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Compositions That Come Naturally

Posted By Administration, Monday, January 13, 2014

Frederick Law Olmsted, with his Victorian whiskers, grandiloquent diction and vaguely utopian transcendentalism, might have been alarmed to learn that many decades after his death in 1903 he would become a hero of postmodern art.

But at least since Robert Smithson, the earthwork pioneer, declared that he found Olmsted more interesting than Duchamp, Olmsted's creations — particularly his most famous, Central Park — have been revered as a kind of early conceptualism, carefully constructed visions of the pastoral woven into the urbanizing heart of America. Olmsted championed natural simplicity and the curative powers of communing with it, railing against parks so prettified that "the face of nature shall everywhere have become as natty as a silk hat."

In the early 1980s the photographer Lee Friedlander, best known for his relentless exploration of the American vernacular — nowhere street scenes, spectral television sets, caustic self-portraits — began to develop his own interest in Olmsted, photographing Central Park as part of a growing body of landscape work. In 1988, commissioned by the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, Mr. Friedlander started digging even more deeply into Olmsted, photographing his parks around the country for six years and then continuing to shoot them even after the project ended.

Beginning Jan. 22, 40 of the black-and-white photographs that have resulted from that fascination, most never before on display, will go on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition "Lee Friedlander: A Ramble in Olmsted Parks," keyed to the 150th anniversary this year of the design of Central Park.

While the exhibition might read like a straight-ahead study of landscape portraiture, it is also part of a long line of work by photographers who have turned their lenses on other artists' works: Man Ray's picture of Duchamp's "Large Glass," Ezra Stoller's of the buildings of Eero Saarinen and other Modernists, Hans Namuth's of Jackson Pollock's canvases coming to life, Hiroshi Sugimoto's of Richard Serra's sculpture.

In a characteristically understated way, Mr. Friedlander — the subject of a massive retrospective in 2005 at the Museum of Modern Art — describes his contribution simply as "one photographer's pleasurable and wandering glances at places that bear the great vision of Mr. Olmsted."

But Jeff L. Rosenheim, a curator of photographs at the Met, said that he was interested in showing a selection of the works — the first solo exhibition Mr. Friedlander, 73, has had at the museum — because he saw a deep affinity between Olmsted and Mr. Friedlander, in part having to do with their mutual belief in the rewards of paying attention and looking at the world.

"Friedlander is someone who reminds me of the pleasure of seeing itself," Mr. Rosenheim said. "And it's richly evoked in this particular series of photographs."

"The work is interesting because I think he's seeing these places as kinds of living works of art," he added. "And I think he is interested in Olmsted in that Olmsted was the engineer of a transformation of a particular way of looking at the American dream, of American imagery of nature."

In many ways like Olmsted's work, he said, Mr. Friedlander's "really is a sight for sore eyes, for eyes inured to advertising and all the other images that inundate us." (Olmsted wrote that "a great object of all that is done in a park, of all the art of a park, is to influence the mind of men through their imagination.")

In many of the photographs — of Central Park; Prospect Park in Brooklyn; Cherokee Park in Louisville, Ky.; World's End in Hingham, Mass.; Niagara Falls State Park — the frame is filled to bursting with sinuous, verdant branches and vines, often contrasted with the straight-edged confines of the parks and the buildings that seem to push in on them. John Szarkowski, the longtime photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art who died in July, one of Mr. Friedlander's champions, described the Olmsted pictures as ones of "a jungle dreaming of civilization."

But Mr. Rosenheim said that the same kind of visual information, confounding depth and perspective, is jammed even into Mr. Friedlander's well-known pictures of the Sonoran Desert, "a place that you normally think of as anything but dense."

"He likes to get behind and among," he said. "He likes to make that picture plane just completely dense with both meaning and stuff. He doesn't shy away from any of what you might call bold and intense complexities."

Mr. Friedlander, who is notoriously media shy and declined to be interviewed for this article, wrote in a short introduction to a book of photographs being published by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, to coincide with the exhibition, that he was often working on the Sonora and Olmsted photographs at the same time. He wrote that he "would learn some small thing in one place and apply it in a way to the other, like putting my hand into a new but well-fitting glove."

"The subject itself," he wrote of landscape, "is simply perfect, and no matter how well you manage as a photographer, you will only ever give a hint as to how good the real thing is. We photographers don't really make anything: we peck at the world and try to find something curious or wild or beautiful that might fit into what the medium of photography can hold."

"The photographs of these places," he added, "are a hint, just a blink at a piece of the real world. At most, an aphrodisiac."
By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times

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