Picks and Pans Review: Like a One-Eyed Cat

updated 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Photographs by Lee Friedlander

An heir to the legacy of master documentarians Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Friedlander has been on the prowl with a 35mm camera for three decades. This retrospective collection of black-and-white photographs taken from 1956 to 1987 and personally selected by Friedlander runs from satiric urban landscapes to a recent series of nudes. Throughout, Friedlander reveals himself to be an elusive stylist with the cool aloofness and raw vitality of a wily alley cat.

The title of this book is a riff from jazzman Joe Turner's signature song "Shake, Rattle and Roll": "Like a one-eyed cat peeking in a seafood store/Well I could look at you/Tell you ain't no child no more." And looking at Friedlander's photographs is indeed like listening to good jazz; the experience may start up an ache or two somewhere even as you find yourself smiling at life's incongruities. His passion for jazz is evident in a series of elegiac photographs from the mid-'50s, showing such greats as Coleman Hawkins and the Count Basie road band. As he moved to other subject matter, Friedlander refined a style of visual improvisation that mirrored the bebop revolution in music. Like his boyhood idol Charlie Parker, whose virtuosic knowledge of jazz allowed him to transcend its conventions, Friedlander broke new ground in photography by flouting unspoken rules other lensmen took for granted. He deliberately included his shadow or reflection in some pictures. In others, he aimed his camera not at the obvious subject but at: something off center. A 1969 picture taken from a car, for example, is dominated by the blur of a passing Volkswagen through which a wedding party is barely visible in the background. In the right foreground a reflection of trees and power lines in a side-view mirror breaks up the visual plane and provides harmonic counterpoint.

Friedlander often celebrates the commonplace in his photographs, which typically have the offhand look of snapshots. His subjects include friends and family, monuments and roadside landmarks, flowers and pets. But he is hardly casual about his craft. He rarely lets a day pass without taking pictures, sharpening his reflexes to capture moments that challenge preconceptions. A series commissioned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985 shows dazed computer workers at their terminals. But the seemingly dull repetition of photographs ironically heightens an awareness of the workers as individuals rather than drones. Likewise, Friedlander's nudes twist unself-consciously—displaying blemishes, underarm hair and all—in front of the camera, defying categorization as either figure studies or voyeuristic abstractions.

In several self-portraits taken in the '60s, Friedlander mugs for the camera with a stone-faced visage as goofy as it is disturbing. This particular one-eyed cat is a strange specimen who knows the truth isn't always pretty but can be pretty funny. (Abrams, $39.95)

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