Lake Powell (2009) is a fairly recent self-portrait by Lee Friedlander that depicts him centred in the foreground of the Utah landscape. The proximity of Friedlander’s body obscures the view of the water and interrupts the horizon of rising earthen forms. Turning his head to one side, he catches the camera out of the corners of his eyes. Most prominent however are the photographer’s arms which, awkwardly distorted by the wide-angle lens, extend outward toward the lower corners of the picture. His hands are not visible, but seem to support the edges of the frame, no doubt holding the camera at the moment of picture taking. Lake Powell is a tourist destination and Friedlander’s casual attire seems to suggest that this image is in fact a kind of holiday selfie.
In addition to his best known “self-portraits” taken since the 1960s—pictures that include his own shadow—Friedlander has in fact shot hundreds of images that include himself in a more direct way. He frequently stepped out from behind the camera to be seated alongside friends and relatives at social gatherings, notable events, and often, as seen in Lake Powell, in a compelling series of pictures featuring just the photographer himself. Since the 1990s, some of these images have looked less like snaps from a family album and are more unconventional and even uncomfortable: Friedlander appears in a thicket of branches, behind a chain-link fence, half-asleep, out of focus, slumped, or prone, and in the 2010s, in an extreme state of vulnerability as he undergoes quadruple bypass surgery. There, recovering in a hospital bed, covered in tapes, bandages, and ECG sensors with trailing wires, another trailing wire from his hand becomes visible, which leads back, again to the edge of the image—the camera’s remote shutter release.
Reflecting on the discourse around photography a century ago, it is rather striking to observe how much of the discussion featured ideas of stillness and death. Photography’s uniqueness was predicated on its specificity as a medium, its ability to freeze time an uncanny act of temporal preservation. Much depended upon photography’s conceptual separation from, on the one hand, less accurate forms of representation like painting, and on the other, the dynamism of film. Pictorial stasis seemed to bring with it all of the morbid associations of loss, remembrance, and history. It also enabled close readings of photographs, a mode of analytical viewership inherited from painting.
Conversely, as it has rapidly evolved over the past decade, photography no longer seems a document of a time, but instead seems more of its time. The combination of camera phones and social media has significantly contributed to image saturation becoming a dominant social condition. Rather than an archival document, in this particular moment of iconophilia, photography seems a declaration of aliveness, of immanence and fugitive expression, almost itself a form of emoting that passes as lightly and quickly as an emotional state. Social media apps Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are all designed around the transmission of live content by blending photos and the moving image. Many also offer limited viewing conditions in order to promote an aspirational “nowness”: after being viewed once, the image or video disappears. Such is the immanence of the image that the hashtags #tbt and #latergram denote when a photo is exceptionally not of the present, but of some earlier moment.
The changing conditions of image culture create a complexity around the viewing of Friedlander’s selfportraits, especially as his recent photographs overlap with the age of disposable selfies. Against this backdrop, Friedlander’s pictures seem to bring along with them conditions of viewing from an earlier age of portraiture. Instead of being flickers in an endless stream of images, they ask for lengthy individual consideration, appearing to hold open some aspect of historical time, and presenting themselves as objects for close inspection. Further, they are made in the realist style, avoiding the veneer and gloss of “likeable” photos and instead appearing at times unflattering and even awkward. If anything, this prevents them from being read casually as ubiquitous selfies.
And yet, Friedlander’s self-portraits are perhaps made with no less of an idea of nowness in mind, of capturing the fugitive moment, but just through a slower, analogue medium. His pictures foreshadow a more contemporary mode of photography, but at the same time are not intended to participate or circulate in a high-speed image economy. They possess a kind of inertia that assures their stability, as if Friedlander’s two-handed grip on the camera—on the picture’s frame—serves to steady self-portraiture amidstthe infinite scroll of real-time transmission.
This text is part of Capture Photography Festival’s 2020 catalogue which you can read online here or order a copy here.