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May 22, 2008

Necking in San Francisco

Aberdeen, Washington's other artistic native son, the photographer Lee Friedlander, has spent his long career capturing people doing what they do, especially when they are unaware of their doings. He shoots the moments after events, the reflections, side angles, shadows. He shoots the rhinos humping at the zoo while onlookers stand anxiously waiting for something more zoo-like (and please, less animal-like) to occur. He shoots the last hour of the cross-country road trip, the last act in the street parade. His recent retrospective, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, showcases Friedlander's almost pathologocal social voyeurism. And it showcases his fascination with that most awkward and vulnerable of our human parts, the neck. The vantage point in many of his photographs is that of a dog or a child; he shoots from what seems like the subject's knee level, and shot some of his self-portraits from this up-body stance as well. Its a funny angle. But Friedlander is a funny guy. His shot of 1980's cubicle workers in a Boston office is hilarious, revealing coiffed professionals in nice office clothes sitting and staring blankly at the computers in front of them, as if these strange new machines are holding them in a force field while slowly sucking every thought from their brains.

Friedlander gets close enough to touch, in his engaging images, and stays just far enough away to let us see the strange and the goofy. Which meant that for this viewer, seeing his show at SFMOMA was disconcerting. That angular, segmented museum space is filled with offputting dark corners and sharp edges. It felt cool, pretentious, unwelcoming.

I recently bought The Architecture of Authority, by photographer Richard Ross, and found myself (to my own dismay) mentally noting, as I wandered SFMOMA, all the integrated control systems in this supposed center for artistic and intellectual exploration. I would expect that of, say, a jail or courthouse, or even an airport, but not a civic museum space.

And then I went to see the artwork at the San Francisco International Airport, and my head got turned completely around. First off, I saw work on display in the small and quiet SFO airport museum and library by Herb Lingl, the aerial photographer (who prefers a far loftier vantage point than Friedlander.) Lingl's crisp, highly saturated photographs of the Baylands restoration in Sonoma and of SF Bay salt ponds were creepy and offputting, but where they were displayed was anything but.

I completely lost time in the contemplative museum space. I also saw an installation at SFO of sculptures of the Buddha, about one dozen sculptures created in various centuries and from various Asian countries. The installation was just feet from the security lines in the International Terminal, yet it was quietly mesmerizing. The airport people-watching was also delicious.

But, back to necks - - I ended the day watching John Edwards not really stick his neck out for Barack Obama (as it seems the nomination fight has been called) on a big screen television in a hotel lobby while chatting with Milton, who was on his way from Yosemite to an elderhostel up on Orcas Island. And after talking politics for about 20 seconds, Milton volunteered to me that life is about protecting yourself from vulnerability, about covering your neck, and that was why he usually carried a gun while at home in Arizona. Milton said there were three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. I was (obviously, since I am female) a sheep, and he considered himself a sheepdog/protector of the flock (see above: gun carrying). He was on the fence about Obama, because he was not sure how Obama would be on torture.

Then Milton asked me very directly if I would waterboard someone if my husband's life was at risk. I kid you not. I tend to have these kinds of conversations with people, where they reveal and revel in the philosophies they have hard-baked for themselves. Needless to say, when I stuck my neck out and told him that I was an artist and painted abstract oils, he quickly defined me for me: "Oh, ya mean those paintings where you can't tell what they are about just by lookin' at them? I just don't get that."

Right back at ya, Milton.

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