“Nothing is As Invisible as a Monument”
The publication of the second edition of Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument, some forty years after the original is propitious and coincidental. Besides making available an important work by a master photographer that has long been out of print ( It is considered by many, including Lee Friedlander himself, to be one of his most influential books of the last five decades). the current controversies being paid to the icons of American history make this collection additionally useful. First published in 1976 by the Eakins Press, which has its own interesting history,* this tome contains 213 black and white photographs on unnumbered pages and is designed to resemble a personal photograph album with the book held together by screw posts. It should not go unsaid that Lee Friedlander viewed his main project as the creation of books of which he published many. It was said of him,” Tireless photographer… the maniacally inclusive but blessedly nonchalant cataloguer of Americana–her monuments, jazz musicians, and urban landscapes-”
A quick scan of YouTube yields a number of videos constructed of Friedlander stills. There was one using Miles Davis’s All Blues as the soundtrack—which being eleven minutes long allows you to see many photos. Director David Lynch produced a five-minute clip entitled The Big Dream
The commentary on this work in addition to an elucidating afterword by Eakins Press founder Leslie George Katz and a second afterword appended to this new edition by Museum of Modern Art curator Peter Galassi who assembled the first Friedlander retrospective in 2005. Stephen Maine astutely observes**
As a category of objects, Friedlander seems to say, its distinguishing feature is contingency in relationship to its site. Thus even forty years ago, the very phrase “American monument,” if not exactly an oxymoron, carried a sense of the provisional, the negotiable. If the planners’ original vision was compromised over time, well — that’s just what happens when the idealized concept meets destabilizing patterns of actual, everyday use. It becomes a case study in perpetuity.
In the interim since 1976, the social landscape has also evolved, and the propaganda function of public monuments has received intense scrutiny. WhileThe American Monumenttakes no explicit political position on this issue, driven instead primarily by curiosity about affection for the genre itself, it is simply not possible to see some of these images in the same way we once might have. “People want leadership not only from the living but from the dead,” writes Leslie George Katz in the book’s original essay… But what people, and from which dead?
Lee Friedlander, “Mount Rushmore. South Dakota” (1969), gelatin silver print, 8 1/16 x 12 1/8 inches
…but like the landmarks it documents, The American Monument has a dynamic relationship to its context. A quick Google search (as the reader will have surmised by now) facilitates casual research of the sites, which was far more difficult forty years ago. While a web search dispels some of the tantalizing mystery of these pages, it doesn’t diminish the power of the images. Their humor, awkwardness, and pathos remain intact. It’s the same book, but we use books differently now, and the user’s experience of The American Monument isn’t the same. And how could it be?
Lee Friedlander, “Father Duffy. Times Square, New York, New York” (1974), gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 11 1/4 inches (all photographs © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery and Eakins Press Foundation)
Geoff Dyer, another erudite commentator on many subjects, including photography, delights
…Unlike [Gary]Winogrand, Friedlander hasn’t given up on editing, but he is more interested in taking pictures and getting them out than in scrupulously curating his own oeuvre. “It’s a generous medium, photography,” he is quoted as saying in the epigraph to the MoMA catalog. He was thinking particularly of a picture of his uncle, which also included a bunch of other, unintended information. “The American Monument” came about in similar fashion, when he noticed that memorials and statues of all kinds cropped up in multiple contact sheets, some of which were primarily concerned with other matters. After that, he began seeking out such monuments in the course of his travels throughout the States. Eventually he had enough pictures for a book — which, in Friedlander-ese, means more than enough. The original edition boiled thousands of potential candidates down to 213, the bulk of them taken between 1971 and 1975, supplemented by a brilliant afterword by Leslie George Katz. That essay still feels remarkably fresh in the reprint, even though Katz’s observations occasionally gleam with a faith in the assumption of the continued worth of monuments that may turn out to be “discredited,” “outmoded” or ironically apposite, as when he says of their power, “Something like racial memory is at work.”
Robert Musil wrote that nothing is as invisible as a monument, and Friedlander in the 1970s relished the simple and complex task of making the invisible visible. He did this by showing how monuments hide in plain sight: subsumed by traffic, by familiarity, by the abundance of incidental detail he “got” in that picture of his uncle. The poet Siegfried Sassoon expressed the cruel paradox of remembrance while contemplating the Cenotaph, dedicated to the dead of the First World War, in London: “Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial/Means.” Friedlander’s photos read like an almost-random survey of the aesthetics and meanings of all kinds of monument — and of how easy it is to forget what is meant to be remembered.
Lee Friedlander, “The Bronco Buster. Civic Center Mall, Denver, Colorado” (1972), silver print, 1 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches
…The album is essentially the same as it was in 1976, but we view it rather differently. Monuments, after all, are also mirrors. So, for that matter, are the windows (often of cars) through which we see them — and few photographers have had more fun than Friedlander exploiting, exploring and reflecting on the capacities of these two pieces of technology to complicate what is shown in a frame. Dependent on all manner of mirroring, both felicitous and contrived, the slim volume Friedlander published before “The American Monument” was a collection of self-portraits. The self of which the pictures in the reprinted book offer a composite portrait is, of course, America.
But I think we are moved more deeply by Friedlander’s intuitions concerning the nature of America’s relationship to its past, concerning the vernacular materials out of which with attention we might fashion a culture, concerning the evidence of these countless attempts to preserve and nourish the idea of community. I am still astonished and heartened by the deep affection in those pictures, by the photographer’s tolerant equanimity in the face of the facts, by the generosity of sprit, the freedom from pomposity and rhetoric. One might call this work an act of high artistic patriotism, an achievement that might help us reclaim that work from ideologues and expediters. His work, in sum, constitutes a conversation among the symbols that we live among and that to some degree we live by. It reminds us of the strength of an alternative American tradition to that of Thoreau and Whitman and Stieglitz, with its constant insistence on the big I. His work recalls Thomas Eakins, the painter; and Walker Evans, the photographer; and Wallace Stevens, who said, “It is important to believe that the visible is the equivalent of the invisible….”
The American Monument is a beautifully produced book (master printer Richard Benson produced the halftone negatives) It’s an important and engaging book and most of all ,its a great pleasure to look through. Again and again…
Eakin Press founder Leslie George Katz proclaimed its mission to be:
“The works of the Eakins Press Foundation are selected from classic and contemporary literature and art relevant to values currently embattled. In content and form they defend human excellence. Together they suggest that advanced technology is a tool and not a substitute for intelligence, that modernity need not outmode humane capacity. The symbol of the Eakins Press Foundation is a leaf and a hand, signifying nature and the works of man as counterparts. Man is and remains a creature of nature capable of cultivation, and art is the measure of his life.”
Here’s a clever, entertaining video preview of The American Monument
A five minute collage of Friedlander photos with a great monologue of how Friedlander worked backed by a jazz soundtrack