Anthony Friedkin, The Surfing Essay @Daniel Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1974 and 2016. Physical sizes are either 11×14, 16×20, or 20×24 inches (or reverse), and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was recently published by drkrm editions (here).

Comments/Context: My first reaction to Anthony Friedkin’s recent gallery show (entitled The Surfing Essay) was to think to myself just how hard it is to make a good photograph of ocean waves. Very, very few photographers have done it well. It’s a subject that lends itself to cheesy cliches and bland sunset views, and for those that have tried to dig a little deeper to get at their unchecked power and ferocity (like Clifford Ross and his hurricane-charged smashers), waves have proven themselves to be mightily uncooperative.

The Surfing Essay brings together two largely separate bodies of work – Friedkin’s wave images, mostly made in the past two decades, and his pictures of life in the surfing community in and around Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s. The two make an insightful foil for each other, as the wave images add a dose of hypnotic elemental spirituality to the grittiness and swagger of the surf culture, the combination providing a more rounded view of the subject.

Friedkin’s photographs of waves are unexpectedly accomplished, showing us both a broad range of wave formations and types and capturing the waves with a sensitive eye for tonality and texture. Part of the intelligence embedded in the pictures comes from actually being in the water – Friedkin isn’t standing on the beach making pictures of waves from a calculated distance, he’s floating out in the surf, day in and day out, making the pictures that a local would make.

What he’s shown us is that the break of a wave can happen in a nearly infinite variety of ways. There are messy, frothy breaks and glidingly smooth breaks, and everything in between. His pictures document the sparkling glare of sunlight on the face of a wave, the dark sculptural curl underneath, and the pebbled surface of the water caught for just a split second like ice. Waves rumble straight forward, slice off at angles, and boil in angry tumultuous swirls. They twist into tight coils like metallic tubes, dissolve in sprays of mist, and fall like textured dunes. And when there’s a lull in the action, the wind on the water creates gnarled undulating surfaces. Friedkin has captured all of this in luminous black and white, the subtleties of gradation managed with understated control.

A few images capture the scene from a water’s eye view, not unlike the works of Asako Narahashi. These pictures remind us that the waves aren’t an arms length setup, but an enveloping force. As we drop near the waterline, it feels like we are nearly drowning; when the nose of the surfboard pokes into the view, we know were still riding along on top of the water. Friedkin even gives us watery self portrait, with his wetsuit covering his head and his eyes just above the water. This is clearly a man who has spent a meaningful amount of time in the water.

The images from dry land tell a different story, where surfing becomes an easy going lifestyle rather than a communion with the waves. Friedkin provides a cross section of life in Venice, Malibu, Santa Monica, Topanga Canyon, and other southern California locales, his cast of characters ranging from buffed out pro surfer Laird Hamilton to surfboard shaper Roger Horsee, with various other surfers, skateboarders, and hangers-on populating his scenes. Lines of cocaine, quaaludes, and mountains of pot buds allude to relaxing, partying, and getting high (or low) after a long day in the water, and naked or semi-naked suntanned bodies provide another clue to the mellowness of the social activity. More seriousness can be found among the activities of the board makers, where blanks are stacked up, sanded dust fills the air, and boards are tended with patient care.

The Surfing Essay doesn’t quite rise to the same level of nuance and sophistication as Friedkin’s better known project The Gay Essay (reviewed here), but its atmospheric qualities are still seductive. In the end, his many narrative threads all come back to the waves, the magnetic power of the water itself influencing everything else around it.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3000, $4000, or $4500, based on size. Friedkin’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Anthony Friedkin, Daniel Cooney Fine Art, drkrm Editions

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