Lee Friedlander, Maria @Deborah Bell

JTF (just the facts): A total of 32 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1958 and 2008, most printed later. Physical sizes range from roughly 11×7 and 13×9 inches (or reverse), and the prints are uneditioned. (Installation shots below.)

A thick monograph of Friedlander’s family imagery entitled Family in the Picture: 1958-2013 was published in 2014 by Yale University Press (here). Another selection of family pictures was published by Fraenkel Gallery (entitled Family) in 2004 (here). And a small volume devoted to images of Maria was published in 1992 by the Smithsonian Institution Press.

Comments/Context: While life and art tend to be inextricably intermingled for most artists, it is certainly the case that many try hard to keep the two somewhat separate and compartmentalized, often leaving intimate family out of the works that are shown to the public. But at the root of Lee Friedlander’s artistic approach lies an almost constant visual curiosity, and this insatiable energy has manifested itself in his prolific output across more than six decades – Friedlander is an artist who is always shooting, and so it is not at all surprising that given their handy proximity, his family would get swept up in that swirling storm of activity whether they wanted to participate or not.

Given his now prodigious archive of work, it makes sense that he would continue to re-examine and reconsider the growing aggregation as he gets older, pulling out thematic groupings of common subject matter, oftentimes into books. Western landscapes, nudes, self-portraits, cars, parks, mannequins, chain link fences, parties, fashion imagery, politics, children, portraits, pets – the list is seemingly getting longer by the minute, each one a core sample carefully drawn from the larger artistic mass. And while “family” has already been tackled twice now in book form, this gallery exhibit is the first to focus narrowly on Friedlander’s wife Maria on her own. Selected by the artist himself, the show is both a sampler-sized family album and a valentine to his lifelong partner, the warmth and affection of their relationship found in nearly every frame.

Lee and Maria were married in 1957, and the images from the late 1950s and the early 1960s have a calm formality we might not immediately associate with Friedlander. Maria is generally posed by herself, in either closer-in head shots or waist up compositions, the composed intensity of her gaze or the quality of the light falling across her face given central attention. These are straightforward and deliberate portraits, and a few find her holding infants (her children Anna and Erik) with the ease and tenderness of a young mother. The backstory to one pared down image of Maria from 1959 is telling – apparently it was taken with Walker Evans’ view camera when they were out shooting together, and although the portrait came out well, Friedlander complained that the process was much too slow.

Friedlander’s images of Maria from the 1960s and 1970s are much looser, his evolving ideas about composition coming through more clearly. We see Maria drinking coffee at the kitchen table, her arms seen as offsetting angles; a related image of her resting in bed turns those same arms into more densely interlocked forms. An outdoor picture of Maria with friends is boldly interrupted by the upward jutting deck railing. Window frames (both in cars and in the house) add insistent dark lines and bright geometries of light to unbalanced portrait compositions. Shadows and mirrors become useful tools, with Friedlander’s head appearing as a cast shadow on the grass at Maria’s feet. And family scenes and groupings become more cluttered and overlapped, oftentimes with flash lit faces crammed into the frame, selfie-style.

Friedlander’s more recent (largely square format) portraits of Maria document her changing roles, still as partner and companion (in a lovingly goofy mugging selfie at Cannon Beach in Oregon) and as a parent to adult children, but now also as a grandmother. She gamely ticks off all the boxes of fun projects and outings with grandma, each a chance to support, encourage, and teach – baking, baseball in the park, crossword puzzles (an easier puzzle with grandson Giancarlo, the NY Times Sunday puzzle with daughter Anna), knitting, and even hair styling by her granddaughter Ava. Images with her sisters in Italy and with the photographer Henry Wessel (who sadly died earlier this year) are filled with genuine laughter and good will. These later portraits collectively settle into a zone of everyday comfort and consistency, where loving connection with others is really the subject.

This small personal show has more breadth than we might have expected, covering several distinct periods and styles in Friedlander’s work (and it wouldn’t be a Friedlander show if it wasn’t double hung and dense with imagery). While his portraits of Maria aren’t singular examples of his most complex and sophisticated compositional innovations and we don’t learn anything particularly new about his trajectory as an artist from these works, using his wife as a subject for radical photographic experiments was never really Friedlander’s game. Instead what we see is a warmly fond and caring partnership, seen across the arc of passing time, with Friedlander’s love for Maria captured in the always tender and attentive way he took her picture.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $9500 and $14000 each. Friedlander’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with recent prices at auction ranging from roughly $2000 on the low end to as much as $80000 for his most iconic vintage prints. In 2015, a selection of Friedlander’s little screens (38 prints in all) sold for $850000.

Read more about: Lee Friedlander, Deborah Bell Photographs

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