Monday, February 12, 2018

Thoughts On Instagram

Somehow I missed Ingrid Goes West during its theatrical release last summer. But it turned up on the screen menu on my recent flight to LA. I knew nothing about it and I had two hours to kill so I took a chance. Dammed if Ingrid Goes West didn't turn out to be the best film I've ever seen about Instagram. It may in fact be the only one, but let's not split hairs.

The opening montage sets the tone for later events, a series of brief clips showing Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) engaged with her Instagram account in various situations. Wherever she goes —in a restaurant, on the toilet, walking, by her nightstand before sleep— she's in deep meditation with her phone. In other words, she looks a lot like many people we see in public nowadays. Which might be ok under some circumstances, but Ingrid appears to have no real-world friends whatsoever. Instead Instagram has supplanted her natural social fabric.


From Ingrid Goes West




The key member of Ingrid's online community is Taylor Sloane, a lifestyle guru and Instagram star in Los Angeles. Ingrid tracks her every move through IG. Obsession transforms into creepiness as Ingrid goes west, makes an awkward attempt to befriend Sloane —no, to become her— and gradually insinuates herself into her life. Ingrid's infatuation spirals into self destruction. By the time she hits rock bottom she's squatting in a vacant bungalow with the utilities cut off, her money exhausted, stalking her fantasy BFF next door. It gets even worse from there but I won't give away the ending. Suffice to say it's a modern dramedy —albeit a very dark one— and a morality tale. One take home lesson: Beware Instagram. Beware the fuck out it.

Ingrid's journey is an extreme case but I suspect most people reading this can relate to it on some level. Instagram has a way of worming its way into your life and then expanding its hold. If left unchecked it can supplant reality. Initially it fills the small moments between larger tasks. Soon enough it becomes a daily fix. Other duties are pushed aside.... Excuse me a moment....OK, there...Now, where was I?... Sorry, writing is harder than it once was. I can hardly finish a paragraph now without interrupting every twenty seconds to check my Instagram feed. Sometimes I can go thirty. Obviously I'm joking. Sort of. But Instagram does work its dark magic in subtle ways. 

Apparently there is an entire network of so-called "influencers" like Taylor Sloane who make an actual income posting photos of their daily lives. I'm not sure how it works exactly, something to do with sponsorships or glamour or other inane shit. Products get plugged, fantasies take root, etc. These people serve the role of micro-celebrities, a few notches down from Hollywood and magazine covers but still able to leverage their status into a decent living. A good gig if you can get it. 

That's one application for Instagram. But honestly I find few things more boring than celebrity. What I'm more curious about is Instagram's relationship with photography? It is, after all, the primary online sharing platform for photographers today —at least until something better comes along. How does the medium shape the message?


From Be Here Now, 1971, Ram Dass
One key trait of IG is its ephemeral nature. I was a fan of Ram Dass back in the day, and his famous adage could be the motto of Instagram: "Be Here Now". Only one image is shown at a time before it's replaced by another. Viewers tend to scroll through these images quickly, and any given photo has only a split-second to make an impression. 

The fleeting nature of the medium rewards simple, direct photographs. Images whose subtleties might require more time to digest, or with small bits of visual data difficult to view on a phone, do not work was well. Pun-oriented street photos tend to work well. So do pictures of your breakfast. Large format desertscapes? Hmm, not so much. 

I'm as much as victim as anyone. When I place photos on IG I find my choices are subtly conditioned by the environment. I usually post simple, obvious photos. But those are generally the type I take anyway with my phone so it all works out.

There's also the streaming structure of Instagram to consider (I wrote about this a few years ago in regard to Tumblr). Instagram combines various streams into a central pipeline, separating individual photographs from any original context. They're then reorganized and fed to viewers according to their personal taste. This means that photos must survive on their own, away from projects, supporting text, or historical ties. All of which further reinforces the drive toward simple, direct messaging. 

Of course streaming isn't just for Instagram. It's the basic distribution model for all digital media. Whereas once upon a time a person might buy films, books, or music to incorporate into a personal collection, increasingly such content is no longer owned. The hivemind cloud is the library, containing virtually all creative output. Just dip your beak when you want and let it flow. For photographers a viewer is less likely to buy or own a physical photograph than to simply stream it on Instagram. One could say that IG is the Spotify of photography, with similar backroom algorithms directing viewership to certain content. In both platforms, you are shown content according to previously established taste. 


Caught in the Instagram stream


Spotify has a slightly different payment structure. In theory bands are paid per stream. But for most bands the amount is negligible. I don't think Instagram's micro-celebrity model is tenable on Spotify. Unless you are Kendrick Lamar the financial equation is virtually the same as Instagram: leasing content for peanuts/free.

Damon Krukowski makes a strong case that Spotify's payment system is a corrupt model. He advocates the elimination of royalties, to be replaced by free streaming for all online content. Artists would make up the difference on physical sales, or live presentations, or, I dunno, somehow or other. It's never made quite clear. 

In other words, Krukowski wants Spotify to become more like Instagram or Youtube. You can go onto either service today and stream content repeatedly at zero expense. For photographers, this is more or less the way it's always been. Jpegs are extremely hard to monetize, so streaming photos for free makes a certain amount of sense. There might be some drawbacks to Spotify adopting this model, but at least it would wrest control over music from corporate tastemakers, who'd no longer be incentivized to hype certain content over other content. 

Anyhoo...Once you begin posting to Instagram there are subtle rewards which encourage you down the rabbithole. The most obvious are likes (❤️s). Back in Tumblr's heyday notes served a similar purpose. But ❤️ s on Instagram are much easier to come by than notes ever were. A quick double tap on the phone screen does the trick. Why hold back? Each one sends a little dopamine jolt to the original poster, and maybe to the liker too. It's like waving a flag near a bull. Red is a powerful color, in this case the color of affirmation. Instagram and their parent company Facebook use it strategically. Blue, on the other hand, might be more of a downer, although it's said to work well in content.

The other thing you want is followers. At the top of Instagram's screen is your running tally to date, centered above the kingdom below like the third eye of Ram Dass. Or perhaps video game scoring is a better comparison. Use Instagram longer and better and you'll see the score creep upward. Where does it end? Furthur, that's where. Like Tetris or Donkey Kong, a process which might be enjoyable enough on its own is given a goal-oriented twist, and thus winds itself a bit tighter across the ❤️ . 

Generally most reactions to a new post occur within the first 24 hours before quickly tailing off. The quantity of followers or likes is irrelevant. A new post always yields a similar curve:



After about an hour, most photos will generate enough data to extrapolate the total number of likes a photo will ever receive. The curve doesn't lie. Let the red line mark one hour, count likes at that point, then scale along the curve to any later date. Whether you have 1,000,000 followers or 50, collectivized nature rarely varies. It's almost as if we're mere numbers plugged into a cosmic scorekeeper, just passing time until judgement day. 



The fun posts occur when the curve does lie, or seems to. Anyone who has posted photos to Instagram has had the experience of uploading an absolute no-doubt winner, only to see it fall flat online. Sometimes the opposite happens. You post a photo you're lukewarm about, just to test the waters, and it gains more traction than expected. The curve isn't actually lying about these —the shape never varies— but its scale can offer surprises. And these surprises are one of Instagram's best lessons. You're essentially using hivemind to get outside eyeballs on your photos. It's a quick litmus test, useful as long as you don't become overly reliant.

How to gain ❤️ s and followers? Let me count the ways. There are a million strategies. I've heard you can buy both online somewhere, but what fun is that? Fortunately most methods are contained in a concise book called How To Win Friends And Influence People. It was written in 1936 by Dale Carnegie. He never saw a computer in his life yet somehow managed to outline the basics for Instagram ❤️ sArouse in the other person an eager want, begin in a friendly way, give honest and sincere appreciation, and so on. The advice basically boils down to the golden rule: double tap unto the photos of others as you would have them double tap unto you. It seems to work.

One thing that post-dates Carnegie are hashtags. If employed strategically they will help your posts get more views. That's what they say anyway. Personally I have no idea how to use them effectively, so I just avoid. I don't use them in captions and I certainly don't use them to search. Maybe others do, I don't know. Whatever their impact hashtags always look the same to me in a caption, an ugly clutterfuck of words in the peripheral vision, the visual equivalent of chicken scratch marks in a dusty pen or graffiti layered up in a train yard. If the goal is clean graphic beauty, hashtags are the enemy.


With all the various strategies for success, the photographs themselves can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. It's not that they don't matter. But their importance often seems secondary in the grand scheme. Almost any photo posted to an account with X followers or by K person will get❤️ s. The equation in this Instagram Euler Form (see figure, right) is accurate within a ❤️ percent margin of error. This formula provides a cover for a wide range of Instagram photographers, many of whom are just going through the motions with no real sense for where to point their cameras or what makes one photo better than another. 

That said, images are still the ❤️ of the matter, and they've gotta come from somewhere. Some folks curate outside photos by others or from their collections. Some post older work from their archives. Some adopt the Taylor Sloane model, creating a cult of personality that supersedes any specific work.

The streams I find most exciting show new or unseen original photos. I follow a wide variety of these but my current favorite is Jeff Mermelstein, whose recent foray into text message screenshots is as creepy as it is amazing. They are often so penetrating I feel squeamish reading at them. There is no good way to make those photos without stalking people closely. That's step one. Step two is to then share these private conversations on the web —among the most invasive actions possible. It's forbidden territory, yet Mermelstein plumbs it regularly with consistently entertaining results. The coup de grĂ¢ce  is the IG feed where he reveals the project in real-time, on the same platform he surveils. I doubt any have made it into print form. They exist in, of, and by the cell phone. He is basically inventing a new visual language before our eyes, exploring boundaries of voyeurism, surveillance, privacy, and what street photography can be in the digital era. 




I especially like that these are a mid-life departure for Mermelstein. I have all of Mermelstein's books and I know his photos fairly well. For decades he worked more or less as a traditional street photographer. Line up scenes, shoot from mid-distance, etc. He was head and shoulders above most other photographers, but the nuts and bolts weren't too dissimilar from what most street shooters do.

Mermelstein was good and relatively successful. He easily could've kept going down that path. Instead he threw out his entire practice and started over. The Leica sits on a shelf now. All he uses is a phone. To see someone in that position take such a gamble, then land successfully in an entirely new world is inspiring. Why it's not being written up anywhere is a mystery to me. I've seen articles in past several weeks touting the Instagram accounts of various photo celebrities —Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Pete Souza, for example— but nothing yet on Mermelstein. 

Jeff Mermelstein, if you're out there somewhere reading this, I ❤️ what you're doing. Keep it up. Be here now and all that. But, Jeff, one small piece of advice. Beware Instagram. Beware the fuck out of it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Transmitting data by nozzle

Photo history is a long litany of the lost and found. Reputations rise and fall; trends and tools come and go. A photographer might be the toast of the town for a time, then fall into oblivion a few short years later. William Mortensen, anyone? The opposite of Mortensen might be someone like Mike Disfarmer or Vivian Maier who bursts onto the scene from nowhere and is quickly integrated into the canon. Critical variance seems more the rule than the exception, and the pace of that variance has only increased of late as we plunge further into the end-times. 

Which brings me to David Freund. Coming of artistic age in the 1970s, his approach blended perfectly with the zeitgeist of the time: 35 mm handheld black and white photography, with a careful eye for serendipitous juxtapositions in the so-called "social landscape" (for want of a better term). As Freund describes the hunt: "I look to dance or jazz: engage the body, have good chops, pay attention, and aim for surprise. Such photography boils down to transmitting data as experience." 



The best known data transmitter is probably Lee Friedlander. But Freund and several others —including Henry Wessel, Burk Uzzle, Philip Perkis, and Gus Kayafas— found plenty of room in the 1970s to stake out their own territory. Each was a poet of sorts, mining the visuals koans tossed onto roadside shoulders. Put just about any scene in front of them and they'd compose the elements in-camera into a monochrome gem. For a short while in the 1970s —think Jonathan Green's Snapshot— this approach not only flourished but became dominant, the style du jour. When Mike Mandel's 1975 baseball card series included several shooters in this vein, he not only cemented their individual reputations, but the entire approach. A Leica loaded with Tri-X ruled the world!

Well, times change. Forty years later these shooters have mostly fallen off the map, and almost taken David Freund with them. Since the 1970s his work had become gradually harder to find. When I tried to research his work a few years ago the trail was faint indeed. There was not much in print or online, just a few grainy portfolios in old camera journals. A 2007 retrospective at Ramapo College (where he teaches) helped put him back in the public eye. But the big jolt was a chance meeting with Gerhard Steidl during a time Freund was contemplating a gas station project of photos made in the 1970s. As Freund describes it to me, "I put a page on it in his hand, and he responded. Lightning." 




It's the type of fairy tale breakthrough that never happens. Yet in Freund's case it did. In 2017, a few years after his chance encounter, Gas Stop was finally published by Steidl in a handsome four-volume set. 

This project can be viewed in any one of several ways, but one primary characteristic is its sheer profligacy. Any one of the volumes could be a nice monograph on its own. The combination of all four into a slipcased set —574 photos, 720 pages, weighing more than a gallon of gas— is massive indeed, and requires repeat visits to digest fully. Perhaps the colossal scope is a comment on the outsized importance of gas in American culture? Maybe not. In any case I spent about a week with it —longer than I've spent so far at the pump this year— browsing one book roughly every other day. By the end I hadn't yet grown tired of the photos. I was, well, pumped.

Freund made his gas stop photos between 1978-1981 traveling through forty-seven states. Each volume tackles one region of America. A cover graphic on each book charts the course of a gas needle as it moves from empty (south) quarter tank (east) to two thirds (west) to full (midwest). It's probably reading too much into the graphics to interpret them as a comment on regional favoritism. But let's do it anyway. My least favorite region politically speaking, the south, is dead last on the gas gauge. Coincidence? Who knows. But the south makes up for its political slant with a richness of vernacular material no other region can match. In the 70s-80s photo ops grew like kudzu down there. Maybe's it's still like that.

Within each book the photographic approach is similar. Most of the gas stations are in rural or suburban settings which tend to homogenize location. More importantly, Freund's keen vision dominates any regional specificity, so pinpointing locations is tricky without looking at the captions. I spent some time focused on this aspect, to see if I could identify a region from its gas stations alone. It seemed like it should've been easier than it was. 

But let's take a step back. Gas stations? Why gas stations? Gasoline was on everyone's mind in the 1970s. This was shortly after the OPEC crisis. Gas was king. Gas ran the world, perhaps more so than today. But even apart from that time period filling stations have been a locus for all sorts of photos and projects, from Frank to Shore to Soth to Ulrich to David Campany. So Freund wasn't the first to hit on them as a subject. But his effort is probably the most sustained and prodigious. 

To hear Freund describe his project's epiphany, "I became aware of gas stations as a locus for many elements that characterize America." Here are some American characteristics: advertising, chintz, autos, grit, wires. His photographs depict all these things and more but perhaps what identifies them as American is the generous sense of open space. The photos are as focused on the surroundings as the subject. Foreground and background contribute equally, both combining in that inimitable photographic way that typified the monochromatic 70s. 

Perhaps their most American trait is the sense of possibility left in the frame. Most of the images fall off along the top or side into an open patch of sky, vegetation, or new development. They exude a sense of optimism, as if one could wander into them and never hit the wall. Looking at Freund's photos peak oil, end-times, and other concerns fade like carrier marks into the margin.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Q & A with Ernesto Bazan

Ernesto Bazan, Photo: Francesco Pavia
Ernesto Bazan is a photographer based in New York City, and the author most recently of Before You Grow Up, a book of family photographs designed by Kevin Sweeney.




BA: Tell me about the process behind Before You Grow Up. Why this book and why now? It seems like a slight departure from your other books in that it's much more personal.

EB: The book was a naive idea that I had of documenting my kids' life since they were in their mom's womb. Then life made it much more complicated after my father's passing and leaving Cuba. I don't even know how I managed to photograph my mother standing by the coffin or the smoke of cremation the following day.

There is a page in the book about your dad. So his death helped motivate the book?

Not necessarily as a source of main inspiration, my own family was, but then in the midst of the making I realized that I couldn't leave my Sicilian family out. They are an intrinsic part of me and who I am both as a man and a photographer. I'd only say that it hasn't been an easy process and I'm so happy it came out and I have given copies to my kids, wife, mother and brothers! I took it off my chest and now I can concentrate on new projects leaving behind something that will always accompany my kids.




I like how the book comes full circle from your childhood through to your parenthood.

Yes, in the end as you saw it has a positive message and hope for my kids' future, but it's a sort of roller-coaster of everybody's life I guess.

I don't mean to sound morbid but it does have the general tone of a letter meant for after you pass away. Something for the kids to remember you by. But hopefully that's not for a while.

Yes, it could also be perceived this way whenever that moment will come, but at 58 I feel strong and full of life , and ready to take on new projects as they unfold in my life. The last page of the book in which I tell the story of my uncanny and unexpected return to Cuba is an affirmation of the beauty that life is!

What about your other photographic artifacts? What will happen to them? Your negatives and prints and equipment?

To be honest I never thought about this. Have you? Hopefully they all will be shared with a bigger audience.

It sounds like your father's passing reminded you of the life cycle and things left behind, etc.

My father's passing touched very raw chords within me and the presence of death has never left since he let us. The impermanent feeling of life that we often forget about, luckily, that things can change in a second. I'm an optimist overall, but I was deeply marked by that moment.




That's what photographers are for, right? To make moments permanent. Or give them that illusion.

Exactly. Yes.

You're an optimist. How important do you think optimism is for photographers? Can you find good photos if you don't expect to find them? Can a pessimist find good photos?

Like anybody, depending on the mood I find myself in, I can be the greatest optimist, other times you can fell blue. Actually when I first look at my contacts I always feel kind of sad as I wrote in the first book of my Cuban trilogy: 

“I look at my contact sheets. A feeling of utter depression seizes me. I sense a huge loss within me. And what’s worse is that there is nothing I can do about it. I want to cry the silence of the empty room. A reminder of how difficult it is to take a damned good picture. I can only accept the verdict as a sentenced prisoner.” 

I can only add that if I have a few good images after one of my workshop or trip I feel very delighted and grateful!

There's a part of the book where you say your father didn't like you being a photographer at first. Did he later change his mind?

In spite of them he was so generous with me and supported my studying at SVA here in NY. Later on he was happy to have a son that like him followed his path, his passion and not just a profession. On top of that he was happy to have had his only grandchildren who he loved so much and predicted that one of the them was going to follow his footsteps and become a doctor. We are four brothers and none followed that path.




What about your twins? What will they be?

If you look at the part devoted to my father, you can read the dedication he wrote to them on a medical book he had written. At the time, my kids were 13 and he already knew who was going to follow his footsteps. It's quite uncanny considering that we all forgot about the book, the dedication in it, and it was about to be tossed out by my wife and then it was rescued by the cleaning lady who took it out of a garbage trash bag.

Nice save! Why would you toss that out? By mistake?

Yes by mistake and the cleaning lady in Mexico without being told by anyone went and rescued it from total oblivion.

I remember that part about your dad. There's a photo of your sons watching a surgery. Did one or both of them go on to pursue medicine? 

Pietro my son like me has been dreaming of becoming a doctor when he was 10. I dreamed of becoming a photographer at 17. My wife dreamed that I could return to Cuba after so many years.

I don't know the full story there. Why did you leave Cuba and are you planning to move back?

I was forced out because of my workshops in 2006. Then exactly 10 years later I returned. I just go back sporadically whenever I feel like. I was persona non grata for 10 years in exile.

I don't understand. What did the workshops have to do with it?

Frankly not sure. I was a foreign correspondent and could take all the pictures I wanted but not teach. It was a blessing in disguise to give my Cuban family complete freedom.

So they booted you and your family. Terrible. You moved to Mexico. And now you have moved to New York? Is that correct?

Yes. I've been leaving in NY since 1979 but then I lived in Cuba on and off for 14 years. Then 9 years in Mexico and then back here. I'm printing in the darkroom. Still using film, still processing it myself.

Great. Me too!

Wonderful. So you know what it takes.




Why have you continued to use analog processes? What is it about film and darkroom work? Do you use digital equipment at all? 

Simply because I love the entire slow and long process. I love the quality that you get from film negatives, the fact that both film and contact sheets are tangible; they are journal pages of your existence. When you go back to them you can remember many details that your memory is slowly losing, you can smell and feel the moments long gone. And I also love to go back to my contacts because I can be surprised in finding images that had been totally neglected before for the simple reason that my intuitive eye with which I took each single image (good and bad) is always light years ahead of my editing eye, which needs years, at times, to recognize a good image that I intuitively took. The more I shoot, the more I do my books, the more I know that I need to return to all the proof sheets of that specific project and invariably something new pops up! With each single book of the Cuban trilogy I was able to find good images (which are now in each book) that had been unnoticed in the first selection viewing. 

I’ve been using a digital camera because it was given to me and wanted to see how it felt like to be shooting digitally. I’m using it for a specific project mixing digital with film images. I like that there is the same vision behind all of them, but quite a different look to the digital files.

I think that sense of analog commitment comes across in your book's design. It feels very organic like a scrapbook. 

Yes, definitely. I also wanted to give the reader that family photo album scrapbook look.

Plus all the handwriting. Maybe there is a connection between someone using analog photo processes and writing text in handwriting.

I'd say so.

Did your family help with the choice of photos and layout/design?

They all hated my drawings and then when the book finally came out they all loved them. I started drawing at the urging of my designer to make it more organized and move away from a perfectly designed book. I just did it because I felt I wanted to convey my feelings with different medias. I will use the lesson learned in future projects.




You wanted to move away from perfect design. Is there something photographically appealing about imperfection? 

I think my best images are about imperfection, oblique horizons, tilted angle, but they seem to work for me.

What is your next project?

It will be about the work I’ve done in Bahia, Brazil, my new Cuba as I like to say. I’ve been going there for over a decade and I’m beginning to finally understand the reason why I keep returning. Unlike my Cuban work, the Bahia work is definitely about the African diaspora, the incredible resiliency of these former slaves to find within themselves the strength to carry out their faith, customs and culture despite having arrived on the other side of the ocean as slaves. I find it very moving and inspiring. I must have been an African black man in some of my past lives. It’s no surprise that my life companion Sissy is Afro-cuban and our sons are the result of this special encounter between two apparently “different” races. We are all one!

All images above from Before You Grow Up© Ernesto Bazan

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A million pebbles in the driveway

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a young photographer to publish an eight pound book called "Monument". That's basically what Lee Friedlander did in 1976 with the first edition of The American Monument. If the title didn't get the message across, the mammoth size did. This was not  a mere collection of monuments, but a Monument —capital M!

Friedlander was a cheeky forty-two at the time, and beginning to loosen the reigns of his tightly packed documentary style to incorporate vegetation, open space, and reverie. As Szarkowski described it, the shift was "away from irony, from the glittering visual joke, and toward a more direct (and complex) description of subjects that he found important and beautiful." Eventually his subject matter would be expanded to include, well, everything. But in 1976, for his second photobook, Friedlander focused on monuments.

As luck would have it his social circle at the time intersected with Richard Benson, just coming into his own as world's premier photographic printer, and Leslie Katz, a high-end publisher. Together they formed a sort of Holy Trinity of photobook production. 

Katz's Eakins Press took its stylistic cues from the archaic world of its namesake, and The American Monument felt like something one might find in an antique shop. It had a thick cloth binding, with regal type and gold flourishes garnishing the cover. The tome was roughly 12 inches by 17, its wide pages (91 of them, with 213 photos) mounted on detachable screw posts to allow removal for display. They'd look beautiful framed on a wall—the duotone separations prepared by Benson were immaculate— but it's doubtful many owners took advantage. The book was just fine as is, thank you, and too precious to tinker with. An unadulterated copy now fetches roughly $2,000 on eBay. 

For book lovers with less disposable income there's good news. Eakins Press has just released a second edition of The American Monument. In most ways it is indistinguishable from the first. There's a slightly altered cover design and a new afterword by Peter Galassi. The paper stock is reported to be slightly different. But in other ways this is essentially the original 1976 edition now made available to a wider audience. Granted, at $150 it still ain't cheap. You gotta want it. But for those that do, the reprint brings it finally within reach.

As grand as the book is, its subject matter is not treated with the same reverence. After all this is Friedlander, the master of deadpan absurdity. Civic boosters looking to spotlight the grandeur of local monuments, listen up. Lee Friedlander is not the photographer you should hire. The American Monument shows scant spirit of pride or boosterism. As with most of his oeuvre, it's tough to read his personal feelings one way or another. Some of the photographs, for example Fireman's Memorial in New Jersey or Buffalo Bill Monument in Wyoming, seem openly celebratory. In others —perhaps the majority of photos in the book— the monuments are disregarded as so much visual filler. The well known photograph of Mechanics Monument in San Francisco tosses the eponymous statue to the side of the photo near an old truck and juxtaposed with a distant liquor store. Other frames leave the reader scrambling to find any semblance of a monument buried in the visual detritus. There's a certain Where's Waldo? quality, which is rewarded each time after sufficient searching.

Mechanic's Monument, San Francisco, California, 1972


There's no consistent formula, and that's the charm of Friedlander. It's the vital force which has allowed him to shoot such a variety of subjects over decades. Through it all he's remained astoundingly receptive to possibility. Each visual scene is approached anew. 

If this comes across in a book of monuments as moral ambivalence or even anti-Patriotism, I suspect he is not particularly bothered. "It's a generous medium, photography," he once famously said. Statues are merely one visual element in the American vista loaded with other information. Some views are more visually generous than others. Some less so. But it's not his job to worry about which is which. His task is merely to document everything in his own inimitable way: "A bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway…" Add monuments to the list.

Beyond receptiveness, Friedlander's other notable trait is his prolificacy. The American Monument was made during his 35 mm Leica years, a format which allowed him "to peck at the world" in great volume. He shot and printed thousands of photos for the project. They came from all parts of the U.S., though primarily east of the Mississippi where monuments and nationalism run thickest. In the end only 213 photo made it into the book. This may be a curtailed figure, yet it's still enormous by any general photobook standard. Some photos get their own spread. Most are forced into shared space with others. The book comes in waves, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and sometimes 9 (!) photos at once on a page. The onslaught never lets up, a reflection of Friedlander's manic pace. In the time it took you to read this paragraph he just made four new photos somewhere.

As with any photos made decades ago, these images have an inherent historic quality. Many of the scenes depicted are now altered, removed, developed, or otherwise changed. The American Monument is a timepiece, each photo freezing a a slice of the past, and taken as a whole the book is a portrait of America at a certain point in time. Browsing the photos one is impressed with the mundane statuesque quality of old American memorials. Heroic figures abound with arms, guns, and flags pointed skyward. They seem dated, antediluvian even, made before the flood unleashed by Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial. As Peter Galassi points out in the afterword, the timestamp applies also to the format: "The book is an artifact of the analog age." Shot on film and printed in a darkroom, the project is a throwback.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania, 1974

The historical imperative has taken on some newfound urgency of late, as the United States enters a new era of monumental reconsideration, evaluation, and often, outright removal. All of the sudden monuments are a hot button issue. Who would've thought? Certainly not Friedlander in the 1970s. To him their inconspicuous nature was an attractant. 

They've now become politically charged (Geoff Dyer wrote articulately on this topic in his October review). Which ones to remove? Which ones remain? How to decide? Not that Friedlander's photos pass any judgement. In fact quite the opposite. "An act of high artistic patriotism," Szarkowski calls them, "an achievement that might help us reclaim that word from ideologues and expediters." For some of the photos recorded in this book, that achievement is the only trace extant. The American Monument's second edition will ensure they remain around a while. As sure as any monument.