Friedlander at CMA
Currently the Cleveland Museum of Art is featuring a touring retrospective of Lee Friedlander's work. The show is a revelation; as someone who had always loved Friedlander's work, but only knew it from books and isolated images, this show ties a huge body of work together, making sense of his aesthetic and many recurring motifs. Friedlander is one of those artists who might be described politely as an "acquired taste" by some; and that's OK, because sometimes things are worth the effort of "acquisition". With that qualification, I took one of my classes (Intro to Photography) on a field trip to CMA to see the exhibition. Jokingly, I suggested that half of them may hate it, but that's OK. It's important in teaching not to impose an aesthetic or taste on your students, rather to lead by exposure and suggestions, to broaden views and expectations. Often they want to know what the "right" answer is, to find out what it is I want, when in fact I want them to figure out the "right" answer and what it is they want. I don't care if they do or don't like Friedlander, for example, but rather to take a look at it and challenge their expectations, and relate it to what they do. The fun thing about seeing new stuff is that you can't take it back, it's like eating the fruit of knowledge, once you see new sights, hear new sounds, it becomes part of your vernacular, lodged in your brain to be called upon later. Like the jazz musicians he photographed early in his career, Freidlander improvises and riffs on themes, and creates angular and amusing series of photographs out of the most unexpected subjects. Reflections and surfaces, deliberately cut subjects, unrelenting vertical dissections, images within images, motifs of letters, numbers, graffiti--the word "willful" comes to mind. Architecture and nudes share awkward angles and unflattering poses, eyes closed and dour expressions frozen in snap shots and self portraits, and forests which can't be seen for the trees all mark these unlikely images.
Armed with an assignment asking them to identify at least six recurring motifs, and to pick a series which they liked most (or disliked least), I set them lose on the exhibition. I will see the results of the assignment next week, but it was gratifying to see most of them really take a long, hard look at the show. Talking with them, pointing out themes and ideas, and listening to their reactions as they perused the photos I saw a real engagement which may very well have been a reaction to the rather oblique body of work. Reactions progressed from shrugs and disbelief to amusement and interest, and settled into rather strong opinions for and against various series of work. We gathered at the end of the exhibit and walked back through, as I pointed out some of my favorites and observations on the show, with reactions and input from the students.
As one of the photographers who originally inspired me, and whose influence I feel constantly in my work (yes, wedding work), it was an amazing experience to not only see this show, but to see another group of aspiring photographers and students take something away from it as well.
If you are anywhere in the area, I would urge you to not miss this show. I would love to hear what you think of it if you do go, or are familiar with his work...