Sunday, August 17, 2008

Exhibit: Friedlander photography, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Sunday Styles section of today's New York Times included Alex Williams's report about trends in the use of Photoshop software to alter still photographs by adding or subtracting one or more elements ("I Was There. Just Ask Photoshop."). Williams cited the example of a divorcée who removed images of her former spouse from family vacation pictures. The apparent point of such subterfuge is to alter narratives and to view and document past realities as one wishes they had been, rather than how they were.

This goes beyond photography that emphasizes different aspects of landscape elements or variations of individual perception. This is John Edwards narcissism and Karl Rove cynicism. People who do this are committing fraud and creating falsehoods. It is not cute. It is not art.

That they are doing it at all matters because, as Williams noted, people who look at doctored photos come to believe and mis-remember such things as Uncle Frank having attended his son's wedding when, in reality, he was incarcerated on another continent for drug smuggling.

One finds no such lies in the work of Lee Friedlander.

Friedlander: Photography contains more than 500 photographs, most of them in black and white, in a retrospective spanning five decades at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The exhibit also includes books, special editions, and portfolios.

Far from being picture perfect, the photos capture haunting images-in-time of moments, people, and places in all of their layered complexity. For ease of viewing, they are organized by theme and decade.

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1934, Friedlander studied at the Art Center in Los Angeles before moving to New York City in 1954. For the next 15 years, he created photos for Atlantic Records albums and for magazines that included Sports Illustrated and Seventeen. He has taught classes at UCLA, the University of Minnesota, and Rice University, and has received three Guggenheim Fellowships, five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Award.

Friedlander summed up his work in 1963, calling it "the American social landscape," depicting the everyday backdrop of life. In addition to musicians like Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, his subjects included unknown people plus friends and relatives, many of them photographed repeatedly over time.

He documented the lives of Ohio and Pennsylvania factory workers in the 1970s, and of office workers in their cubes in more recent years. One arresting photo from 1987 reflects the waves and skyline of Hong Kong harbor, a year after I saw them in person, as they were and not as I recall them. Although one is invited to impose a narrative upon the images, they speak eloquently for themselves in all of their ordinary beauty.

The Friedlander exhibit was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and curated locally by George Slade who, until a few weeks ago, served as artistic director of the now-defunct Minnesota Center for Photography. Minneapolis is the next-to-last stop on a four-year tour. The exhibit can be seen next at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Mar. 1 through June 7, 2009.

I intend to visit again before it leaves Minneapolis.

Friedlander: Photography through Sept. 14, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Target Gallery, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis. 10am-5pm, Tu, W, F, Sa; 10am-9pm, Th; 11am-5pm, Su. MIA Members Free, Adults $8, Seniors and Students $6, Children $4.

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