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Lee Friedlander: Desert Places

at the Art Institute, through March 16

Midwest Landscapes

at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, through March 8

By Fred Camper

The light of the Sonora desert, subject of 14 of the 15 exquisitely detailed Lee Friedlander photographs at the Art Institute, is “bright, often to pain,” he remarks; one of the first things one notices is how the silvery intensity of the prints’ lightest areas seems one of a thousand different tones, a range achieved, Friedlander says, by printing “brightly” while trying to “soften” the prints by dodging and burning, darkroom techniques for brightening or darkening specific areas. “The desert from a distance,” Friedlander writes in a new book that reproduces these and other photos, “is as tranquil as any other landscape, except for the light. As I get close, the place becomes wild. Everything in sight is up-tempo and jumping with a thousand branches, a million thorns…becoming a maze of order new and crazier in every turn.” Somehow he manages to capture this energy: rather than blend into a harmonious whole, thorns, grasses, cacti, and branches sing with a hundred different rhythms, recalling the music–jazz–Friedlander cites as one of his earliest influences.

In Friedlander’s desert different worlds collide. One of several photos titled Sonora, 1994 contrasts irregular, gnarled tree branches in the midforeground with a tall cactus just behind, its bulbous, phallic shape almost clownish. In a bit of gentle humor, the trees’ branches and trunks make a sort of proscenium for the cactus. The foreground is alive with tiny plants, while the midbackground is almost white. The shadow of an overhead branch appears broken as it crosses the cactus and another branch, causing a momentary confusion, then reminding us of the picture’s complex spatial depth.

Another shadow in this picture, however, suggests a contradiction that’s less easily resolved. A large rectangular shadow filling most of the left side of the midbackground could only have been created by a human edifice, yet none is in sight. Friedlander’s compositions typically contain such ruptures, which cannot be resolved through perception alone but take us into the world of ideas. Not only does one realize that all the shadows are in part a result of the photographer’s perspective, one sees that the photograph is itself an artificial imposition on a natural landscape; the building’s shadow echoes the photo’s rectilinear frame, both being impositions on organic order.

Even Friedlander’s “pure” images of nature contain such contradictions. In Sonora, 1992 a plant in the foreground splays its thorned arms in all directions. Through the branches we see a ridge covered with distant cacti. At first their tiny forms seem to echo the nearly vertical foreground branches, but we quickly see that the cacti are very different plants: more resolutely vertical and in actuality much taller. Spread over the ridge, they seem as integral to its surface as the soil. The foreground tree and distant cacti almost seem to represent two separate worlds, their difference concrete enough to seem vital but abstract enough for each viewer to interpret it differently. I thought about different modes of perception, about seeing objects as separate entities–the way we perceive the almost proud foreground plant–versus seeing them as part of a larger context, like the cacti on the ridge.

Friedlander describes his foregrounds as “often an equal partner to what might be called the subject of the photograph.” In fact, what’s powerful about these photos is that no part of them is passive: the subject is everywhere. In Sonora, 1991 several prominent branches descending from overhead seem to point toward the same spot in the background, leading the eye toward an imagined vanishing point. But such effects are customarily created by lines in the bottom half of a picture, by tiled floors or railroad tracks, and here the bottom contains shadows of branches curving to the left, leading the eye in a different direction. Yet the area of maximum intensity is neither top nor bottom foreground but a background field so bright the cacti are burned almost white. The photographer’s shadow in an adjacent picture reminds us that the photos’ compositions are always invented, particular human views of nature impossible to separate from the diversities of nature itself.

Compared with the blazing intensity of Friedlander’s images, the pictures by eight photographers in Ehlers Caudill’s 39-print “Midwest Landscapes” show may seem flat. The midwest lacks the drama of the west’s deserts and mountains and the east’s hills and coastline; I’ve heard New Yorkers speak of Nebraska as a place that cannot be driven through quickly enough on the way to California. Appreciating the midwestern landscape takes time. One must learn to love sameness, to love tiny variations as much as dramatic contrasts, as many of the photographers in “Midwest Landscapes” obviously do.

Yet few of these images are utterly homogeneous. Harry Callahan in Eleanor, Chicago (1950) places the figure of his wife at the center, between two trees in a line of four; the lake lies behind. Colin Westerbeck, curator of the Friedlander show, writes of a certain deadpan humor in his images, but Friedlander could learn a thing or two about deadpan from Callahan: there’s humor in the disparity of size and shape between Eleanor and the towering trees. Modest but elegant, Callahan’s empty flat spaces–the lake and the land between the trees–make this scene the opposite of Friedlander’s cluttered desert, and Callahan’s mild contrasts have none of the perceptual contradictions that animate Friedlander’s work.

Similarly, Bob Thall’s Elk Grove Village, IL (1995) contrasts very subtly the interior of a bedroom with the view through a window of a chaotic suburban landscape of roads, buildings, and empty fields. The difference between the “elegantly” decorated bedroom and the chaotic results of free-market land use is evidently the crux of the photo, but because the intensity of the light in the window is similar to that in the interior, the two worlds at first seem perfectly integrated. Only when the viewer looks closely is the difference between interior order and exterior mess apparent. Thall gently notices those opposites without emphasizing or judging them.

One can say the same of four aerial photos by Terry Evans. Now a Chicagoan, she was associated for years with Wes Jackson’s Land Institute in Kansas and has strong ecological interests. These photos–each titled Joliet Arsenal, November 25, 1996 and depicting the land around the abandoned arsenal, which is being remade into a prairie preserve–juxtapose natural and man-made features. But the pictures don’t seem to idealize forest or excoriate railroad tracks. Though one can read unpaved roads as invasions of the fields, and a paved road as an even greater invasion, the paved road is generally shown at the edge of the image, literally marginalized. And rather than shoot the scene looking straight down from overhead, Evans angles her camera slightly, further qualifying the image by reminding us that these photos were taken from a particular human perspective.

Perhaps the most quintessentially midwestern images in the show are Rhondal McKinney’s two series, one of cultivated fields, the other of lone trees, each photo labeled “Untitled, IL” followed by the year it was taken. In an essay McKinney describes how he first became aware of landscapes: going on long drives with his father, a fisherman and quail hunter who rarely spoke, he became aware that his father’s eyes “moved constantly back and forth across the view….I remember at first wondering what it was that he was always looking at. At some point, though, I stopped wondering and started looking myself.” There’s a kind of generosity to McKinney’s wide, unmanipulated views: his camera simply accepts whatever tree or field he’s chosen. Meaning for McKinney resides not in the specific details of an object or a scene, as it does for Friedlander, but in the act of seeing such things as separate from–rather than contained within–the photographer’s interior world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Sonora, 1992” by Lee Friedlander/ “Untitled, IL, 1981” by Rhondal McKinney.