Wednesday, July 13, 2005

I’ve found the Anti-Ansel Adams

I received the Lee Friedlander monograph of the NY MOMA show today. I got it from Photo-Eye ( It was expensive, but after a quick perusal squeezed between the hand-off from the UPS guy, and bolting out the door for an evening meeting, I can say it was worth the price.

Hardcover, large, heavy, and packed full of both text and full-page plates, Lee Friedlander (as it is called) is a retrospective of an artist that I was fairly unfamiliar with. I certainly knew of him, could place him in his time (still going), seen some of his most popular street images, heard about his Stems project, jazz portraits, and self-portraits, but had actually seen very little of his work. I can say that no more.

I highly recommend the book, to both Friedlander fans and the uninitiated. Friedlander’s vision is unique and identifiable, and I wish I had become familiar with him earlier. In my early photography days (late 70’s), Weston and Ansel Adams, in particular, were (and probably still are) considered the gods of photography. I was very much into Diane Arbus, and I tended toward a different aesthetic. While my fellow photo students were trying to copy Ansel Adams using their 35mm SLR’s, I was shooting with a TLR trying to do what was probably better done with a SLR.

Naturally, I would get into “discussions” with my friends and fellow students concerning aesthetics, wherein the images I liked were denigrated as glorified snapshots, and the images they liked I, in turn, denigrated as boring, uninteresting and detached. I remember proclaiming pompously to friend that I would love to see Adams point his camera away from the heavens and heavenly settings and photograph something like a weed growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. I guess, looking back now, I saw Adams as a modern day Icarus, with his head in the clouds, ignoring reality. I absolutely hated this idea of photographers like Adams and Weston, tucked away like hermits in their compounds shooting pictures of peppers and their naked girlfriends in the sand.

My sentiment at the time was that somebody needed to turn the table on these guys. Somebody needed to march up to Yosemite and shoot the anti-Adams version of the park, or not shoot yet another calla lily in full bloom, but its cut, submerged stem, immersed in a glass vase full of water. Where was the anti-Adams, the evil Weston? Well, he was quietly, yet prolifically, out working away shooting on the streets, on projects in the workplace, city centers, and parks all around the country. He pointed the camera at himself a lot, but unpretentiously and ungloriously. Yes he shot portraits and nude pictures of his wife, but they owed more to Arbus and Walker, than they did to Weston. He shot the occasional blooming flower, but he shot more, a whole series, a book, on their stems. And his occasional Adams-like scenic is far and away overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his wonderful scenics, where the “view” is blocked by the wild natural overgrowth of the un-pruned lesser flora, and a his "poorly chosen" positioning; but, more importantly, he shot Yosemite and other breath-takingly heavenly locations in the exact same fashion, frustratingly blocking the view that the average Adams-devotees, would trek the world on their hard-earned two-week vacation to capture.

Friedlander has become a new favorite on mine, based on the fact that he is the anti-Adams, the evil Weston. He is a wonderful mix of modern photography, all those photographers we have come to enjoy and admire, Walker, Arbus, Winogrand, and yes, even Adams and Walker.