Monday, April 27, 2015

In the Jungle with Friedlander

I had the happy fortune to spend a week taking pictures with Lee Friedlander. It was the mid-1990s. I was living in Hanoi, Vietnam and was asked by a mutual friend to guide Friedlander through the country’s distant northwest corner, 350 miles up a rutted mountain road to the former French hill station of SaPa.

I elected to take the back way, a track that winds close to the border with Laos and passes through remote provinces peopled by ethnic tribes. That’s what Lee wants to photograph, I thought.

My Chinese-made SUV passed through small Vietnamese towns, including Mai Chau, Muong Lay and Son La. The Vietnamese controlled the valleys, but most of the journey was a traverse over jungled ridges, where pockets of the Tay, Thai, H’Mong, Muong and Dao tribes farmed a few fertile tracts of hillside.

Most photographers who visit this region are captivated by these people. Each tribe is distinct by its manner and attire. The H’mong wore elaborately embroidered Indigo cloth and were eager to sell you the wrap off their shoulders. The Red Dao were far more timid and would disappear up a jungle path whenever our vehicle drew near.

Photographers in the presence of such distracting exoticism did everything they could to photograph these people. They were the subject matter. But not for Lee. He focused on plants and fences, but mostly just plants, of which there were endless variety. “I’m never bored by looking at them,” he told me. “Each is different.”

Lee rode shotgun and would often ask my driver Long to pull over to the shoulder, such as it was, so he could photograph a roadside tangle of greenery. Often he went further, plunging into the jungle, his Hasselblad, tripod and strobe in hand.

He went to work with a singular focus, and I sensed in that the something that makes Friedlander one of the greatest living photographers.

Other than a portrait Lee shot of my future wife Kathy and me in the “honeymoon suite” of Son La’s dank government guest house, I never saw a single image from his Vietnam trip. Friedlander is a prolific photographer who must wrestle with a tremendous backlog of negatives. I often wonder what, if anything, he did with his Vietnam pics.

Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published a selection of Friedlander’s most recent work, images of people using cell phones on the streets of New York.

“The Friedlander effect is properly encountered not in a single photo but in a group,” writes Teju Cole in an accompanying text. “You can feel it in the numerous books he has made on a wide range of themes: monuments, families, shop windows, trees, cars, marching bands, fashion models, television screens. Living for an hour or more inside his superb way of seeing is like taking a walk down a busy city street on a bright day: Your ordinary vision is transformed into something sharper, more uncanny, more intelligent and more generous.”

For Friedlander, the jungles of Manhattan and of Vietnam present a similar challenge: taking it all in while remaining true to your “way of seeing.” The world has been more intriguing these last 50 years because of Friedlander’s vision of it. It’s a view he shares with us through uncompromising photographs.

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