The Model Wife
Excerpt from the book The Model Wife, by Arthur Ollman, Director of the Museum of Photographic Art
Lee Friedlander (b. 1934)
Lisette Model said, "There is nothing so mysterious as a fact clearly presented." Lee Friedlander's photographs are both clear and mysterious. Their mystery lies not in identifying the subjects or in deciphering the techniques whereby they were made, but rather in recognizing the person who chose to make them. He is an elusive figure and a taciturn one. He is prolific. His art is pure, unmanipulated, straight seeing. He has never mixed media, rarely worked in color or large format, he has not philosophized obscurely, or even been usefully interviewed. His statements are disarmingly simple. He is not a theoretician.
Friedlander seems to have found himself when he came upon 35mm photography. This became the only outlet for his proclamations, the only mechanism of his interests and passions. Yet his practiced stance of neutrality masks his very human search for a vision. He can be maddeningly understated about his work: "I tend to photograph the things that get in front of my camera." Friedlander's art is famous for its obsessive, uninflected neutrality; a flat picture making style which emphasizes his curiosity and desire to be clear. His aestheticising is of an astringent sort. There is no nostalgia, only present-tense description. "I always have a mistrust of subjects that look perfect," he says. He has no interest in the symbolic or the metaphoric. He is a specifist. He prefers the time in between the decisive moments, the ungainly, accidental, casual, unmemorable instant; that which is far more common and real in all our lives.
Lee Friedlander is not a romantic. He is incompatible with sentimentality in art. It is interesting then, to look at his photographs of his wife Maria. He has photographed her for 40 years. Is this work free of nostalgia and romanticism, is it all just visual curiosity?
Friedlander was born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington. His mother died when he was seven. His father felt unable to raise him and sent him to live with a farmer about 110 miles south of Seattle, where he grew up. He met Maria de Paoli in 1957. He was twenty-three, she twenty-four. She was a child of an Italian neighborhood in New York, surrounded by the tumult of family and community. Working at Sports Illustrated as an editorial assistant, she ran into the young Lee Friedlander who was trying to get assignments at the magazine.
The photographs of Maria are notably free of some of Friedlander's most typical attitudes. The images usually feature Maria as the dominant figure of a relatively simple scene. The frames tend not to be cluttered. They are intimate, participatory views. Lee Friedlander is cool, even diffident, but his warmth is showing at the center of his life. (left: Lee Friedlander, Arches National Park, Utah, 1972, gelatin silver print, collection Museum of Photographic Arts)
Maria is seen calmly, dignified, alert, and gently admired. She often shows eye contact -- she was given an instant to compose herself -- in essence to create her own self-portrait. She is seen as a daughter, a cousin, a wife, a mother, a reader, a homemaker, a regular and companionable traveling partner. While rarely presented sexually, it is clear she is loved. The images are often sensual, and tactile references abound. In one, her daughter brushes her hair. In another, Maria sleeps in the sun, shadows gently brushing her cheek in a cafe. Friedlander's art identifies a solid, trusting family structure. His selection of daily observation reaches high poetry.
Friedlander's pictures of Maria show that even in his uninflected way of picture making, with its trope of neutrality and curiosity, that love and dependence are absolutely unlike other emotions. Love looks different than simple curiosity. Tenderness and respect, no matter how alloyed with other complex emotions, are inconsistent with neutrality. The photographs of Maria Friedlander illustrate affection that is both apparent and considerable. She has been shown to be an attractive, intense, intelligent, and loved partner. No other person appears as often in his work and no other personality is as fully described. For more than forty years, the Friedlanders continue to produce this extraordinary group of images, so long as Maria continues to "get in front of" his camera.
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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11
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