Old Cars, New Cars, Patterns and Pictures

Lee Friendlander, Self Portrait

When a person whose accomplishments stem from the creative sphere achieves the status of revered artist, it’s fun to look back at the early work that may not have seen the light of day. Work that took the very risks artists are supposed to take may have been underappreciated by the arbiters of acceptance.

Lee Friedlander won the MacArthur genius award in 1990, but back in 1963 – the same year he had his first solo exhibit at the International Museum of Photography — Harper’s Bazaar returned a photo series it had assigned him. Friedlander was paid, but the images were never published. That series, discovered by the photographer a little over a year ago, is now the focus of an exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Friedlander is known for his images of storefronts, street signs, self-portraits in his skivvies, and sometimes includes his own shadow – a blond-haired woman in blond coat, for example, bears  the shadow of his head and shoulders on her back. So what was the magazine thinking when it commissioned him to photograph new models coming out of Detroit?

“Instinctively averse to the sterility of showroom and studio, Friedlander rolled his four-wheeled stars into lively real-world settings,” says Joel Smith, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at Princeton University Art Museum, where Lee Friedlander: Cars and The New Cars is on view through Feb. 5.

In fear of losing its Big Four advertising accounts, the magazine’s art directors “regretfully returned” Friedlander’s work.

Rather than cars gleaming in the sun with sexy models, or as sex symbols themselves, we get a tableau of car culture: a pile of tires, the iconic Texaco horse, lawn tchotchkes, a phone booth (remember phone booths? Images like Friedlander’s preserve them as part of mid 20th-century car culture communication-on-the-go). Friedlander had fun with reflections – in one shop window within a bland tiled wall on a gray wet street, we see a grid of console TVs all tuned to the same channel. He plays with crop lines, using them to create shape and form.

There’s Friedlander himself, driving a pickup truck, viewed from the top of the hood (we know the camera is placed on the hood because we can see its shadow), gripping the steering wheel. Through the rearview window is that late 20th-century village, the suburban tract.

Friedlander takes us from congested streets to rural towns and pastoral fields, sometimes covered with snow.

After Friedlander found The New Cars last year, a San Francisco dealer showed them, and they were subsequently bought by Randi and Bob Fisher. Bob Fisher, Princeton University Class of 1976, is the son of the Gap co-founders, and the Randi and Bob Fisher photography collection has acquired canonical 20th-century photographers, such as Friedlander, in depth, at the rate of a photograph a day.

While at Princeton, Fisher took a history of photography class with Peter C. Bunnell, and fell in love with Walker Evans. The Randi and Bob Fisher collection includes 1,400 works by 40 photographers including Evans, Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Man Ray  and others.

Fisher contacted Joel Smith about his latest Friedlander acquisition, and Smith just happened to have an opening in the schedule. In addition to the 14 works from the Harper’s Bazaar series, Smith supplemented the show with works that feature reflections in sideview mirrors from Fisher Collection as well as PUAM’s collection.

From 1995 to 2009, Friedlander traveled to all 50 states in a rental car, using the sideview mirror, rearview mirror, the windshield, and the side windows as picture frames within which to record reflections of this country’s eccentricities. America by Car, 196 of Friedlander’s square-format photographs, was exhibited at the Whitney last year.

In the adjoining gallery, Pattern/Picture pairs 15 works by students of the Clarence H. White School of Photography with modern and contemporary works from the museum’s collection.

White (1871-1925) was a self-taught photographer and associate of Alfred Stieglitz and member of the Photo-Secession of New York who established the Clarence H. White School of Photography to train commercial photographers in New York City from 1914 to 1942. Among his students were Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge and Laura Gilpin.

Photography was taught as both a fine and practical art. White encouraged students to develop the “capacity to see,” and would give them problems to solve and sentiments and concepts to express.

The archives of the school were acquired by the Princeton collection in the 1980s. Smith is grateful to museum intern Regina Flowers, who this past summer digitized the collection, enabling Smith to embark on a project such as this exhibit. “Since I got here I’ve wanted to make better use of this,” he says.

White School students were encouraged to think like modern artists, says Smith. Rather than mirror nature, they were to reinterpret it.

“Whether framing rhythmic patterns they found in real-world situations, building tile patterns out of mulitiple prints of a close-cropped image, or arranging objects in the studio into patterns for the camera’s eye, White School students aimed to generate formal metaphors for the complexity and rigor of modern experience,” says Smith.

Stacks of books, film spools, safety pin shadows, scaffolding, a series of balconies – all have a rhythm that students of the White School focused their lenses on. We see a kaleidoscope pattern made of a man’s trouser leg and shoe on a brick walk. There are patterns and tile abstractions in the underside of a flight of stairs, in tall buildings, railings or hubcaps.

Smith does his usual brilliant job of showing works in the collection in a new light, with a new theme. He shows Harry Callahan’s pattern of human eyes against a black background or Jean-Pierre Sudre’s Rorschach-like inkblot, “Apocalypse II,” Lilo Raymond’s bedroom with floral striped wallpaper and a patterned chenille bedspread. Even Torbjorn Rodland’s “Practical Photography” – a 5-by-6-foot chromogenic print on aluminum of a stack of the eponymous magazines from May 2002 to December 2004 — fits beautifully among these patterns.

Danny Lyon, whose photographs of the lower Manhattan neighborhood being razed for the building of the World Trade Center in the 1970s were featured prominently in PUAM’s recent Life and Death of Buildings exhibit, is worked into this pattern exhibit with an image of a maximum security death row facility viewed from the guard tower. Smith finds patterns in the men who are on work detail “like cogs in a machine” and patterns of pistols. “It’s a classic example of pattern found in the real world,” he says.

Lee Friedlander: Cars and The New Cars and Pattern/Picture are on view through Feb. 5 at the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University campus. Artmuseum.princeton.edu

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One Response to Old Cars, New Cars, Patterns and Pictures

  1. Thanks, Ilene, this looks like an exciting show.

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