Prickly Subjects

Desert close-ups probe Lee Friedlander's psyche

By almost any measure, "An Excess of Fact," Lee Friedlander's photographs of the Sonoran Desert at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography, is an extraordinary event. It pairs one of the nation's most distinctive photographers with a subject that's relatively new to him and consistently elusive to most photographers. The 94 black-and-white pictures--edited from Friedlander's hundreds of desert shots--reveal as much about the character of the terrain as they do about Friedlander's approach to thinking about and photographing it.

Friedlander says he began making pictures of the desert about 15 years ago. Coming out once or twice a year from his home just up the Hudson River from New York City, he would spend up to three or four weeks at a time roaming the Saguaro National Monument and Catalina State Park, outside Tucson. He also wandered portions of the Sonoran in northern Mexico. Up until around 1990, he bounced back and forth between using his 35-millimeter camera and a panoramic camera. Then he found he could make the images he sought with a slightly larger format wide-angle camera. All of the images in the show were made since then. Hung in long rows without labels or captions describing specifics, the pictures are an exclusively visual tour.

In addition to a lack of narrative, they offer no sense of chronology; no sense of how they--and Friedlander's approach to them--evolved; no hope of ever knowing or understanding them except by looking. This is vintage Friedlander. Over the years, he has razor-honed his artist's natural distrust of supplementing or explaining his pictures with words. Asked what attracted him to the desert after years of shooting places that were more urban or intimate, he says simply, "I don't know, probably all that stuff fits me well. And I just kind of gradually fell in love with it."

Pressed to say why it fits him, he replies with quizzical friendliness, "I don't know. You asked me a question and I tried to answer it. I'm not sure what that means." And asked whether photographing the desert altered his view of it, he says, "I would probably answer yes, but then you're going to ask me what that change is, and I don't really know what it is. Yet I'm sure that's true."

One gets the feeling Friedlander's reticence to say too much about his work stems less from any intellectual gamesmanship than from a belief that the process of making photographs is fundamentally magical, even sacred--that their abstraction of the world into tones of gray, black and white is miracle and explanation enough. What's apparent is that Friedlander's are far from typical photographs of the West. They don't contain the Wagnerian early- and late-day light that helped to give photographs by Ansel Adams and his followers their immediate, seductive appeal. Instead they show the pervasive effects of midday sun, when even shadows appear to be squinted away by light. And there are no picturesque vistas of mountains kissing the sky. In fact, the horizon is usually barely more than a patch of light at the top edge of his pictures. And occasionally there seems to be no sky at all.

Friedlander's focus is on the desert close at hand and under foot--a light-bleached jungle of tangled paloverde, creosote, ocotillo, mesquite and other desert growth that looms in front of anyone moving off the beaten path. Because the depth of field in his photographs is fairly long, the foreground webs of crisscrossing branches lead the eye easily back through more layers of gradually softening details. As a result, they compel viewers to repeat Friedlander's beachcombing process of wandering and poking through the landscape, of discovering its subtle variations, textures and the sights or thoughts that aroused his eye and mind.

These might include his shadow lying like a patch of camouflage on the ground, or his face peering from behind a web of branches, or occasional jewels of form--the precise symmetry of agaves, saguaros and prickly pear cactus or the lazy outline of distant hills, for example--resting in chaotic swarms of branches and brush, like perfect shells in heaps of tide rack. It's tempting to say such layering of often abstract lines and shapes gives the pictures an almost painterly quality. But Friedlander quickly points out that it's "actually very photographic, because the camera does it in a fraction of a second."

In Friedlander's case, however, this layering is more than just a given of the medium. Throughout his career, he has worked the visual layers of a place to highlight ironic, often poignant juxtapositions of facts in a scene. His ironies have frequently been urban and social. The desert obviously offers few opportunities to tap either of those. Yet, similar to the clouds that Alfred Stieglitz photographed as "Equivalents," the Sonoran landscape seems to have given Friedlander a fresh subject for exploring and summarizing what he has learned in nearly 50 years of looking and shooting. His preoccupation with obscured views and the closeness of desert growth seems almost autobiographic. As if instead of looking out on a scene, one is peering in. Not at the landscape, but at Friedlander's mind looking at the landscape.

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