|© Lee Friedlander. The New Cars 1964|
Post by Pugilist Press
Now and again, with my finger on the shutter release, I'll ask myself, "What am I doing?" Some times it's an audible "Why the fuck am I taking this picture?" Sun bleached billboards for a Christian daycare. Ripped boxes behind an apartment complex. Chewing gum at the base of the drive thru order box. Is it of any value? I panic a bit, clutching that little black box with clammy hands; then I remember Lee Friedlander, and every view is alive with potential. The cloud passes, I take the picture.
The Friedlander I’m thinking about is a contemporary photographer, and not some dinosaur bones from the MOMA archives that peaked when That Girl was on the air. We will not be talk-ing about some Photo God with a string of half-empty churches across the land, and a brick-thick Bible to disseminate his legend. We will not be talking about some antique tradesman frozen in a quaint infotainment village going about his business just like they did "back then." We won’t be talking about someone we look up to, or one that we’ve evolved beyond. We are simply talking about a photographer of this day, 2014. One with bad knees, sure. One with a few more mentions in the history books, but more importantly, more urgently, one who works in the now, and one whose methods are aligned with what we say we want.
I’m assuming you want what We want. Am I wrong? A better world. Gender justice. Racial justice. A world where the puppet strings of power are illuminated and everyone is equipped with a pair of scissors. One where we embrace reason yet recognize its limitations. You are not all talk and no action. You do not have a tab at Chick-fil-A. You have never uttered the words “reverse racism.” You are for real, you want that real, and you’re ready to do the real work. If that’s the case, if you want photography that points to a just world, then start with Friedlander.
I’m not saying Lee’s the future. I don’t play those odds. Sci-fi writers don’t play those odds. The future is an unknowable distraction from the present. The question of time gets confusing for photography because it is so central to its ontology. So one must be forgiving of the many that are in a tizzy over what comes next. Amongst the arts, Photography is a pup, less than two centuries compared to the others’ millennia. The current crisis is nothing more than growing pains, but too many are worried about the crib-death of photography. And many of the attempts to Frankenstein-up the medium are light on the electricity and heavy on the formaldehyde: redoes of Sander without the wit, Rejlander without the finely calibrated melodrama, Bayard without the punchline, Hoch without the rigor, Rusha without the generosity, and so many of these sub-Bournes turning every gallery into wunderkammers. We are still learning to deal with photo-graphs that are older than grandma, never mind those that were made last week. We are still teaching ourselves how to look at photos and figuring out why we look. Currently, the best answers are provisional. Those reaching for the stone tablets are the ones making the most dubious pronouncements.
|© Thomas Struth, Paradise 17. 1999|
The second most influential tribe in photography still seems to be the Dusseldorf crew and affiliated chapters. The first has this weird and sad contempt for the medium and seems to control many of the institutions that should be supporting it. Thinking about them paralyzes me, so allow me to go straight to the house that the Bechers built. Could those two be any more Catholic? They have left us a body of work that treats pleasure as an annoyance, that is deeply concerned with funerary rites and the afterlife, that thrives on a clear, regimented, and immutable structure. The Bechers' work is also one huge act of faith: it was produced over decades without a single sign of doubt of deviation, it was the same process at the end as it was at the beginning. There was no reaction to the reactions, those grids kept popping up like monoliths across our museums, stating powerfully, without ever shouting, that “the answer” was there from the beginning and the world would have to conform to it. Pleasure was mostly absent, curiosity was absent, conversation was absent. The Bechers photographed a fifty-year sermon. And you know what? I ain’t mad at it. It’s decent work, and some of their students went even further and made some pretty good Catholic pictures.
|© Daido Moriyama, Stray Dog, Misawa, Aomori, 1971|
Here's the thing about a true secular culture, as opposed to atheism as some perverse theocracy of Logic, it allows for pockets of religion, it understands that a single system cannot possibly provide for all of its members, it understands that encouraging alternatives will make the society stronger. It is a lot more difficult, maybe even impossible, for a culture formed around strict dogma to respect and nurture pockets that wish to deviate from or reject that dogma. In small terms there’s room for the Bechers at Friedlander's house, but there's no room for Lee at the Becher temple. And this is why I am not suggesting we look to Friedlander, not as the ideal, but simply as a sturdy and useful model, one that we've been in danger of boxing up and burying in some warehouse.
Containment don’t jive with the faithless, and Lee is faithless. His eye has never settled on subject or schema. There has never been a lack of things to see for Friedlander. Even when age temporarily robbed him of his legs, he still managed to produce an odd and lovely book of flower stems. Viewed together, Friedlander's many series seem to say that nothing is beneath attention, nothing is meaningless. And that might be a lie, but if that's the case then it is a useful one. It's a lie that goes beyond our species dark leaning to turn every event, object, and life form as some sort of mirror. The work he's done over the years is often incredibly tender towards humanity, sometimes a bit cruel, and sometimes the very things that we have made are emancipated from us by Friedlander's framing. All those moments, spaces, and objects exist at the same level of effort and attention. There is no hierarchy. What we find instead is a keen aware-ness that Chaos and Order are the same tune played in different keys, one note after the other, one sound after the other, building melodies and rhythms, there is no status in a tune, even the voids are propulsive. The work is everywhere and it is never ending.
|© Josef Koudelka, Hauts-de-Seine. Parc de Sceaux. 1987|
If I sometimes get carried away describing the work, I blame its many complex and unexpected pleasures. I've seen the work described as too "flashy" or "tricky" by people, I would assume, that are disturbed by virtuosity. Or perhaps, they see it as nothing but indulgence, some dude showing off. I see nothing but humility. A thing in itself will always have value. Physics, biology, history, function and many other facets of its presence will see to that. A description of a thing, on the other hand, is often worthless as description even when it is of definite value as an artifact. Description that does justice to its object is a very rare thing. In four decades of looking at dog pictures, for example, I've seen a bunch of pretty good ones, and only two great ones. Even with the torrents of photographs coming at us from Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and others, the world lacks adequate descriptions. Friedlander is trying, and the effort often translates into pleasure, and not the cheap kind that is nothing but a shortcut to jouissance, acrid and necessary fuel for the big fire. Lee's pleasure is tantric, it is narcotic, it embraces the moment and pushes perception to bloom. These photographs help us with the necessary transition from be-ings who can look (setting eyes on the known) to beings who can see (setting eyes on the known and unknown alike). The pictures' formal verve has nothing to do with indulgence, that’s just Lee trying to describe the world adequately.
When the Chicago Sun-Times fired its photographers, I was very definitely on the side my brethren. That said, I had a big issue with the illustration that kept popping up as an indictment of The Sun-Times’ greedy, short sighted ways. In this comparison, the Tribune photograph showed me exactly what I was expecting, in a professional and polished manner, a good photograph that offers a look at victory. The Sun-Times, photograph, the supposedly bad one, allowed me to figure out that mourning is a corollary to any well earned victory. Reaching that final goal means an end to the effort that drove and at times probably sustained the players, it also means the temporary or permanent dissolution of the fellowship responsible for this success. The Sun-Times photograph is about seeing, and it exposed the very real lack that was present in even the most densely staffed papers.
|© Jessica Watson, Flounder. 2001|
Friedlander has not photographed everything. He has not photographed in every way, but with each year he grows the library of the seen, and each year that we’re exposed to that library, we extend our capacities for perception. Each committed laborer with a camera can add to this endeavor, and the results are invariably beyond our imaginations and desires. Look at Jessica Watson's Flounder. It's one of the kinkiest images I have ever seen, a sad and beautiful slice of fish that connects fetish culture to the Shackleton expedition in a way that makes perfect sense. Look at Wolfgang Tillmans' for when I'm weak I'm strong, a new source of hope in a world that had seemingly exhausted the resources. This is photography as instrument, as tool, as factory rather than illustration or critique or confirmation. These are the type of photographs that are always absent from all of those shows and publications that claim to be the harbingers of the New Photography. They are ignored because the language around such pictures feels exhausted, and so the common mistake is made of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How does one even begin to catalogue the layers of fascination of this image (sadly separated from its author) found on Tumblr. More than new ways of making photographs we desperately need new ways of talking about them.''
|Image from Tumblr, separated from author|
Pugilist Press is a collective of seven artists who all happen to be the same person, including pensive heartthrob Jericho Butters, renaissance bad boy DJ BabyNeckFat and Haitian expat Sebastien Boncy.