Forgotten Memorials

Lee Friedlander's photos illustrate how Americans so easily disregard the past

In a rundown corner of Union City, a dense Jersey tangle just west of Manhattan, stands a battered monument to a club no one wants to join.

The homely pillar, dedicated on May 8, 1933, honors "Gold Star Mothers/For Their Services," as letters chiseled into the stained concrete explain.

This group of Gold Star Mothers had lost their soldier sons to the carnage of World War I. But even in 1933, these stricken women were already on their way to anonymity. The plaque doesn't bother to list their names, or even the names of their dead children. And now, all their grief has come to this: a forgotten pillar in a grungy city park.

Lee Friedlander photographed the monument in 1974, capturing it in winter, when a pale sun filtered through bare tree branches, making it even sadder and more lonesome. In the years right before the country's bicentennial, Friedlander had embarked on a project to capture the forgotten historical obelisks and plaques and statues scattered across the American landscape. Inspired, he says, by family car trips, he crisscrossed the country and aimed his camera at all kinds of roadside attractions, from Civil War statues to plaques marking race riots.

But he didn't give them the standard patriotic treatment. Instead, he used these often deteriorating monuments to meditate on memory and loss. Gathered together in an absorbing show at the Center for Creative Photography, Lee Friedlander: American Monuments, some 70 black-and-white photos from the CCP archives picture the structures as they really are in the modern world.

They're ignored in city parks, or they succumb to graffiti or the onslaught of weeds and ivy. Or they're lost in the cityscape, rising invisibly skyward alongside telephone poles and traffic lights, like the almost undetectable war memorial near a gas station in "New Orleans, Louisiana," from 1973.

Even the Washington Monument, towering as it is, is just one small element of the urban scene in a series of five shots from 1973. To be sure, Friedlander deliberately positioned his camera at odd angles to minimize the giant monument's impact. In one, it's tiny, distant, a puzzling obelisk on the D.C. horizon, its sharp point seeming to pierce the elbow of an up-close cherry tree in the foreground. In another, it plays second fiddle to a cement truck rumbling by, about as divorced from George Washington and his story as it's possible to be.

These solemn monuments often seem like refugees from a less ironic age. Take the bronze Spanish padre who seems to have lost his way in 1976 "Tucson." The grandiose heads of Mount Rushmore are obscured by a giant viewfinder and a pair of strolling tourists in a shot from 1972. One generation's grandeur has devolved into the next generation's tourist attraction.

The presidential noggins are pretty kitschy to a modern eye, and so is the tribute to the famous cowboy actor Tom Mix, killed in a car wreck near Florence, Ariz., in 1940. Mix is remembered at the site by a riderless bronze horse, its head lowered in grief. At the outer limits of goofiness is the "World's Largest Jackrabbit," in Odessa, Texas. The citizens of Odessa saw fit to erect this oversize painted bunny on a drab city street. Even so, Friedlander gave the statue a moody airing, shooting the scene on a gray, blustery day, when a woman in an overcoat hurries by with her head bent into the wind.

You could easily do a content analysis here, balancing bunnies with presidents to figure out who is historically worthy in American eyes. One anomaly is a "Newsboy" statue in Los Angeles. A nostalgic character out of the pre-Internet past, the salesboy wears knickers and a newsboy's cap. Striding forward with a paper in his hands, he's a working-class hero energetically claiming his place on America's streets.

But he's rare in this roster. No, Americans generally go for high-ranking generals and presidents and mayors, nearly all male, nearly all white. The phallic monument to the Fifty-Third Ohio Infantry in Vicksburg--a sort of giant bullet--is the only reminder we need of how obsessed with the Y chromosome our official history once was.

Few women are singled out for praise in granite or bronze. Mary Washington, mother of George, is remembered with a mini-Washington Monument at her burial place in Fredericksburg, Va. In Phoenix, a statue of a woman seated on a mule apparently honors the contributions of female pioneers, but the praise is faint: A man is leading this damsel and her mule into the rocky West.

And the only African Americans here appear in a historical sign in Memphis marking the site of the first free "colored" school in the city. Opened in 1863 and staffed at least partially by Union Army officers, this school and others "were burned during the 1866 race riot," but re-opened a few years later. This extraordinary story merits no statues of ex-slaves learning to read, or of white lieutenants learning to teach. It just gets a sign, and even that is slipping into oblivion in a bed of plants.

Curator Britt Salvesen, new director of the CCP, tells us that the 20th century was great for "great man" monuments. And she's included works by others, from Eugène Atget to Garry Winogrand, to show how often photographers used such memorials to "reflect on patriotism, civic identity and humankind's destructive tendencies."

The moment for the general-on-the-horse type of monument seems to have passed. Ever since the extraordinary success of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, memorials tend toward abstraction. They're meditative spaces, with reflecting pools, natural materials, running water. But when Lin etched into her wall the name of every American who died in that war, she drew on a very old tradition.

At least since the Civil War, towns throughout the nation have put up monuments to their war dead, etching the names of local sons (and now daughters) into granite, always leaving blank space for the new dead who will inevitably follow. Friedlander found one of these elegiac pieces in Marion County, Ark., in 2003, the year we began the war on Iraq. His photo captures the names of Jewell Mears and Charles E. McKay, from World War I, followed by Paul Ray Setzer and Ira Rice, who lost their lives in Vietnam. A billowing flag obscures most of the other names; sometimes, after all, it's false claims to patriotism, to duty, to national interest, that take these soldiers from us.

Monuments like these mutely remind us how we little note, nor long remember, the tragedies of our own past. And as the old saying has it--and as today's Gold Star Mothers might attest--those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.

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