Larry “Wild Man” Fischer

Watching the documentary Derailroaded last night, I was pondering the relationship between space and creativity. Bill Mumy described following Fischer around on the city streets recording him with a stereo microphone as he composed his songs. He would take them back to the studio later to create backing tracks and clean them up. One of the things I always remembered about Slim was his resistance to “cleaning things up”— Slim always wanted to leave the dirt there. It wasn’t just a matter of sloppy craft (as some people took it). It was more a matter of maintaining the genuine article rather than simulated perfection—it was a punk attitude.

Looking at this picture today, I keep thinking about the tendency of photographs to provide an “excess of fact” (a phrase from Lee Friedlander I keep trying to track down). I got it wrong when I wrote about Helen Liggett’s presentation at C&W 2007, calling it a “surplus of fact.” I do think excess is better. Surfing around looking at discussions of Friedlander, I’m amazed by the large number of people who just don’t get him. I suppose it’s a search for a simple message (like the one displayed above) rather than a complex construction that people are often drawn to. But there’s another way these questions might be framed.

I found an earlier version of Liggett’s presentation on the web, which is helping me sort out the thoughts I was trying to work out in the discussion afterwards. I still don’t think that “urban consciousness” has much to do with the real experience of an “excess of fact.” I tried to draw a distinction between the role of photography in “detecting” versus “depicting.” Patrick Maynard uses these terms in a scientific way when talking about the images of photo-finish cameras used to detect the winner. Reading those images, the spatial distortions have no impact on the information we are looking for. We simply want to know who crossed the line first.

Returning to Wild Man Fischer, I think what we seek to detect is his craziness. Can you see it? In his discussion of Diane Arbus at the Walker, Neil Selkirk was really on to something (in my opinion) when he claimed that Arbus’s photographs were about detecting the discomfort/comfort that people felt in wearing their own appearance. What works in this type of photograph is a strong punctum as the central subject, some sort of aberration from the normal that stings you. The pictorial space remains perfectly normal, and cannot violate expectations too much or it ceases to be real.

The paradox of real spaces depicted in two dimensional objects is a different matter entirely. Friedlander often plays with that, leaving any sense of a “central subject” as a secondary consideration. The “real” seldom unfolds within a clean and tidy perspective map of a scene; there are obscurities, confusions. It’s hard, in many cases, to sort out exactly where objects can be imagined in relationship to each other. What relationships actually exist? Friedlander multiplies them in a clever intellectual game. The images are not so much about a punctum, but rather the paradox of the studium (as Barthes might put it). The real world, in the full experience of its complexity, is the true subject. The subject is not the city (although cities are complex) nor complexity itself—the subject is the disjunction between “natural” perspective and the real.

Friedlander thwarts depiction by presenting a whole overwhelmed by its parts; there is always more than one picture. He also eschews the detection of any distinct emotion/event which one might carry away as a “message.” Real life is more complex than that. For some people this “excess of fact” might seem haphazard or sloppy. I suppose it’s because it’s outside of the comfort zone, and it makes a viewer work at making sense. This makes photography students, in particular, really uncomfortable. I stumbled on another quote from Friedlander surfing around:

The real world is the thing: there’s nothing else. The good . . . the real photographers are dedicated to that, yeah, I think so . . . the ones I like, anyway. They’re all more interested in the world than in their own heads. . . . I don’t think much about imagination. I don’t think I have much imagination. I don’t think it’s needed in photography. What do you need imagination for when you’ve got the world in front of you?

This directly contradicts what Joel Meyerowitz said about Friedlander in Bystander— that he was the most “self-involved” of the New Documents photographers (Arbus, Winogrand, and Friedlander). I tend to read his presence in his own pictures (as self-portraits or simple shadows) as just another manifestation of the real. I mean, if you don’t consider yourself to be real then what is?

Perhaps that’s why paranoid schizophrenics like Wild Man Fischer are fascinating. Their version of the real is constantly at odds with the naturalized, common-sense way most people look at the world.

5 thoughts on “Sloppy”

  1. re: tracking down Lee Friedlander’s “excess of fact.”
    I don’t know if this will help, but there’s a bit in Artforum, Sept 2005, pages 293-294, where he writes about photography being a generous medium. I don’t have the issue handy (at work)…cited in Helen Liggett’s essay, “Urban Aesthetic and the Excess of Fact.”
    happy tracking.

  2. Sorry, I posted a comment about Liggett’s essay to your blog…I skipped that paragraph where you mention Liggett…oh man, I should read each word, shouldn’t I???heh.

    Perhaps that’s why paranoid schizophrenics like Wild Man Fischer are fascinating. Their version of the real is constantly at odds with the naturalized, common-sense way most people look at the world.

    I watched Derailroaded the other day as well–viewed it twice now. I’d watch it again. Fischer is fascinating. (I am not a fan of the documentary itself.)
    I wonder if we can figure in Lacan’s conception of “radical certainty” here. You know, wanting to see Fischer’s craziness points to our desire to believe what we see and points out the difference between the facts regarding what we know is there and what we see is there. Fischer’s version of the real contains the radical certainty, among other things, that people are out to kill him. That abundance of the real, or something we can call the addition to the real is what I am trying to see while watching and listening to Fischer in the doc. But it isn’t there but for the want of finding it there…is it?

  3. Thanks Gary. Just after I wrote that entry I headed down to the library and xeroxed the Artforum article. The article, in turn, cites the MOMA catalog of Friedlander’s 2005 retrospective. That was out, so I’ve had to request a recall… meanwhile, I ordered it from Amazon (3-6 weeks to ship!). The mystery eludes me. However, in the process of looking I’ve found some other great stuff from interviews that I’ll blog later.
    There’s a zone between certainty and promiscuous relativism that I am intrigued by just now. I’m not sure about Lacan; he tends to slip through my fingers any time I try to use him.

  4. The Chase

    Every since Helen Liggett referred to a quote regarding Lee Friedlander’s “excess of fact” I’ve been trying to chase it down. It really bugs me when people don’t follow up on their sources. The trail on this one is long…

  5. A Camera Like a Nose

    Continuing to think about Lee Friedlander’s essay “An Excess of Fact” The net is indiscriminant unless you point it and then are lucky. I might get what I hoped for and then some—lots of then some—more than I might have…

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