[Continuation of an exchange between Colin Westerbeck (in bold) and Joel Meyerowitz]
What about Lee Friedlander: where did he fit into this New York street scene? Wasn't he out there photographing with all of you sometimes in the sixties?
Oh, yes, in those days we would bump into Lee on the streets too. He was then living out in the country. He didn't photograph with anybody, that wasn't his style. He was very much more a loner than Garry [Winogrand].
Maybe that's why he photographed his own shadow falling into the scene in so many early pictures, because it was the only company he had out there. "Me ... and ... my ... sha-dow . . ." It was a surrogate for him. He takes pictures of himself everyplace - his reflection in windows, his shadow falling on his subject, or himself as the subject - to identify that he was there. All that stuff points toward a self-consciousness in the work.
I've always thought the number of ways in which his photographs referred back to himself was curious, especially the ones where he seems to have held the camera out and taken his own picture. When Frank holds his camera out at arm's length, it's aimed at the world; doing so is a way of losing himself in an otherness that's out there somewhere. When Friedlander does it, he aims the camera back at himself.
Yeah, he's telling us in his pictures from the very beginning that he's self-involved. The result is work that's coolly intellectual in a way. He's more cerebral than Diane [Arbus] or Garry. They were capable of being dispassionate, even detached. But the hard truths of their needs and urgencies and personalities are what made their photographs so astonishing. Lee's pictures are less astonishing to me - their complexity hits me first.
Oh, I don't know. I would say that it's Winogrand and Arbus who are truly self-involved. The "urgencies" of their own "personalities" about which you were just speaking make them that way. it's only as a photographer that Friedlander is self-conscious, not as a personality. I think he sees the medium as a form of self-consciousness, and that gesture of aiming the camera back at himself is meant to indicate this. He's always aware of the medium when he's using it. He's always thinking about it, which may be why his career has had such longevity and such a diversity of projects.
More than any other street photographer, he's been able to generalize what he learned on the street, on the road, and apply it to other genres. When you look at the portraits, or even the nudes, you see that it is often the errant detail or the odd, improvised, off-balance feel of the composition that gives the picture its originality. Friedlander has taken the lessons that the street teaches and applied them, sometimes with great brilliance, to all sorts of other subjects. You above all should appreciate that, since you're the other street shooter from that time who's done it as well.
Do you find Lee's pictures to be as complexly human as Diane's or Garry's? If there is this level of analysis of the medium that you're talking about going on all the time, don't you think it diminishes in his work the amount of conflict and tension - the energy - that really great pictures always need?
Perhaps. But there are contradictions in his pictures too, just as there are in Arbus's or Winogrand's, that make his just as interesting as theirs. You see him in some of the self-portraits; here he is, this stolid, heavy-lidded, empty-looking guy sitting in some cheap motel room somewhere in wrinkled underpants. Then you look at the picture he took of the main drag in a small town or people going around in a revolving door, and the space is faceted and fragmented in the most precise, intricate way you can imagine. It's really beautiful. The one of the revolving door is like something seen in a kaleidoscope. You can hardly believe that this guy who seems so dopey in the one set of photographs created the controlled, taut compositions in the other set.
Yes, OK, I admit that the best of his images have their own quirky way of looking at the world. But Garry's were revelations about the human comedy and the medium. They came in a sharp jab to the heart/eye. Lee's coolly crept up on you, their delights just came slower, through a different intelligence, that's all ...
Some of the best pictures in his book The American Monument are little essays on the aesthetics of photography in general. They illuminate detail in a way that makes them an object lesson on its importance. He's like Atget in these pictures. You can just feel the calculated way in which he moved from the front of the monument around to the back until he saw, pinned in a beam of sunlight like a butterfly in a specimen case, that little switch box that turns the floodlights off and on. This one touch transforms what might have been a humdrum picture of a dull subject into something that feels more like a surreptitious glimpse backstage at an historical drama.
That image is of a piece with the others he has made. The pictures all reflect the nature of the solitary, distant figure who made them. The planes of the windows, the screen of trees, and the blossoms on them, the monuments experienced as objects in space - it does all have a cumulative power that you could have seen coming, if you had looked for it, when Lee was shooting on the streets in New York like the rest of us.