According to NOMA photography curator Russell Lord, “Lee Friedlander in Louisiana” isn’t just a comprehensive survey of the work of one of America’s pre-eminent photographers. It’s “a 60-year retrospective of a city.”
Through more than 70 images, the show documents the New York City-based Friedlander’s long-standing and intimate relationship with New Orleans. It is one of the largest museum retrospectives of Friedlander’s work in recent years, and the first to focus exclusively on his large body of Louisiana-focused work.
Music was responsible for Friedlander’s first visit to the city: a 1957 trip to take photos for Atlantic Records.
Unsurprisingly, music and musicians figure prominently throughout the show. One grouping in the opening gallery begins with a photograph of a bass drum, adds some horns to the mix, continues with a series of second lines and dancing parade-goers and completes the multipart tableau with images of spectators watching from the sidelines.
Interwoven with scenes of the city’s musical culture are ones documenting its social fabric from the time Friedlander began photographing it. A 1959 photograph of black and white faces on a Canal Street streetcar speaks to the fact that public transportation in the city had just been desegregated a few months before the photograph was taken.
Segregation affected Friedlander’s work in other ways, too. In early visits to the city, he was unable to visit black-owned bars and clubs on his own, which began a long-running series of artists photographed in their own homes. A 1971 photograph of Sister Gertrude Morgan with Preservation Hall founder Allan Jaffe and his family is particularly affecting.
For all his work says about the history and culture of New Orleans over the past six decades, however, Friedlander is even more notable as a photographic formalist par excellence. Bodies, shadows and architecture become compositional elements in his photographs in unexpected and frequently humorous ways.
Windows and (especially) reflections figure prominently in much of Friedlander’s work, creating in some photographs a series of smaller frames within the main frame of the image. And many of Friedlander’s photographs collapse space and perspective in ways that are only possible in the medium of photography.
An entire gallery of the show is devoted to Friedlander’s streetscapes of New Orleans. Most are absent of human presence. But buildings and monuments, many of them familiar to New Orleanians, practically figure as characters themselves.
A cluster of photographs of the long-vacant Plaza Tower on Howard Avenue taken over the past 50 years shows Friedlander virtually stalking the building from different approaches and angles. Nearby, a 2003 photo of Lee Circle shows its now-removed namesake sculpture hemmed in by a scrum of bleachers set up for Carnival parades.
Also on view in NOMA’s Great Hall are a series of Friedlander’s large color photographs of American musicians. Many are tightly cropped on the face of its subject, and the effect is both intimate and discomfiting.
Friedlander’s prints from the original glass negatives by enigmatic Storyville photographer E.J. Bellocq are on view elsewhere in the museum. Friedlander acquired the negatives, which Bellocq was believed to have created in the early 1910s, from a French Quarter dealer in the 1960s, and over the years has been making limited prints from them using period techniques. The prints have rescued Bellocq’s images from oblivion and serve as the main visual records of the long-vanished Basin Street district of ill repute.
Both the Bellocq photographs and the musician portraits help further contextualize Friedlander’s significance as one of the most important American photographers of his generation.
At 83 years old — and still active as a photographer — Friedlander has made a career of breaking the rules of what constitutes a “good” photograph.
“While everyone is trying to get the perfect picture, Friedlander’s approach seems to declare that photographs should be about how the world exists, not how we want it to be,” said Lord.
And in the process, his body of work in Louisiana has come to include some of his most captivating and indelible images.
“New Orleans has always held a special place for Friedlander,” said Lord. “This exhibition highlights how important this city has been in his career but also emphasizes how important Friedlander has been for this city.”