Monday, July 16th, 2012

In Fashionable Flower: Lee Friedlander’s Mannequins

Lee Friedlander’s Mannequin

Reflections in storefront display windows have been a staple of street photography since it emerged as a genre early in the last century. Understandably so: the pictorial potential of this seemingly ubiquitous feature of the urban fabric is irresistible to any eye beguiled by the interpenetration of indoor and outdoor space, the disjunctive recombination of anecdotal iconography, or the surfeit of visual information with which pedestrians contend. It is, then, right up Lee Friedlander’s alley, and in the 103 photographs in Mannequin, published in May by San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery in conjunction with a related exhibition, the veteran photographer takes possession of this familiar device and makes it entirely and unmistakably his own.

Lee Friendlander, New York City, 2011 (plate 79 of the book under review). Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Lee Friendlander, New York City, 2011 (plate 79 of the book under review). Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco 


The pictures are black-and-white, vertically oriented, and shot with a handheld 35-mm camera mostly in New York City in 2010 and 2011; excursions to L.A., San Francisco, New Orleans and other U.S. cities are also represented. In the documentary manner, they are titled by location and date. Each features a female mannequin (or two, or three) in fashionable flower in its glassy hothouse cell; many are factory-equipped with that combination of haughtiness and lack of affect that human models frequently emulate. Reflections of the clamorous streetscape invade the dummies’ glamorous domains, so that trashcans and moving vans appear superimposed on meticulously displayed eveningwear, lingerie and furs.

Friedlander’s critique of consumerism shouldn’t be overstated, however, as he seems rather fond of these hapless creatures, treating them like exotic beasts in a chaotic zoo. The photos’ greater fascination lies in their procedural transparency, which yields complex compositions and bizarre hybrids that might be mistaken for double exposures. In New York City, 2011 (plate 79) a sun-drenched cast-iron façade appears to be endowed with a pair of long, shapely legs in white stockings and chunky platform heels, and a hairless head. The method is in perfect synch with Friedlander’s wont of packing the picture frame nearly to bursting with visual incident and felicitous alignments of subject matter. Occasionally that includes the photographer himself dimly reflected in the glass, as in New York City, 2011 (plate 46), in which his knuckly paws play off a headless, perky-breasted mannequin’s rigid claws.

The vantage point of this and most of the other shots is low, which grants a monumental stature to the figures and frequently frames them against the reflected skyline. If they were not so visually rich, these pictures might suggest an analogy between the mannequin’s impassive persona and the unblinking hardness of city life. But they aren’t grim—a bit caustic, maybe, but ebullient in a funny way too; conflicted in a way that implies ambivalence toward the unrelieved crassness of the mercantile sphere.

Friedlander has said that books are the best way to look at pictures, and he has made scores of volumes. Mannequin is a gorgeous addition to that oeuvre. Two duotones face off across every spread, and each image is separated from the edges of its page by a mere quarter-inch border. With so little white space, the book’s visual pace is relentless, both exhausting and exhilarating. At the age of 78, Friedlander shows no sign of slowing down.

Lee Friedlander: Mannequin (San Francisco: Fraenkel Gallery, 2012). 112 pp, 103 duotones. $49.95

Lee Friedlander, New York, 2011 (plate 46 of the book under review).  Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
click to enlarge