Harsh Glare

Photographer Lee Friedlander Takes A Prickly Look At The Sonoran Desert.

By Margaret Regan

LEE FRIEDLANDER'S desert is the desert of danger, the one you'd see if you were in trouble.

Say you were stuck out in the Sonoran wilderness at high noon in summer, lost, thirsty and tired. You wouldn't gaze out appreciatively on the painterly rolling distances, the infinite sky, the jagged blue-beige mountains, the pale-green saguaros marching up faraway slopes. Nope, felled by thirst and heat, you'd be stuck in the desert's perilous foreground, the way Friedlander's photographs are.

In his pictures, claustrophobic cactuses, close, prickly, threatening, shut out the sky. His tangly trees rule out any hope of shelter: They're crowded with brambles and nursling saguaros shooting up like armed guards. Harsh fortresses of prickly pears and shard grass and dead branches block off all escape. Forget about softening color. Friedlander's pictures are a black-and-white gone to gray, bleached out by the white-hot sun. When you look at them, you imagine your eyes aching in the intense glare of the desert in heat. You're blinded by the light.

An Excess of Fact: Lee Friedlander/The Sonoran Desert is the big new show at the Center for Creative Photography. It's an exhibition of 94 works Friedlander took during the 1990s, though he's been roaming the deserts of southern Arizona and northwest Mexico some 15 years. The 60-something photographer is one of the luminaries of contemporary photography, with hundreds of solo shows, 20 books, dozens of photographic series and even the MacArthur genius award to his credit. The Sonoran show demonstrates just how distinctive his vision is.

These photographs offer a view of nature unlike almost any other I can think of in art. The usual procedure is for art to tame the landscape, with the artist actively translating the unruly natural world into an appropriately aesthetic, orderly format. (Think of Edward Weston's elegant agaves, serenely transformed into a symphony of lines and spaces.) Friedlander's pictures offer instead the conquest of art by nature: His disobedient desert has no intention of being changed into something refined.

The photographer doesn't obey any of the conventional dicta of landscape art. He doesn't give a hoot about the usual balance between crowded and empty spaces (positive and negative space) on the picture plane. Nor does he concern himself with the rule of composition that decrees that the picture's main object should be just enough off center to appeal to the eye. Likewise for the unwritten law of western landscape that insists on a series of undulating planes, distant mountains in the background, wide open spaces in the foreground, the sheltering sky presiding over the whole. (Think of the Ansel Adams classic, "Moonlight Over Hernandez, New Mexico").

No, Friedlander's pictures, crowded with an excess of desert facts--the twisty, spiny, thronging essence of our beloved Sonoran Desert--break all the rules. Working with a large-format camera, he covers the entire surface of his square photographic paper with an undisciplined sprawl of, say, dry tree branches reaching out inelegantly wherever they choose. He'll put an ocotillo smack in the middle of the composition. Or he sets up a tight shot of saguaros so close to one another that they really do look like an impenetrable forest, along the lines of that fearsome woods in the Wizard of Oz. He gives the blazing sun priority over the fine range of tones--from black through gray and on into white--prized by earlier photographers. Not for him the dramatic shadows of late afternoon: like the outlaw he goes for high noon.

Friedlander's original take on our desert is partly based on his pure wonder at its strangeness. Born in 1934, the photographer grew up in the lush rainforest hard by the Olympic Mountains in Washington. After decades of photographing the "social landscape," he turned to nature. The lush Sonoran Desert, he says, is "the most intriguing landscape...the place most foreign to me, the opposite of my home Olympics." None of the pictures have their own names. Instead, each is like a jazz riff segueing off the main desert theme, or, as Friedlander puts it in the catalog essay, "I think of these desert pictures together as one long sentence."

In rare instances, he sees the desert gently. One quiet image of leaves against sky is reminiscent of his earlier preoccupation with Japanese cherry blossoms. Most of the time, though, he records the desert's rawness with a brutal honesty. Nevertheless, he's also laboring under the opposing impulse of abstraction. He plays around with formal ideas, manipulating light, making the ocotillo white against a gray background in one picture, gray against white in the next. Some of his densely occupied photographs remind me of the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, another artist influenced by the western landscape. Pollock's famous drip works are partly about surface and texture, as Friedlander's photographs are, but both suites of work have a mysterious other dimension, a hint of spaces just beyond the flat surface of the art. One Friedlander picture focuses on a savage brambles whose knot of branches covers the paper just as surely as Pollock's drips ever did; dimly perceived beyond its deft scrawling lines are two otherworldly layers: a maze of prickly pears in the middle ground, faint saguaros in the background.

Friedlander's art is extraordinary but slightly disturbing. You wander long enough inside his claustrophobic visions and you start thinking feverishly of rescue, pouncing with relief on the pictures few and far between that offer a distant glimpse of the redeeming mountains, of a world beyond the fierce desert tangle. TW

An Excess of Fact: Lee Friedlander/The Sonoran Desert continues through July 6 at the Center for Creative Photography on the University of Arizona campus. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Charles Bowden, a Tucson author nationally known for such books on the desert as Frog Mountain Blues and Blood Orchid, will give a free talk, "Blind in the Desert," at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 10, in the gallery. For more information call 621-7968.

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