REVIEW Throughout Lee Friedlander’s 50-year oeuvre, much of which is now on display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the photographer has been lauded for his liveliness, optimism, and mobility. Yet his paean to modern Americana often resembles monochrome memento mori. Taken as a whole, Friedlander’s work has always seemed driven to two poles: the ephemeral and the haunting.
Heavily impressed by the avant-naturalism of European photographers Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as the postWorld War II experimentalism of Robert Frank, Friedlander staked his claim at a moment in the 1950s when the photograph transcended the moribund category of journalistic tool and became its own art form. Modeling much of his working method around Cartier-Bresson’s so-called decisive moment, Friedlander’s timeless images still have a striking past tense about them. Now ossified on film, these thousand microcosmic moments, captured throughout the 1960s and ’70s, seem like lively obituaries.
While Friedlander first made a name for himself as a contractor for Atlantic Records where he shot such musicians as Ornette Coleman he was never a celebrity photographer. In fact, his most intriguing work resulted from a personal obsession with traveling and shooting the country, crisscrossing between New York and his home state of Washington. And so the images of nocturnal motel rooms, cycloptic TV sets, and storefront tessellations conjure the American dynamism and dread of Vladimir Nabokov or David Lynch. The plethora of windows and mirrors in his street photography admit countless apertures through which to see his subjects. But Friedlander’s playful sense of humor always appears just within the clutches of something inexplicably sinister like the cartoonish shadows that often hover into his frame. Though his more recent work in portraiture, nudes, and particularly in nature may suffer slightly from the inevitable cooling of youth’s ambition, Friedlander’s baroque attention to detail and depth of field are unmatched. This is a definitive exhibition on one of America’s most ingenious, albeit conflicted, photographers. The photographer’s son Erik Friedlander will perform pieces from his album Block Ice and Propane (SkipStone, 2007) on April 24, 8 p.m., $12$15, at Phyllis Wattis Theater.
"FRIEDLANDER" Through May 18. Mon.Tues., Fri.Sun., 11 a.m.5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.8:45 p.m.
$7$12.50, free for members and 12 and under. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF. (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org