Lee Friedlander – Thick of Things: Presentation House Gallery

Lee Friedlander, Banff, 2005

Lee Friedlander, Banff, 2005 (Photograph of Presentation Gallery handout)

I was really pleased when I received notice of Lee Friedlander’s Thick of Things exhibition at the Presentation House Gallery. At last, another proper photographic exhibition. (Paint, watercolours, mixed media and installations make up the majority of the exhibitions in Vancouver). The exhibition spans over five decades of Friedlander’s work and is an exhibition of his photographs and books, as well as old magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar that showcase his photographs.

Among the well known series that was exhibited, there is also a lesser know series of the Canadian Rockies, which seems to have been made in about 2005 and made up a large part of the exhibition. There was one photograph which definitely drew a chuckle from me, namely a photograph of a lake surrounded by mountains in the distance and with a few trees in the foreground. What really tickled me was that Friedlander’s horizon was not straight, and it was very noticeable. It must have been off by at least 15 degrees! I guess we all make those mistakes.

I was particularly taken with the photographs from the America by Car series. These quirky photos taken out of the car as Friedlander was traveling, are frames within frames. Firstly we have the overall image, but then Friedlander cuts his frame into triangles, using the car’s frame for this purpose. There is one scene through the front windscreen, and another through the side window and yet another in the side mirror. Examples can be seen on the Fraenkel Gallery website. Please click through to 1 of 15, and 13 of 15. In 1 of 15 (Montana, 2008), there is the juxtaposition of the paddock fencing in front of the car, but our eye is immediately drawn over to the side window which features a full size car on top of a tall pole. This is echoed in the side mirror view of another car driving away towards a telegraph pole in the distance. In 13 of 15 (New York City, 2002) Friedlander shoots a similar scenario, but this time in the city streets and adds an extra layer of a diagonal reflection of a tall building in the van that is pulled up next to his own car. This is juxtaposed by the car’s frame. Another building is reflected through the main windscreen and the tall city buildings are shown in the side view mirror. The photos in this series reminded quite a bit of Stephen Shore’s work.

Friedlander’s Mannequin series are also layered images of reflections. A well dressed mannequin shows off her legs, skirt and forearms which just blend and fade away into the reflection of the apartment building opposite the street. I think these images are all the more striking because they are in black and white. Colour might have been too distracting. More examples are on the Fraenkel Gallery webiste.

One of his images that I particularly enjoyed was the one of Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota, 1969 (10 of 15 on the Fraenkel Gallery). We are confronted by two people in the foreground, also the brightest objects in the frame, so our eye goes straight to them. One is photographing something and the other is looking through binoculars. At what we wonder? The vertical frames behind this couple draw our eyes upwards and there it is – Mt. Rushmore reflected in the window. But Friedlander is not done with us yet, our eyes travel across the frame and notice white rectangles below the figures of Mt. Rushmore and this draws us further down to something that might be a reflection of a fence and now we become aware of all the people behind the couple on the other side of the window, but no – some are reflections. I expect if we look really closely we might see the photographer in the window too. And so Friedlander causes confusion in the viewer’s mind – are we looking inside or outside? What is real and what is not?

This theme of ambiguity runs deep in most of Friedlander’s street photography images. But throughout his photographs he makes extensive use of layers, creating depth as much as possible. His use of reflections, shadows and verticals is quite spectacular. I think that maybe I could definitely incorporate some of these aspects into my work – I shall try.

Reference List

Lee Friedlander, Fraenkel Gallery [online]. Available from: http://fraenkelgallery.com/artists/lee-friedlander [Accessed 6 December, 2014]

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