Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A million pebbles in the driveway

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a young photographer to publish an eight pound book called "Monument". That's basically what Lee Friedlander did in 1976 with the first edition of The American Monument. If the title didn't get the message across, the mammoth size did. This was not  a mere collection of monuments, but a Monument —capital M!

Friedlander was a cheeky forty-two at the time, and beginning to loosen the reigns of his tightly packed documentary style to incorporate vegetation, open space, and reverie. As Szarkowski described it, the shift was "away from irony, from the glittering visual joke, and toward a more direct (and complex) description of subjects that he found important and beautiful." Eventually his subject matter would be expanded to include, well, everything. But in 1976, for his second photobook, Friedlander focused on monuments.

As luck would have it his social circle at the time intersected with Richard Benson, just coming into his own as world's premier photographic printer, and Leslie Katz, a high-end publisher. Together they formed a sort of Holy Trinity of photobook production. 

Katz's Eakins Press took its stylistic cues from the archaic world of its namesake, and The American Monument felt like something one might find in an antique shop. It had a thick cloth binding, with regal type and gold flourishes garnishing the cover. The tome was roughly 12 inches by 17, its wide pages (91 of them, with 213 photos) mounted on detachable screw posts to allow removal for display. They'd look beautiful framed on a wall—the duotone separations prepared by Benson were immaculate— but it's doubtful many owners took advantage. The book was just fine as is, thank you, and too precious to tinker with. An unadulterated copy now fetches roughly $2,000 on eBay. 

For book lovers with less disposable income there's good news. Eakins Press has just released a second edition of The American Monument. In most ways it is indistinguishable from the first. There's a slightly altered cover design and a new afterword by Peter Galassi. The paper stock is reported to be slightly different. But in other ways this is essentially the original 1976 edition now made available to a wider audience. Granted, at $150 it still ain't cheap. You gotta want it. But for those that do, the reprint brings it finally within reach.

As grand as the book is, its subject matter is not treated with the same reverence. After all this is Friedlander, the master of deadpan absurdity. Civic boosters looking to spotlight the grandeur of local monuments, listen up. Lee Friedlander is not the photographer you should hire. The American Monument shows scant spirit of pride or boosterism. As with most of his oeuvre, it's tough to read his personal feelings one way or another. Some of the photographs, for example Fireman's Memorial in New Jersey or Buffalo Bill Monument in Wyoming, seem openly celebratory. In others —perhaps the majority of photos in the book— the monuments are disregarded as so much visual filler. The well known photograph of Mechanics Monument in San Francisco tosses the eponymous statue to the side of the photo near an old truck and juxtaposed with a distant liquor store. Other frames leave the reader scrambling to find any semblance of a monument buried in the visual detritus. There's a certain Where's Waldo? quality, which is rewarded each time after sufficient searching.

Mechanic's Monument, San Francisco, California, 1972

There's no consistent formula, and that's the charm of Friedlander. It's the vital force which has allowed him to shoot such a variety of subjects over decades. Through it all he's remained astoundingly receptive to possibility. Each visual scene is approached anew. 

If this comes across in a book of monuments as moral ambivalence or even anti-Patriotism, I suspect he is not particularly bothered. "It's a generous medium, photography," he once famously said. Statues are merely one visual element in the American vista loaded with other information. Some views are more visually generous than others. Some less so. But it's not his job to worry about which is which. His task is merely to document everything in his own inimitable way: "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…" Add monuments to the list.

Beyond receptiveness, Friedlander's other notable trait is his prolificacy. The American Monument was made during his 35 mm Leica years, a format which allowed him "to peck at the world" in great volume. He shot and printed thousands of photos for the project. They came from all parts of the U.S., though primarily east of the Mississippi where monuments and nationalism run thickest. In the end only 213 photo made it into the book. This may be a curtailed figure, yet it's still enormous by any general photobook standard. Some photos get their own spread. Most are forced into shared space with others. The book comes in waves, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and sometimes 9 (!) photos at once on a page. The onslaught never lets up, a reflection of Friedlander's manic pace. In the time it took you to read this paragraph he just made four new photos somewhere.

As with any photos made decades ago, these images have an inherent historic quality. Many of the scenes depicted are now altered, removed, developed, or otherwise changed. The American Monument is a timepiece, each photo freezing a a slice of the past, and taken as a whole the book is a portrait of America at a certain point in time. Browsing the photos one is impressed with the mundane statuesque quality of old American memorials. Heroic figures abound with arms, guns, and flags pointed skyward. They seem dated, antediluvian even, made before the flood unleashed by Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial. As Peter Galassi points out in the afterword, the timestamp applies also to the format: "The book is an artifact of the analog age." Shot on film and printed in a darkroom, the project is a throwback.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania, 1974

The historical imperative has taken on some newfound urgency of late, as the United States enters a new era of monumental reconsideration, evaluation, and often, outright removal. All of the sudden monuments are a hot button issue. Who would've thought? Certainly not Friedlander in the 1970s. To him their inconspicuous nature was an attractant. 

They've now become politically charged (Geoff Dyer wrote articulately on this topic in his October review). Which ones to remove? Which ones remain? How to decide? Not that Friedlander's photos pass any judgement. In fact quite the opposite. "An act of high artistic patriotism," Szarkowski calls them, "an achievement that might help us reclaim that word from ideologues and expediters." For some of the photos recorded in this book, that achievement is the only trace extant. The American Monument's second edition will ensure they remain around a while. As sure as any monument.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


The current Stephen Shore retrospective at MoMA looks great, but unfortunately it's 3,000 miles away. So I've been making due with the show catalog, which is great. I can't think of too many other monographs organized alphabetically like an encyclopedia. Factory, Fashion, Food, Gallatin County, Montana...The topics come in a sort of ordered shuffle, perfect for a scrambled Gen Xer like myself. It's the same reason I alphabetize my socks. It rejuvenates a body of work which might feel too familiar if ordered chronologically.

Forget it.

Browsing the book sent me down a new rabbithole of Streetview sleuthing. As longtime readers know I went through a heavy period of Shore rephotography about ten years back before finally kicking the habit. Somehow this image escaped my re-photographic impulse during the first wave. 

El Paso St. is a great photo and one of Shore's streetiest images. In the new MoMA book a few important pictures are singled out for a lengthy critique by David Campany, and this is one of them: "A photograph that has been structured to feel like a world unto itself is, in a way, a negation of the cutting that is a fundamental aspect of the medium. Or, more accurately, it is a disavowal of it..." 

The review went on but I couldn't understand it. Something about cutting corners or disavowing that act. Who knows. I was curious how this corner is cut now so I tracked it down. The title gives away the street name and Mills St. is visible in the right side of the frame. Thus finding the intersection in Streetview was straightforward. Here's how it looks today from roughly the same vantage point.

Streetview can't visit the exact location, which is just behind the frame to the left. But this is approximate enough to get the general gist. If this view is any indication, El Paso is now far more boring and ugly than it was in 1975. But of course photos can lie, even when they have no author. Maybe especially then.

Depending on which version you have, there are only one to three Uncommon Places photos from my home state of Oregon. Shore shot them on consecutive days, July 20th and 21st, 1973, while traveling south on US 97 down the state's bulging gut. The best known is US 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

For the non-Oregonians the mountain depicted is Mt. Hood, Oregon's tallest point and one of the more iconic peaks in the west. But where exactly is that wasteland behind it? The photo's title US 97 offers a clue, but that's a long piece of highway. There's no exact address in the caption, not many features in the background, and a lot of central Oregon looks pretty similar. All of which I'd found daunting during my first rephotography plunge. But the new Shore book had given me a second wind. Streetview, start your engine.

The shading on the billboard scaffolding indicates that the photo looks north. This is odd since Shore was traveling south at the time. He must've pulled a Frances McDormand U-Turn at the weird sign. In any case the shadows eliminated half my search, since I didn't need to look south. Aiming north I started at the stateline and Streetviewed my way up 97 one mouseclick at a time until I found the spot. Bingo! It was about 10 miles up, halfway between California and Klamath Falls.

The billboard is long gone but the gate, fencing, and telephone poles are the same, as is the distant horizon. Looking at this photo I'm glad we have Shore's photo to enjoy instead of Streetview. The lighting and framing here leave a lot to be desired. But of course authored photos sometimes lie worse than the others.

Two up, two down. Next up was the most problematic image yet, Shore's Merced River, Yosemite Valley, August 13, 1979. 

I've written about this photo a few times on B, once using it as an example to test online color variation, and once about the print at my friend Bruce's home (he's since moved, nearly to El Paso, before settling in Mexico). Not only is it one of my favorite Shore photos it's one of my favorites by anyone. The view is ambiguous. It's hard to pick out any landmarks or direction. Unlike many Yosemite photos there's no drama, no magic. It's just a lonely beach somewhere in the valley. Maybe that equals magic. Or drama. Or maybe it just equals sunbathing. 

Fortunately Christian Storm had already done some of the Streetview legwork. His Virtually Common Tumblr showed Shore's scene in 2014, shot from a bridge over the Merced. This was helpful but still didn't pin down the view.

David Campany's analysis proved to be a red herring: "On the hazy horizon, he included Half Dome, perhaps as a nod to Adams, but to integrate the mountain into his own picture, Shore mirrored its distinctive profile with that of a tree at the extreme right of the frame." 

Hmmm. Anyone who spends a few seconds with this photo will see that Half Dome isn't in it. But I'm slow and it took me a while to conclude this. I thought at first that Half Dome might be hidden or faint, or strangely angled or obscured by clouds. The only way to view the Half Dome from the valley floor is from the west, but the shadows in the photo bent toward Shore. Odd. Who swims mountain streams in the morning? Once again Campany was no help: "Casting shadows like sundials," he wrote, "each person appears suspended in time." Fine, but what did those sundials say? 

It didn't add up, at least not until I widened my search process up to other valley landmarks. Within a few jpgs I knew exactly what I was looking at. This wasn't Half Dome. It was Cathedral Rocks viewed downriver from the east. Cathedral Rocks —Damn, I should know that cliff. I climbed the east buttress of Middle Cathedral in 1998. But alas that was an earlier version of me, a version so unrecognizable he'd never turn up now on Streetview. Campany: "Behind the boy in the water, up on the rocks, is a man." Um, not quite.

To be fair Campany got it half right. Shore's photo pays homage to Adams. But not to Monolith or any other famous Half Dome image. Instead it's this Adams photo: Cathedral Spires and Rocks, 1949

This is the unmistakable formation on the far right skyline of Shore's photo. Instead of relegating it to the horizon it's been singled out for a glorious sun bath, as was Adams' wont.

If Adams tended to romanticize Yosemite he couldn't help it. In fact he was continuing the tradition of those before him. Here's Alvin Langdon Coburn's photo of Cathedral Rocks from 1911: 

Here's how Edweard Muybridge shot them in 1872:

And Carleton Watkins before that in 1861: 

Yes, Cathedral Rocks have a place in photo history. These older views tend to isolate and lift the formation to lord over mundane surroundings. Not Shore. He vacuumed up the whole valley in one scene, rocks, people, beach, river, trees,...a goddamn stroller for crisake. It was the shuffle approach, then in its infancy but about to be ushered into vogue with Shore's help. 

Shore's intent with Merced River went beyond shuffle, and beyond mere documentation. Ever the true photo nerd, he was paying tribute to predecessors, four at once! Of this Campany caught a whiff but not the full story. 

There are few other photos in Uncommon Places (perhaps none?) which rephotograph famous vistas. This one holds a special place. It may be the centerpiece of the entire series, a tangent to the flyfishing quote. This scene is irresistible. I want to shuffle into the frame, strip off my clothes, and sunbathe on the shore, 3,000 miles from any worry.