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Taking It All In : When photographer Lee Friedlander opens his shutter, he records images filled with an array of objects, people and even his own shadow

April 25, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | Steve Appleford is a regular contributor to The Times.

He just seemed to be doing something wrong here in these pictures. Too many awkward light poles and fences and fenders and stray dogs and signposts and side mirrors and his own shadow interfering with the main subject, whatever that might be. Back in the 1960s this was just weird, and not exactly welcome in every corner of the art world.

If Lee Friedlander noticed this rejection in conservative photography circles then, he says he hardly remembers anything about it now. His friends Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus and other photographers pushing the creative limits of the medium were meeting similar fates among patrons and critics, much as Robert Frank's grim series on American culture had a decade before.

These days, Friedlander's black-and-white images from the street, of American monuments and icons, of nudes and self-portraits, of windows and forests, earn almost universal acclaim from critics and others. He's received three Guggenheim Fellowships, among other awards and honors over the years.

"I don't know why things change, but they do," Friedlander says now. "It's possible that the world has become more educated on photography."

That education continues Friday as Friedlander's first major exhibition in Los Angeles opens with a career retrospective at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery. In that upstairs venue, Friedlander's aggressively busy images present a world endlessly complicated by a tangle of buildings, people, cars, statues, telephone wires, signs, trees, limbs and reflections.

In one photograph titled "New York City, 1974," a personal favorite of Friedlander's, a dignified statue of some civic hero is centered in the frame, but ultimately is dwarfed by mankind's truer monument to itself: the chaos of concrete, glass, signage and neon of the modern urban landscape. This layering of visual information is a habit for the photographer, even in his more recent images from nature, which present a similar web of plant life, land and water.

For Friedlander, this interest in all that varied, competing information comes naturally.

"You could have the tree or the forest with the same amount of effort, in terms of what the medium does," he says. "In other words, a 100th of a second (shutter speed) can eat whatever is in front of it. It doesn't matter how much is in front of it, because it renders it all very fast. So why not?"

The modesty of Friedlander's explanation may reflect a personality that separates him from many of his contemporaries and has kept his work amusing and visually interesting, gallery owner Paul Kopeikin suggests.

"With Friedlander, to me it's more of an irreverence and a sense of humor," Kopeikin says. "Not that the others didn't have that, but he has more of it. He can look at the scene and see the nuances. Frank was more interested in making a larger statement, and Winogrand was into shooting a lot and seeing what he had later. Friedlander is definitely trying to capture a scene."

This drive ultimately brought him to a series on statues and monuments, photographed near his home outside New York City and during his regular travels across the country. He took what would seem to be a hopelessly static subject made of marble, stone or bronze, and turned it into material for humor and drama. In one photograph, an armed doughboy statue seems to be creeping behind some oblivious pedestrians.

"It seems pretty stupid, doesn't it? It's a pretty dumb subject," Friedlander says, laughing. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that for 10 years.

"There's something sweet about it in some way. They're the monuments of a young country. It became kind of fascinating--what they were. But as a subject, it's dumb as hell."

Friedlander's interest in photography began when he was a teen-ager growing up in the state of Washington, where he never gave the local statues a second glance. But he did build a home darkroom, endlessly fascinated by the experience of watching an image emerge from a blank sheet of paper in the developing tray.

He eventually came to Los Angeles to study photography at the Art Center, but left, or was asked to leave, after three months.

"I wasn't interested in photographing silverware or glassware," Friedlander says. "That seemed to be a requirement."

But while a student there, he'd been sitting in on the advanced classes taught by photographer Edward Kaminski. "I used to skip classes to go to his class. . . . He was a very interesting character, and he talked interestingly. He sort of encouraged a certain kind of experimentation."

Kaminski offered him a room in his studio, where Friedlander ended up staying for about a year, treated like a part of the teacher's family. And when Kaminski encouraged him to try the New York scene, the young photographer went and never came back.

For several years Friedlander supported himself shooting portraits and album covers for some of the major figures of his beloved jazz scene. By the late 1950s, he had become a regular observer of that world.

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