Lee Friedlander: Real Estate
Probably the best photograph that actor Dennis Hopper, a talented amateur, ever took is called “Double Standard.” It depicts a Los Angeles streetcorner from the front seat of a convertible. The camera was a Nikon, the year was 1961, and the lens caught a true profusion of detail—a gas station with two “Standard” signs (hence the title), overhead wires, a Chevy waiting for the light (with more cars visible in the rear-view mirror), and a pedestrian similarly waiting to go.
The sensibility of “Double Standard” is exactly reflected in the black-and-white work shown in the new Lee Friedlander collection, somewhat misleadingly titled Real Estate. The cover photo, from New Mexico in 2005, is one of the few in the book that’s just about buildings, and even that one has a road in the foreground—implying movement back and forth. The buildings in this book, which presents 155 photos over 60 years, aren’t static.
The Guardian wrote that Hopper’s work overall lacked the “visual complexity” of Friedlander, and that’s exactly right. Most of the actor’s work achieves heft by his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. Friedlander sees beauty in everyday life. “In a Friedlander picture, the houses have personalities,” writes Peter Kayafas in an Afterword. “The buildings look like they’ve been caught in the act of doing something embarrassing.” And that’s accurate, too.
People often don’t pose for Friedlander; instead, they’re caught by him in the midst of life. Real Estate largely takes people out of the equation, though the lovely first photo (featuring a waving Oregon beauty queen in 1972) suggests otherwise. People are there, but as details, part of that visual complexity. Cars actually have a bigger role, patiently parked at the curb (their age reflecting the date of the photo) or waiting at lights a la Hopper.
The houses are not seen in Ansel Adams austerity or Diane Arbus macabre. The buildings are shot at a remove, with curbs and lawns, even the odd shadow, putting them in context. In a photo from Alburquerque in 1975, a spindly tree perfectly bisects two lawn chairs in front of a house with a prominent awning. The neighbor’s fence is in the picture, too. Another tree rises up like a giant hand in Chicago, ready to devour the house in front of it.
A mansion in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 2008 foregrounds the auto dashboard it was shot from. In 1985, a pair of huge lit-up candy canes lean at angles to frame (and seemingly dwarf) a modest house in Suffern, New York. Other Christmas decorations—including a malevolent-looking Santa—serve the same purpose in an image from San Angelo, Texas, in 1997. Shadows and light play on a house of sharp angles in 2005 Utah. The somewhat lonely image evoked that other Hopper, Edward.
People do appear. A resilient-looking mountain man, hands at his side, is framed in the doorway of his rough Alaska cabin in 1967. The effect is not of a hippie getting back to the land, but a sodbuster on the endless prairie in 1870. In a rare posed image, firefighters line up in front of a still-smoldering house in Minneapolis, 1966.
There’s something about the way Friedlander shoots cars that makes his photographs instantly recognizable. The eye is drawn to the foregrounded Corvair coupe in an image from New York in 1969, bypassing the uniformed young man behind. A very symmetrical shot from Oregon in 1972 is composed in exactly the same way, a Ford Galaxie its star. In some photos, the artist uses his rear-view mirror to add complexity and to show that (Washington State, 1970) behind one row of houses is another just like it.
Classic Lee Friedlander from Los Angeles in 1970: A wide, open street, an endless blank sky, a lone pedestrian on the sidewalk, cars to the fore, a double row of houses like Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes.” The few trees are like exclamation points.
Some work collected at the end of the book is shot from a distance, showing bridges, rooftops, skylines. It lacks Friedlander’s distinctive touch. He is at his best as a close-up observer. The book closes with a row of underwear on a line in suburban Fort Lee, New Jersey, circa 1976.
Henry David Thoreau’s quote “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” was used to promote a book of Ansel Adams photos. Friedlander instead uses Knut Hamsun from Growth of the Soil. “I think I’ll walk here awhile, and look at houses,” he said. “I can’t sleep, so I count the windows.” In Real Estate, he counts the windows, and more.