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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    ‘Monumental’ exhibit captures American landscape

    On a street corner in Stamford, Conn., his rifle shoved out in front of him to clear a path, a doughboy prepares to lunge forward into battle. But this doughboy is made of cold, hard metal, and he looks out on tacky-looking department stores and strollers, not the shell-riddled havoc of No Man’s Land.

    The doughboy scene is one of several photographs from the great photographer Lee Friedlander’s series “”American Monuments”” showing at the Center for Creative Photography this summer. The work of several years, Friedlander’s series is nothing less than a comprehensive panorama of America in the early 1970s as seen through its various monuments.

    The theme of Friedlander’s work is simply the contrast between the grave tone of the monuments and their context “”the intended effect and the actual result,”” as its publisher Leslie Katz put it.

    Thus an enormous monument to Civil War soldiers in Indianapolis sits across the street from a boutique’s display window, through which Friedlander partly shoots it.

    Sometimes, the photo’s intent is obvious. A sign commemorating the First Transatlantic Railroad is surrounded by palm trees, hydrants, a Shell gas station, a Route 66 sign – the debris of the industrial growth that the railroad itself unleashed.

    Other times, the photos are more ambiguous. Small reproductions of the Statue of Liberty dot the landscape, awkward and strangely sympathetic-looking in their decidedly unglamorous surroundings. A gently comic spirit pervades many of the photos.

    A statue of Theodore Roosevelt, presiding over the vast foliage of Roosevelt Island, his arm sweeping upward as if to suggest that he summoned it up out of the earth himself, subtly deflates the great park-builder’s grandiosity. A Texas statue, meanwhile, celebrates the “”World’s Largest Jack Rabbit,”” twice as tall as the average man.

    A photo of Mount Rushmore focuses on an enormous viewer, with two bored-looking, vaguely hostile teenagers walking by. The mountain’s familiar faces bob up, rather sadly, near the top of the photo.

    In Florida’s Coral Gables, a sign booms: “”In tribute to George and Rebyl Zain, from whose faith, enthusiasm and leadership emerged the Miracle Mile.”” Beside the sign sits the kind of dull suburban home where enthusiasm and leadership go to die.

    Sometimes, though, the results are surprisingly ambiguous. Standing upright in the center of Times Square, Father Duffy seems uncowed by the enormous “”Enjoy Coca-Cola”” sign leaping up behind him. He looks as though he’s been tempted by and lived through stronger things than Coca-Cola.

    Looking at images like this, the viewer feels that the tug of the past is still strong – that it has a hold on us stronger than the trivial artifacts we surround ourselves with every day. Americans build these statues and raise these signs, Friedlander seems to argue, not to celebrate the past but to grasp it, to keep it from sliding away from us, to harden our memories into stone and keep them close to us forever.

    Nothing here captures the poignant futility of that attempt more than Friedlander’s study of that weirdest and most mysterious of American memorials, the Washington Monument. The monument is seen from several unflattering angles – from behind a phone booth, a tree, a street sign and a traffic signal – yet it seems immune to their effect. Alone among all these memorials, it survives its context unscathed.

    That is strangely depressing, for there is nothing human or approachable about the monument. It seems designed for the alien gaze of posterity, like the pyramids or Stonehenge. To escape the triviality of our pitiful surroundings, Friedlander’s work seems to suggest, we must give up our humanness altogether.

    “”American Monuments”” is showing at the Center for Creative Photography through August 3. Admission is free, with suggested donations.

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