The PhotoBook Journal

February 20, 2009

Lee Friedlander – New Mexico

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Photographer Lee Friedlander copyright 2008 published by Radius Books

 Lee Friedlander: New Mexico was published concurrently by Radius Books with the Friedlander exhibition at the Andrew Smith Gallery Santa Fe, NM in the Fall of 2008. Thus in one sense this book can be viewed as one heck of a great catalog.

Usually I defer to the end of the review to discuss a book’s workmanship in regard to the paper and book binding.  For this book I will make an exception in as I almost screwed up my copy from the get-go. I was mildly surprised when I opened the book for the first time to find the front end papers missing and the binding not glued or sewn to the spine. The back end papers also appeared to be missing with the page page glued to the basic cover plate. Yikes!

My initial thought was that this was a Chinese book-binding screw-up. Then as I had my bottle of book binding glue in mid-air I had second thoughts as I studied the re-seal-able poly pouch that the book came in. hmmmmm; Radius Books is pretty innovative so perhaps I should check-in first and not make assumptions (I need to get better at this).

So after a quick query to Darius Himes, co-founder of Radius Books, I received the following reply:

No, you’re not going insane. The book is a very intentional object:  no end-pages, the book block “sits” against the raw book boards, naked and exposed on the rough terrain of those boards, if you will.  The back of the book block is secured to the back board as a structural device.  This very raw object is clothed in a very elegant dust-jacket with a debossed and duo-tone printed, inlaid image.  Again, the effect is a raw object clothed with elegance (kind of like New Mexico and Santa Fe itself).  So, no, the book is not supposed to have front end-pages and the spine is not meant to be glued to anything…. you’re seeing right to the skeleton of any book.

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skeleton of this book

Update: I have subsequently found out that this is type of book binding is known as Tape Binding and I have added this term to my side bar of book definitions.

So now getting into the book itself. As to the relevancy of another Friedlander book this has already been discussed by Jeffery Ladd on SB4 and the counter viewpoint by Darius Himes on his blog, DariusHimes, so I do not need to cover this again. I think that Darius’s quote by Friedlander is probably most telling;

“This is not an important body of work, so I don’t want a big pretentious monograph.”

Thus Darius sums up the books intent as ” in the sense that this work is not ground-breaking. He’s (Friedlander) not pushing the envelope, he’s not looking to re-forge a photographic identity, he’s not looking to make his name with these photographs, nor, in the end, with this book” …”to think of each of Friedlander’s books as though they are each a poem in an anthology”.

As to this body of work by Friedlander I think it is agreed that he does not break any new ground and it is a continuation of his “voice” as expressed in his particular photographic style. Much like hearing a new song on the radio and instantly recognizing the voices and melodies of one of your your favorite groups. You enjoy the current song with its new lyrics and you also are carried along with memories of their earlier recordings.

This body of work is topographical about a place and in true Friedlanderism you may not not be able to state that you know a lot more about New Mexico per se for reading the book.  The photographs do reinforce the Friedlander style both in regard to the photographic content as well as how the images are displayed on the pages.

The book has essentially two types of Friedlander photographs; in the car/urban landscape and the multifaceted and slightly destabilizing natural urban/rural landscape photographs. All of course with the trademark super-wide square format of his Hasselblad and the  blazing bright front lighting with something up close and out of focus that breaks up the resulting image. Another trademark is his shadow in the lower edges to provide that missing human element.

His work has become more mature and the initial jolts that resulted from his earlier work are no longer occurring and now with repetition his process allows you to perhaps dig a little deeper. He continues to come back to those same viewpoints and compositions which are no longer thought of as chance mistakes but as deliberate and accepted acts.

I am reminded of the quote from Frederick Sommer, another photographer of the Southwest, who stated; “It is the time you spend setting up and considering the scene that is the art of photographing; it’s really of very small consequence whether you press the button or not. “

Yet for most of us we may not push the button when we saw these same sights while Friedlander does consistently press the button for these very similar compositions.  Much like an urban landscape photographer in Southern California who is instantly drawn to a photographic compositions if palm trees are present. For Friedlander the things that draw him out is the act of photographing out the car window, compositions that contain things that can divide the image, a mess of bushes or tree limbs that can obscure the “facts”. These are now “Friedlander moments” as we pass through a parking lot or down a sidewalk to glance over a fence or come across a bizarre hedge or unable to find a clear view of landscape subject.

These are all things that we see as we move about in our daily lives but do not give enough significance to to commit to memory and experience. Until we have seen Friedlander’s photographs and the have the quick synapse of recognition. Unlike the late Aaron Siskin who had stated that for him “a photograph should be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order” Friedlander appears to be searching for the corollary disorder and a high degree of chaos.

For me the Friedlander photographs are metaphoric for the disorder and chaos that occurs in our daily lives and the things we try to shut out in favor of the better memories and experiences. Things are not always pretty but can get messy, especially if we take note of how things do grow and flourish in nature. I might step to the right or left to get an unobstructed viewpoint while I am momentarily standing in front of the pole or sign post. And his photograph did leave me uneasy and uncomfortable.

So I have tried to create and make a comfortable order in the middle of chaos photographs while Friedlander chooses to remind me again and again that we may be only momentarily fooling ourselves.

The order and sequencing of the photographs within the book create a nice  visual flow with related photographs on facing pages that provide that additional viewpoint of a Friedlander moment. The hardcover book with dust jacket is 11 1/4″ x 12″ and allows plenty of space to display his photographs. There is a narrow white margin of approximately 1/2″ around each square photograph, with no bleeds or two page spreads of the same image, thus nothing is lost in the gutters. There are 45 duotone photographs within the 80 pages with a Forward by Andrew Smith and an essay by Emily Ballew Neff. A very pleasing design by the team of  Skolkin+Chickey, two of the Radius Books principals.

A limited edition of 200 books with slip covers is also available.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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