Lee Friedlander: Jazz Portraits
at Carol Ehlers, through April 1
O. Winston Link
at Catherine Edelman, through March 18
Walter Niedermayr: Momentary Resorts
at Rhona Hoffman, through March 18
By Fred Camper
One of my favorite pieces of writing on art is Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Describing a classical statue, he concludes the first section with "that dark center where procreation flared," as Stephen Mitchell translates the line. The last section ends by saying that the sculpture "from all the borders of itself / burst[s] like a star: for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life." Leaving aside that final ringing imperative, the point is that Rilke seems to find a particular energy in this work, a power projected so forcefully outward that the viewer feels the work of art is looking at him.
This is not as perverse or mystical as it sounds. Some of Lee Friedlander's 46 photographic "jazz portraits" at Carol Ehlers have a similar bursting quality. While some were made as assignments for record companies, most of them--including some of the assignments--feel as if they were created out of necessity, through an intimate connection with the subjects. They're also unlike most work by this late-modernist master of troubled self-awareness, born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1934. His figures are more typically seen behind glass or in shadow--or he includes his own shadow--questioning the nature of photographic representation. But in these portraits Friedlander seems to give himself over to his subjects completely. The singer in Champion Jack Dupree, 1953 faces up and to the left but seems to be looking a bit to the side--almost at the viewer. In Ray Charles, 1960 the singer hardly seems blind despite his dark glasses: his eyes laugh too, the wrinkles around them echoing his open-mouthed smile. In both images, Friedlander's tight, slightly off-center framing creates a dynamic tension between the subject's head and the image's borders; the figure seems projected into our space, appearing to fill the gallery with song.
Perhaps it takes a modernist artist consummately aware of form to make photographs that turn an everyday figure into a genuine presence. One can see elements of Friedlander's more familiar mode in one image that juxtaposes singers with a few large, kitschy-looking religious statues, but I found his atypical uses of technique more arresting here. The low camera angle in Eartha Kitt With Dizzy Gillespie, 1957 not only gives us a view up Kitt's dress as she dances with Gillespie but magnifies their presence, their limbs projecting left and right, suggesting some of the eruption of energy Rilke found in that classical torso.
Another group of photographs showing small marching bands avoids the hot intensity of the individual portraits; instead these compositions convey reserve, distance, and a different kind of respect. Young Tuxedo Brass Band, 1959 shows a group of players standing on wooden planks on the grass. Their formal attire--dark jackets and ties--contrasts with the worn walls of the shotgun homes behind them. These musicians' serious expressions and tight grouping, together with Friedlander's respectful distance, give them a powerful nobility.
Several decades ago, when railroads were consolidating and passenger service was being greatly reduced, the New Yorker ran a cartoon showing a man holding his young son's hand at an abandoned train station, the building crumbling and grass growing up between the tracks. The man was saying something like, "They were great big machines many cars long that came roaring by with a rush of air and a blast of smoke and a toot of the whistle."
O. Winston Link captured some of the same feeling about railroads but expressed even more awe. His almost surreal photographs of steam-powered trains, taken in the late 50s (his 45 prints at Catherine Edelman also include examples of his commercial work), are so full of wonder they might work well in a children's museum. By also showing the places the trains passed through, Link reveals not only their intrusive power--they seem to be exploding onto each scene--but the way small-town life used to be centered around railroading. "The railroad was everything to these towns," he told an interviewer in the mid-90s. "People of all ages would wait for the trains to come through just to get a look at the powerful steam engines and to hear the whistles blow."
Link's trains are almost by their nature alien from their surroundings, incongruous behemoths that elicit diverse reactions--they're objects of wonder to some, momentary interruptions to others. Joe Dollar Waits for the Creeper, Tuckerdale, North Carolina, 1956 shows a train entering a crossing; a bicyclist is stopped nearby waiting for the train to pass, and a car approaching from the other side will have to stop soon. But a man sitting in a third-story window in Main Line on Main Street, North Fork, West Virginia, 1958 completely ignores the train moving at night down a somewhat shabby street, suggesting an ordinary life lived without regard to the magnificent monster below.
Link, born in Brooklyn in 1914, had a lifelong fascination with trains and began photographing them in his teens. He supported himself for many years as a commercial photographer, but when he heard that the Norfolk & Western was phasing out steam engines he started photographing them in 1955, with the railroad's permission, continuing until 1960. "I wanted to document that slice of American life before it disappeared," he said in that interview. His photographs were carefully planned: he phoned dispatchers to see when a train was expected, and he made sketches and diagrams to plan the placement of the dozens of flashbulbs needed to illuminate his night images--and most were taken at night so that he could better control the lighting. That third-story man got his own flashbulb, which Link set off by means of a cable.
The power of Link's images depends on the form of the steam engine itself, on the way he positions it in the composition, and on his lighting--for example, the way the train's bright white smoke trails across the night sky. The trains always appear intrusive, introducing movement into a scene that, even if it includes people, often seems frozen. Like some of Friedlander's musicians, Link's trains unbalance the photograph: he foregrounds their magnificence. Apparently many of the residents along the N&W line also appreciated that power. Hester Fringer's Living Room on the Tracks, Lithia, Virginia, 1955 shows a train looming close to a large picture window--a window the residents had enlarged because they were such fans they wanted to improve the view.
In Giant Oak at Max Meadows, Virginia, 1957 Link creates a powerful contrast between a train and a gnarled tree, its branches twisting in all directions but mostly laterally. Set behind the tree, the train represents a different kind of lateral movement, but an irregular trail of white smoke also suggests a link between the streamlined train and the organic tree. The wires of a fence near the bottom of the image and phone or power lines above--thin white filaments reflecting Link's flash--add yet another visual element. The image works as a formal study but also reveals Link's love of trains: he finds in the tree a parallel in nature to their vitality and power.
Walter Niedermayr's nine large multipanel pieces at Rhona Hoffman are in some ways the opposite of Friedlander's and Link's images, which bring out the singular power of objects or people. Niedermayr's landscapes, all Alpine scenes, often convey a kind of uniformity--the snow is as gray as the sky, for example. Looking down on the slopes and plateaus, we see tiny figures and slightly larger bulldozers dwarfed by the vastness of the land. Tofana-Ra-Valles (1990-'93) presents one color photo and six black-and-white ones of a scene partly covered with snow; the contrast between the snow and the rock faces makes them stand out all the more boldly. That palpable hardness dominates each image and the group as a whole. Where Link sees the wonderful individuality of a gnarled tree, Niedermayr sees the connectedness of nature.
But in other pieces the presence of many people and of power lines, lift cables, and earthmoving equipment suggests that these are artificial landscapes whose order--or disorder--comes from us humans. Each of the four panels of Vedretta Piana II (1997) offers a complex mix of man-made objects in no particular relationship to one another, creating a junkyard sort of composition; perhaps Niedermayr is ambivalent about the human presence here. The view in the upper left panel overlaps part of the lower right one, creating a confusion that parallels that within each image.
Most often there's no single focal point in Niedermayr's works: he frames his photographs separately and hangs them slightly apart, so the center of such four-panel pieces as Vedretta Piana II is naturally empty. But the three snowy panels of Pian dei Fiacconi II (1993) are hung side by side, so there's an image at its center. In the foreground are sunbathers--presumably an indication of the season. And at the top of the center panel is a tiny figure who's also visible in a different position in the right panel, which seems to have been taken earlier. Referring to the passage of time but allowing us to see that the rocks remain unchanged, Niedermayr reminds us that each of his images represents only an instant--and that in the context of nature the human presence is more transitory than we'd think from Friedlander's musicians and Link's steam engines, and probably much more transitory than the bulldozer operators and ski-resort owners would like to believe.