos of mirrored lakes have been made and no one needs another one, but here's something new. What do you think?'"
Keen eye for the vernacular
Born and raised in Aberdeen, Wash., a seaport town southwest of Seattle, Friedlander fell in love with photography at age 5 after seeing an image materialize in a darkroom tray. By his teens, he was freelancing and deep into jazz and R&B music, hanging out at roadhouses where T-Bone Walker, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and others played. After studying photography in Los Angeles, he migrated to New York in 1955 and was soon shooting for the popular magazines of the day, everything from Seventeen to Sports Illustrated, and doing album covers for Atlantic Records and other labels.
Meanwhile, he got to know the work of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Eugène Atget, who celebrated the vernacular world that Friedlander soon embraced. As MoMA curator Peter Galassi observes in his engaging essay in the exhibition catalog (MoMA, $55), it's a world full of "everything that isn't fancy ... the indigenous and common rather than the exotic and sophisticated."
From about 1970 on, Friedlander gave up magazine work to pursue his own vision, teaching gigs, exhibitions and books.
His curiosity and enthusiasm took him everywhere. As Galassi notes, the keen eye and deadpan wit of his 1960s photos meshed perfectly with the Pop era's cool detachment. He noticed funny things -- portraits of President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey in a storefront grid of strippers -- and saw things funny -- the way the tangled hair of twins mirrored the spaghetti mess of wires in a Cray computer they were assembling in Chippewa Falls, Wis.
"There's a sense of play in his work and a tweaking of the viewer, asking 'Are you in on the game with me?'" said Slade. "Some of it is just play and some of it is serious play that requires some attention."
In the past decade especially, Friedlander has often trained his lenses on landscapes, even tromping through Adams' beloved Yosemite and the California deserts famously claimed by Edward Weston. Where their visions tended toward clarity and simplified form, Friedlander prefers nature's rambunctious abundance. In the manner of the earlier masters, he renders every detail crystalline, but unlike their spare elegance, he crams a platonic chaos of detail into every frame. No leaf or branch, wildflower or dusty rock goes unrecorded. If the tree trunks are in-your-face and the middle of the picture, or the branches screen the mountaintops, so much the better.
This is Friedlander's world, full of stuff and overflowing with particulars. He loves every jot and tittle of everything and happily welcomes it all into his pictures. And somehow, in defiance of the rules of composition, restraint and good taste, he makes it all work.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431