at Carol Ehlers, through November 14
at Bona Fide, through November 14
By Fred Camper
Lee Friedlander, one of my two or three favorite living photographers, has it all: formal beauty, social criticism, humor, dense compositions that reward multiple viewings, and self-referentiality. Representing a branch of modernism that’s sadly out of fashion, Friedlander’s photographs have an inner complexity that not only reflects on the nature of human identity but requires an active viewer. Many younger artists, including photographers, often use “conceptualism” to excuse the lack of form in their work, relying on imagery that requires only the dead gaze of the TV viewer.
Friedlander, who lives north of New York City, was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1934 and began making photographs in 1948. By the 60s he’d acquired a reputation for fragmented, multilayered street photographs; in the 70s he shot a number of nudes; and in the 90s he’s been photographing the desert. The 35 black-and-white prints at Carol Ehlers offer a fine survey of his career, establishing its common threads: a love of startling visual contradictions, conscious references to the process of picture making, an occasionally wry view of urban alienation, the willingness to tweak civic pomposity. These are photographs rooted in the physical world, seeking out the soil and rocks of the desert or the less fashionable parts of the city, but Friedlander also questions our place in the scheme of things–and it is this quest that makes his work so profound.
Friedlander’s shadow is what we first notice in Palisades Parkway (1966); indeed, the photographer’s self-portraits often show only his shadow. Pointing toward the parkway in the background, his shadow introduces a dual directionality common in self-portraits: it’s part of the photo’s composition but also “looks back” at us. Adding a third level, Friedlander positions himself so that his shadow partly covers a leafless bush, darkening and intensifying it. Usually a photographer’s shadow represents his alienation from the scene, but Friedlander’s here merges mysteriously with the terrain, as if he partook of the bush’s identity, as it does of his.
Palisades Parkway provides several other distinct, unconnected geographies or directions. The parkway seems to rise, giving the car climbing it an added dynamism. And the car’s directionality is at odds with the shadow’s “look” out at us. The driver is a dark form facing forward, but a child in the backseat peers out at us–and presumably at the photographer. Beyond the parkway is a cluttered-looking suburban development, and beyond that are distant hills. The fractured landscape perhaps suggests the reason the photographer fancies becoming a bush, but at the same time he’s clearly imprisoned by his camera lens and by the self-consciousness it represents, of necessity separated from everything he contemplates.
Friedlander’s self-portraits are posed as questions rather than answers, their shadows revealing the paradox of self-awareness–indeed, the photograph itself, a “copy” of reality, is also a metaphor for his self-consciousness. In a later self-portrait, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona (1983), we see the shadows of Friedlander and his camera bag spread over rocks, dry grasses, and sand. Because the area outside his shadow is especially bright, again once his shadow gives the land solidity: the objects it covers acquire a depth they wouldn’t otherwise have. The paradox is that, though the shadow is a transient presence, a nonphysical specter that leaves the land unchanged, it also makes that land solid and visible. The shadow itself is a framing device, a metaphor for the photographic process: a fragment of the world has become visible because it’s outlined by the photographer’s body. In the paradox of all photography, each print is both a solid object wrested from the world and a chimerical record of it.
In many street photos Friedlander juxtaposes diverse urban realms. New York City (1964), the show’s saddest image, shows a glass storefront blocked in its lower portion by a white board, but a rectangular hole in it perfectly frames an older businessman apparently asleep at his desk, his head in his arms, isolated from the city reflected in the glass above. Stony Point, NY (1966) shows a small-town parade observed by a mother and son from a bench. But a truck’s vertical side mirror filling the center of the frame reveals a very different scene behind us: a rural yard with a swing, a dog, and a doghouse. Its homeyness chides the parade’s faux grandeur.
Friedlander rarely talks about his work. He once opened a prestigious photography conference by showing hundreds of his slides, mostly saying only where each one was taken. But his art seems calculated, even intellectual: again and again his framing investigates or questions the individual’s relationship to the world. The store window in New Orleans, Louisiana (1968) reflects the photographer as well as the street behind him–but he’s also visible in a tiny rectangle, apparently a mirror in the rear of the store, superimposed on his chest. The photograph’s dual self-images, differently sized and lit, emphasize the arbitrariness of all photographic representations and set the photographer adrift in an urban sea, at once trapped and free.
Friedlander contorts his models in the five nudes here to create sculptural curves. In some the legs are crossed but not enough to hide a tuft of pubic hair; in others the legs are spread to reveal not only hair but vulva. The poses seem to be about concealing and revealing at once, about the male fantasy of peering up a woman’s dress, along her legs. Formally the pictures underline the visual contrast between the genital area and the rest of the woman. Dark hair against white skin, bushy against smooth, the pubic areas pierce the surface in a way not unlike the intruding photographer’s shadow or a small mirror bearing his reflection. Finally Friedlander’s work is based on the idea of difference, and the difficulty of reconciling contradictions.
The nudes also made me think there might be an erotic subtext to the careenings of Friedlander’s camera: into the picture, out again, scouring each of its parts thoroughly. And if there is a voyeuristic component to his work, perhaps his own shadows or views of his face are partly narcissistic. Any narcissism is exquisitely counterbalanced, however, by the insubstantiality of his shadows and by the way Friedlander’s reflection is trapped within the frame. Indeed, the internal complexity of these images seems the result of his attempt to model the complexity and contradictions of life itself.
The instability of identity is also a theme in ten works by Young Chung at Bona Fide. I Am Young Chung shows the artist’s sister waving and smiling confidently at the camera in a T-shirt that reads “I am Young Chung.” The artist himself is visible in Bona Fide, in which he wears a T-shirt bearing the gallery’s name. This is a bit unsettling: Who is Chung? And did this newly opened gallery take its name from this work? No, the artist half gratefully, half humorously had his T-shirt made for this exhibit. Douglas DC-3 also shows how willing Chung is to let his identity be defined for him: posing under this early passenger plane (at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington), he stands with arms spread wide, imitating its shape.
I liked the humor of Chung’s photos, especially when seen together: one senses the self as a fragile chimera, assuming whatever identity suits the moment, trying to find a place in the world. Contributing to the conceptual and performative aspects of the work is the fact that the photos are not especially “artful” in their composition and lighting–the figures are often posed against blank backdrops. I appreciated them more when I learned more about Chung, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1972 and emigrated to Los Angeles in 1982. Emphasizing that he’s not bitter, he did eventually acknowledge that going to a junior high school with few other Korean-Americans was difficult. “You know how kids tease each other,” he says of the racial epithets he endured, but “they assumed so much based on race, before knowing me.” In college he switched his major from philosophy to photography out of an “increased excitement” about art, hoping it could help him explore the questions he’d wanted to investigate in philosophy–deciphering “everything about the society, about me, the way I thought, the way I function.”
And these snapshotlike works do at once affirm and question who Chung is. Mother shows us a smiling flight attendant who’s not anyone’s mother–he’s a man–and who’s clearly not Chung’s close relative: the flight attendant is African-American. He’s defined as a caring nurturer according to what he does, not by his race or gender. The airplane context is Chung’s way of coming to terms with the process of emigration, he says–and this was also his first plane flight.
Obviously it would be unfair to compare the photographs of a 26-year-old who’s just received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute with the work of a veteran of 50 years. But my point is not that the younger photographer is less skilled–that he isn’t able to achieve Friedlander’s compositional complexity and so falls back on snapshotlike portraits. Rather, his work is typical of many younger artists today who aren’t even trying to communicate primarily through composition. Like them, Chung sees identity very much in the terms of junior high, not as a question of his inner life or of what he does but of his most superficial characteristics. His work is interesting because he plays with the question of identity, but he never gets beyond it. Rather than interrogating the world for meaning and rearranging its forms to create new meanings, as Friedlander does, Chung mostly observes. Expressing his fascination with flight and travel in the two-shot Orville & Wilbur, he frames his shots so that most of each monument is out of frame, as if his physical presence at the site were the most important thing.
Friedlander’s multifaceted compositions both record his responses to the world–to highways and suburban developments–and question our very presence in photographs and the world. Placing a fragment of himself in his shadow self-portraits, he defines his consciousness through complex, self-questioning compositions–perhaps part of the reason he doesn’t speak much about his work. But Chung and similar artists essentially redefine the self as lacking an internal life, never getting much beyond the stage of a child’s self-recognition. In a way each such artist is simply saying “Here I am.”
The logical end point of such an evolution, or devolution, is the Internet phenomenon of the home cam, in which a digital camera connected to the Internet provides a new still picture of the interior of the owner’s home every minute or so. While a few (mostly pay) sites include sexual activity, most don’t even show nudity. In fact the most common view is of an empty room; the next most common view, not surprisingly, is of the cam’s owner sitting at his computer. Running a close third are views of people watching television–and it’s impossible to imagine without actually experiencing it how mind numbing it is to watch someone else watch TV. If Friedlander’s photos encourage active, intelligent participation, the home-cam view fosters stupefaction.
“The TL-Cam” may not be the most interesting or unusual of these sites, but of the few dozen I looked at it was the most consistent: while many are off-line for days or weeks, this one seems to be on most evenings and weekends, and the owner, “Ryan,” usually leaves a note if it’s not. True to form, he’s often to be seen at his computer or watching TV. He also leaves the cam on while he’s asleep, and though a few others do this now and then, Ryan does it every night.
Ryan makes no pretense of being an artist, but he does attempt to keep his site interesting: he provides information about himself and seems to vary the camera position fairly often, using high angles, low angles, head-on shots, side views. It would take someone with the patience of, say, Andy Warhol to actually watch Ryan sleeping for any length of time, but I enjoyed looking in on him now and then. There’s something oddly comforting about seeing someone else, somewhere, happily asleep, especially when you can’t sleep yourself.
Still, the very act of sending out images of himself every minute does arguably have a meaning. If nothing else, it expresses the hope that someone will find this average-looking 22-year-old interesting. Indeed, Ryan admits in his bio to a more loaded motive: “I got this webcam cause I was serverely bored out of my mind and thought other severely bored chicks would dig me.” Like Chung, Ryan defines himself primarily through his body. But unlike Friedlander and even Chung, his body is never more than his body: the mindlessness of the cam images mean that his body will never stand for ours. And the text positioned alongside his picture suggests that even the viewer who isn’t interested is expected to keep watching: “If you don’t like what you see, then join with the others watching as they make fun of me picking my nose and scratching my ass :).”
Collapsing identity into the body, Ryan and others like him redefine the viewer’s role as simply looking at something rather than into or around it. Image making and viewing here are mindless, automatic processes in which appearance is meaning, creating an experience not unlike watching television. But I prefer the image maker who not only declares “Look at me” but gives me a reason to do so.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Canyon de Chelly, Arizona” by Lee Friedlander; “I Am Young Chung” by young Chung; From Ryan’s TL-Cam.