Whether or not you agree with Peter Galassi, MOMA’s chief curator of photography, who claims Lee Friedlander is one of the great artists of the 20th century, you now have a rare chance to decide for yourself. Not since its Eugene Atget show, mounted over several years in the 1980s, has MOMA organized such a monumental tribute to a single photographer. “Friedlander” is more than a blockbuster—it is historic. Having recently purchased 1,000 images—its largest acquisition of work by a living photographer—the museum offers nearly half these pictures and almost an entire floor to document this 50-year career.
It helps that Friedlander has been extremely prolific since he began working in the late 1950s, shooting portraits of jazz musicians for album covers (several examples of which greet viewers at the entrance and represent the only color photos shown). Friedlander’s lifelong love of jazz clearly shapes the formally rigorous yet improvisational style that defines his snapshot aesthetic. It is also evident in his desire to return again and again to the same subjects, or standards, if you will—street scenes, self-portraits, landscape, monuments, workers, and nudes.
Deliberately organized around these repetitive themes, the exhibition demonstrates Friedlander’s ability to reinvent his favorite subject matter, and his career, over the years. Limited-edition books, also on view, reveal a similar impulse to revisit familiar themes. Still, Friedlander’s constant embrace of visual accident and chaos is the real key to his skillful revivals. In the end, it is the layering of images within images, the obstructed views, reflective surfaces, out-of-focus blurs, and all those unintended captures that make Friedlander’s images cumulatively compelling and unmistakably his own.