The Familiar Photo: Reflections on Friedlander’s ‘Pomona, New York’

A photographer ventures into the woods to capture the façade of a sweet little white house. The house belongs to a friend, and it’s his first visit and he’s immediately attracted to its postcard geometry, and how, in some strange way, the posture confirms something about his friend’s character. Turning back to the house, his gaze is caught in the spider web forest. This crisscross network of branches complicates the composition, creates an impassable thicket between the house and the image of the house he holds in his mind, wishing now to eternalize—such an idea cannot be realized with the uncompromising camera-eye; the trees are there. But, noticing the play of boughs scratching up the view, the resistance of reality to have single detail of its composition isolated and represented as by a painter, he simply tilts his lens up a bit to capture what is particular to photography: the inability to show anything other than what is present. Or at least this is the origin story I imagine standing before Lee Friedlander’s photograph Pomona, New York.

Friedlander seems to turn to the unsimplifiable textures of physical reality which become themselves a profound subject, opening into the aesthetic consideration of presence. The ideal eye-to-mind-to-hand-to-canvas image of the painter who can depict in perfection what he wants, now stands in the distance as a white house in the tangle of reality, photography’s primary subject. “Every photograph is a certificate of presence,” writes Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida. It helps to imagine the presence of the photographer, try to imagine what he’s doing there because in a peculiar way I find myself doing the same, asking ‘what was I doing there?’ However, the tilt and distance of the camera resist my attempts to organize the appearance into an imagined story which connects this image to a string of others, or integrate it fully into my own story and place it in an album of my memory. But it does seem so familiar, strikingly familiar, referencing something I’d partially forgotten. I stand before the artwork trying to pick out the elements of the image which are the familiar ones, and (the harder task) trying to figure out why the familiarity of a sight I’ve never seen before stings me so much.

I came across the photograph on a field trip for Geoff Lehman’s Photography and Modernity course. The class visited a retrospective of American photographer Lee Friedlander at the C/O Berlin gallery (up until December 3). Friedlander’s work spans six decades and takes broadly as its subject urban life of American cities, road trips, family members, landscape, and his own image in reflection and shadows self-portraiture.

In the gallery, I passed the period of his most recognizable work (1960s-70s)—lonely hotel room compositions, curiously angled street photography in New York, his partial-presence self-portraits—and was startled for a moment to see a photograph of a place I thought I recognized. I say startled quite sincerely here. A deep aesthetic experience, a brush with the beautiful, arises in that first wave of perception like a genuine surprise; a hidden feature of the world, one which feels essential, is revealed in a way you can’t quite speak though you’d very much like to. I hope to be startled when I walk into a museum—this has become, in fact, the basis of my method of navigating huge, overwhelming collections. I enter a room (ignoring the wall text), scan the group of works, and allow myself to be pulled by what pulls me. In the Berlin Gemäldegalerie on a field trip for the Renaissance Core some time ago, I was caught by the charm of a Brueghel canvas several rooms away. This wink in the distance, framed by several doorways, seduced me, and I passed the faces of royalty and angels to put my ear to its murmurs… This, however, was not the way Friedlander’s photograph startled me when I saw it from across the room in the C/O gallery; it did not wink or seduce, but looked at me knowingly and unpassionately. There was a hint of déjà-vu, the rising, fluttery feeling that familiarity in a foreign place has. Instead of being pulled to the photograph primarily for its twinkle as a new entry into the world, as a beauty which points to uncommunicable truth, it was a ghost I saw, the stranger who resembles someone I knew a long time ago, the passerby who uses the same shampoo as an old lover.  

One of the first texts we read in Photography and Modernity was Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. In the book, Barthes writes of the punctum of a photograph, the detail in certain photographs which attracts the viewer, has the power of expansion. He writes, “I feel that [the detail’s] mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value” (42). I have sometimes found a punctum in a photograph, have been able to identify my attraction to a photo as being contingent on a particular wounding detail. But this was not the case with Pomona; here it was something much vaguer, some general effect which was much less communicable. I began by examining the compositional elements for clues.

The photograph is titled, like most of Friedlander’s photographs, by its location—a place I’ve never been. In Pomona, New York, I am caught in a tight forest web, a nature architected by spider. Friedlander frames a bald forest canopy, a dynamic, found-in-nature composition with an odd little house on a slight slant in the middle-ground. I glide between the ribs of tree skeletons, attempting to unknot this barbed network or make sense of this real oddity of winter forest in this real place Pomona, New York. Quite fantastically, the way the branches exceed the frame, they seem to expand to infinity and fill sight with an unresolvable field; lines pressed onto the very lens of my eye, existing within the organ like those illusory eye floaters. I recognize, of course, that this is a photograph and thus it cannot lie—this place really was out there like this once. My visual associations and plays—the tendrils like supporting beams of physical reality, the veins in Atlas’ neck as he tenses against the weight of the heavens—are born from a real place, a grounded place, one I could visit, it tells me right in the title! Though a photograph depicts something necessarily true, the framing, the edges, the angle, can suggest something which actually being there at the time of the taking of the photograph would not be apparent. It is by the framing and subtle tilt of this sight that the tree branches seem to go outward infinitely, that the house on a slant seems peculiar, that a human presence floats uncertainly (who is there? Am I there?).

Though I really enjoyed these trees, found them quite fascinating, even beautiful, I still always returned to that hovering homely aura, the illogical sense that I am looking into my past. The image we assign to particular moments in time, memory, is about confirming having been, referenced so that we can feel sure that we will be in the future as well. The photograph confirms the having been of these trees, that sky, this house, someone with a camera, but categorically not my having been. The odd thing is, it feels like it does. But, of course (of course!) I wasn’t there—someone was, there’s proof of it, but it wasn’t me. 

Perhaps a photograph—if its referent stands outside of our own history (our childhood homes, mothers, vacationed spots…)—shows us a memory without the emotion. It is an appearance of the real untouched by the heavy-marking emotional character of the moment (our emotional state) through which the purposiveness of an instant is later established. The photograph is time pressed into sight outside of our time. And here perhaps is the tension, the unique ghostliness of photography. Feelings, deep and flowing underground rivers, and even those on the surface (dusting of sand on stones)—they are our time. A mood dragging on for days is holding the whole universe, and from our glumness or joy or boredom comes the breeze that ruffles the things of the world into their life—all things endowed, of course, with the black thumbprint of the soul’s particular countenance. The fact that I didn’t live this scene but for some reason felt like I had, my searching for that particular countenance which would remind me what I’m looking at, created that sense of dull awe—not the shock of the beautiful but the disturbance of untraceable memory.

Standing before this photograph, I thought of similar landscapes I’ve experienced, similar relations I have had to trees like these in this particular time of year (in my mind, February). It was nothing as concrete as a precise instance I could conjure, but rather a vague association with impressions from skiing trips in New York as a child or the Midwest landscape, perceptions in my arboreous hometown Cleveland. The initial activity of my mind before this photograph was of trying to remember a specific impression which the photograph seemed to reference, both in its iconographic elements (the familiarity of trees and house) but also in the feeling it lit in me which was something like a restlessness and a fondness. I waited and searched for a moment of realization, but the sensation was too vague. The feeling ran smoothly around itself, gliding in its infinite sides into a ball which, held in my mind, was the essence of a particular but implacable time. It hummed with the fondness we usually have for the past, but also, in my case, had a dullness and flatness which I associate with growing up in the Midwest, a bit of restlessness and boredom which I inhabited in my time there. The photograph felt as though it was appealing to a faculty, another sense, which I have long forgotten how to use. I might find the photograph enthralling based on aesthetic elements alone, by the dark dynamic trees and the friendly peeking of the house, but as a document of reality, I cannot separate it from associations of my presence in the world which it necessarily nudges.

It was something tied to memory which drew me to the photograph and which might be the thrust of my attraction to all photographs, my version of Barthes’ punctum—the split-second consideration of whether the image is not emanating from my very mind. The feeling of familiarity overwhelmed the logic of place and time: Pomona, New York must be a pictorial representation I’ve stored away to stand in for a time, proof of my being in the past, a moment of significant emotion marked by spiny trees, a neck craning to see the sky, winter chill, my lovely white house. I’d forgotten these perceptions, which is foolish because they are so dear to me— that was the winter we hardly got any snow at all, and Jerry found a squirrel in the basement, and Ma made blueberry pie. The perceptions embedded themselves in me deeply enough to one day resurface as they partially did now. Here another thread of the story buoyed to the water’s edge in the announcement before a photograph of a place I’d never been at a time I wasn’t born, there I am!

This piece was adapted from a visual analysis essay for Geoff Lehman’s course ‘Photography and Modernity.’

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