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Shelf is a regular column by Nicholas Weist about the most gorgeous, collectible, and informative books in contemporary art.
There’s nothing I find quite as fascinating as the “selfie,” the internet-age neologism for a cell-phone self-portrait. If they are a la mode, they look casually made, and appear in great quantity. Selfies are an invitation to watch strangers perform the theatre of self in a non-codified space. Most of us know from personal experience, selfies are not casual at all. Rather they are studied meditations, with carefully composed “candid” gestures that make a fifth take look like a first. And in their accretion, in page after page of mindless scrolling, they begin to gather meaning.
Similarly, perhaps, In The Picture: Self-Portraits 1958–2011 by Lee Friedlander (Yale University Press, 2011) collects over three hundred self-portraits that at first glance could be mistaken for informal. In actuality this thick volume enunciates the seriousness of Friedlander’s practice, to which historians should give more airtime than it’s been afforded so far.
The early pictures are the ones that most photographers will know from their history classes: Friedlander’s head or shadow brazenly inserted into the frame. Articulate but not revolutionary, the early pictures speak about the medium’s non-objectivity and share a little of Friedlander’s wry humor and deadpan style. Within five or ten years though, the numerous pictures begin to tell different stories.
His relentless focus becomes a study in abjection—not just as his body settles into corpulence and old age, but also as he contorts himself to fit into progressively weirder spaces, contextualized by other objects. We meet Friedlander’s family and a coterie of (art world–) famous friends: Robert Frank, Bernd Becher, Jim Dine, John Szakowski, Maya Lin, Nicholas Nixon, Robert Heinecken, and more. We can see, as his style becomes more known, how his co-subjects begin to reproduce his familiar sourpuss face, while he photographs them. It’s here that In the Picture reveals itself as an important document for understanding Friedlander’s project.
A single image of the photographer’s shadow is a flippant reminder of the presence of an author, but repeated dozens of times over the years, the shadow becomes an ethereal stand-in; a ghostly, violent assault on unsuspecting targets; a graphic abstraction; a tangible element of an orchestrated tableaux. The images’ self-reflexivity becomes self-reinforcing: a feedback loop that strengthens the message and the narrative. Friedlander’s digestion of his spare means unfolds across a half-century into a surprisingly robust investigation of the photographer as producer of meaning: not just as an image-maker, but also as a biographical subject, public persona, and an objectified body in space.
For sheer robustness, though, you can’t beat Aperture’s massive two-volume Gilbert & George catalogue raisonné The Complete Pictures (2007). The duo is no stranger to egregious visuals, of course, and this leviathan collection matches their outsized aesthetic. Weighing in at what feels like about forty pounds, and packaged in a slipcase with its own handle and unusual wooden blocks whose purpose is apparently to make the books fit more snugly, this over-the-top monograph is primed for instant collector status. It covers their “picture” production from 1971 to 2005, which includes everything from the early suites of black-and-white photographs to the later, larger pieces.
As a fan of their quieter video work, I had never given Gilbert & George their due consideration in the realm of two dimensions. Their particular brand of raunchy, Falstaffian scatology is contextualized to good effect by the more subdued 1970s pictures—perhaps because the intentionally puerile effrontery of the Thatcher-era works are mitigated by earlier experiments in how artists can reject hegemonic forms of relation and (not to point too fine a point on it) dissolve subject-object divisions. Most of the pictures have titles that one could not cite in mixed company, and their content is a candy-colored litany of curse words, effluvia, and bodies in various states of undress. But that won’t stop this set’s value from skyrocketing once it goes out of print, which should happen literally any day now. I’m told there are only a few copies left for retail consumption: so don’t miss your chance!