DE: It strikes me that your images show arguments going on between many different things.
LF: Well, they’re not portraits in the real sense, but they’re portrayals of something that’s there.
DE: You seem to make the things democratic and unified, and keep them in order, so they relate to one another.
LF: Well, the place itself does that too, you know. You’re putting too much emphasis on the person that takes it . . . the place is full of order.
DE: I find one of the attractions of nature is that it’s so chaotic.
LF: (laughing) Well, to each his own.
In writing about this book, I don’t attempt to discuss the photographs as photographs per se; I’m neither critic nor historian. But I cannot escape the fact that well over half my life has been lived under the medium’s umbrella. When Richard B. Woodward wrote on Lee in the 1989 Artnews, he referred to a photograph from 1970, taken in a Las Vegas motel room (plate 17), of me standing in a block of light against a dark wall, with Lee’s shadow imposed on my body. For him the picture read “as . . .a portrait of a marriage in which [Lee’s] photography has overshadowed both their lives.” In a way, all of these photographs, not just that one, were formed because photography did indeed overshadow all four of our lives. Lee can never stop looking, seeing, as the photographer he is, and his camera is never far from his hand. So, during all our family moments, outdoors or sitting around our home, eating, reading, listening to music, or even combing our hair or playing with our dogs, all those small things we hardly thought about, Lee was always seeing something that in an instant he might need to frame and record.
If you take somebody like Michael Jordan, and if you said to him, “Michael at a certain point when you are running down the field and the ball comes to you, what are you going to do?” he would look at you as if you were crazy. Because there are a thousand things he could do: he could move almost anywhere or he could pass off or he could shoot or he could dribble. He wouldn’t even have a clue because he would have to see what was happening. And I think that’s very similar to photography, which I don’t think is similar to painting or writing in most cases. That little tiny moment is a beginning and an end and it has something to do with the same kind of mentality that an athlete has to use. I was watching tennis, for example. The tricks that good tennis players use, especially what happens when the ball bounces and does odd things. You couldn’t predict what you’re going to do. He’s going to serve it to you; what are you going to do? Try to hit it back. Not only try to hit it back, try to hit it in a weird way. Or some articulate way. And I think photography is stuck with those same kind of moments, especially if you’re not a studio photographer. You don’t have much control.
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 remembered was there. I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.
At about the same time, I was in love with the cheer and grace and wit of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and later, Bird. My peers were listening to “I’d Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China.” I had a record of Nellie Lutcher singing “Hurry on Down to My House, Baby, Ain’t Nobody Home But Me.” I guess it’s the same wish, but I felt that Nellie’s was full of more real possibilities. The real world, the capture of the moment, hurry on down, it’s happenin’ now.
A cowboy sits down to a game of cards with W.C. Fields and says, “Is this a game of chance?” W.C. Fields responds, “No Sir, not the way I play it.”
From the film “My Little Chicadee”
I stumbled into adolescence having been bitten by the mysteries of photography and I learned its practical possibilities. I was able to put parts of my world onto paper with my own hands, not as an idea or a metaphor, but in a sense to save something. The camera was a kind of net and what it caught had something to do with what was true, or truth in an excess of fact.
Opening epigram and first paragraph of the essay “An Excess of Fact” by Lee Friedlander, published in The Desert Seen p. 103-106 (1996)
I finally found it. It’s not a magazine piece, nor an interview, nor an catalog essay. The core of the image making rationale found here directly conflicts with the idea that Lee Friedlander is a photographer “with an urban sensibility” (Helen Liggett’s claim in the paper that she delivered at C&W 2007). I disagreed with her assertion then, and now I have textual evidence to the contrary (later in the essay Friedlander discusses the development of his sense of “place.”). Reading Liggett’s book Urban Encounters, I found that I agreed with her position regarding the nature of urban space and photography much more than I thought at first. Liggett’ “radical urban aesthetic” is worth a lot more thought/discussion because it is rooted in all corners of this country, but that will have to wait for another day. The Friedlander phrase is something that I just can’t let go of yet.
Photography is not, in the hands of Friedlander, a game of simply arranging the excess of information present in the world. Nor is it a mode of communicating ideas or providing a surface that you can read metaphoric associations or possibilities from. It’s about saving something connected with truth. The problem of course, is that each image provides more truth than what we bargain for—hence, his oft-quoted quip from this essay: “It’s a generous medium, photography.”
No one I’ve read so far mentions the metaphor this observation is couched in—that the camera is a kind of net. Nets catch more than what you bargain for. I think in the decade or so since this essay was published, the generosity of the Internet provides its own sort of connection with the truth of human nature and is worth thinking about. It isn’t that it’s ruining culture (as Andrew Keen argues) but simply that it’s providing more of it, just as the camera provides more than the naked eye. What bothers me is that some interchange the terms Internet and culture as if they were synonyms, or even antonyms, when in reality they connected in a direct way, much like a camera and its subjects. A photograph isn’t “slice of reality” any more than the Internet is a “slice of culture.” Reality and photographs coexist; why is it so hard to believe that culture and the Internet will do the same? The Internet has something to do with culture, but it is neither the beginning nor the end of it.
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.