Fraenkel Gallery pays tribute to photographer Lee Friedlander with ‘Signs’ exhibition

Lee Friedlander/Courtesy

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Throughout his five decades of work, photographer Lee Friedlander has made an effort to capture what is intriguing about the everyday of American life. His works depict sights and scenes that come across as familiar but are captured in a way that renders them dramatic, tucked into new light and brought out from the shadows of mundanity.

On Thursday, San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery opened “Signs,” an exhibit highlighting Friedlander’s artistic contributions. Though relatively small — with only two rooms dedicated to Friedlander’s pieces — the show comprehensively shows the various facets of the photographer’s interests and subjects.

Friedlander works almost exclusively in black-and-white photography, adding a solemnity to the quotidian imagery he is interested in. The exhibit, however, also brings out the levity in the photographer’s work, which visitors can see in the curated balance between serious and whimsical.

In its organization, “Signs” doesn’t shy away from the obvious, choosing some images to explicitly fit the theme to a T. Entering into the procession of chosen works, the first image, titled “Florida,” depicts a car half in shadow, next to a sign that reads “signs.” Progressing from a few stand-alone framed shots on the first of the gallery walls, the exhibit then opens into a larger tableau of assorted sign-related works (aptly starting from the left with a highway entrance sign reading “entrance”).

These selections truly do encompass the full range of signage, and they do so very literally. Among Friedlander’s subjects are signs of all types: road signs, handmade protest signs, billboards dotting highways. There are also advertisements of all sorts: prices, items for sale, sex. And concluding the assemblage is another on-the-nose piece, one of a man holding a sign proclaiming, “The end is near.”

None of the works are given placards or labels throughout the exhibit, though each is titled after its location. This choice adds an element of universality to the assorted works in their collective presentation, taking them out of their direct contexts of location or time period. As the visitor goes through the exhibition, each shot becomes a relatively anonymous addition to Friedlander’s vision of America.

The bluntness of Friedlander’s subject matter in its relation to his theme avoids being redundant. The collection features a bent toward the whimsical, with pieces often conveying a certain cheekiness that peeks through the dramatic framings. Most of Friedlander’s pieces shy away from using people as focal points, but in some cases — such as a snap from Coney Island with a shop owner peeking into the frame — the human element shines through. Others, like the closely paired “Pepsi” and “Coca-Cola” signs featuring a stuffed alligator and pig next to them, respectively, come across as somewhat corny.

The second room of the exhibition demonstrates less focus on actual signs. One of its walls is dedicated to those of Friedlander’s pieces taken from the perspective of the side windows of cars. This is a vantage so familiar as to normally almost fade from notice. But through Friedlander’s lens, this glance is given gravitas, framed to heighten the discrepancies between what can be seen in the foreground and in the background. These pieces — taken from locales as diverse as Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Wisconsin — often create a dichotomy between the road in front of the car and the dramatic skyline fading into the distance. In these instances, the camera lens takes on two gazes, capturing the past and the present in one fell swoop.

Friedlander’s work feels more grand than a simple “slice of life” designation, but his pieces do, at the end of the day, reveal the everyday. “Signs” does an adequate job of congregating his works in order to bring a sense of levity to the simultaneously mundane and dramatic nature of the American landscape he focuses on.

“Signs” is on view through Aug. 17 at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. 

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].