With more than 450 photographs on view, the outsize Lee Friedlander retrospective that opened at the Museum of Modern Art recently could easily have drowned the career of the 70-year-old artist rather than celebrated it. (And that's counting only the pictures seen on the wall; others appear in vitrines that hold his many books and portfolios.) But instead of a chore to be dreaded, seeing "Friedlander" is a surprising revelation that proves that sometimes more is more.
The last photographer to get anything like this extended treatment from the museum's prestigious photography department was Eugene Atget, the turn-of-last-century French photographer whose work and career in many respects provide a model for Friedlander's. That was 25 years ago, and it took four exhibitions to do it. "Friedlander" comes in one big gulp.
Like Atget, Friedlander arrived at a distinctive style early and stuck with it. Like Atget, he recorded his civilization with boundless fascination, as if he were a stranger to it. Together the two photographers bracket the 20th century, and this exhibition proves that Friedlander is no less a genius.
For those unacquainted with Friedlander's photographs of the last 50 years, they are mostly black and white, not large, invariably compositionally complex and devoted more or less obviously to the American spirit. His early pictures of urban street scenes describe a down-at-the-heels inner city that nonetheless is full of half-hidden charms, rowdy, alienated, absurd. His "American Monuments" series looks fondly at the lonely sentinels that dot our parks, intersections and town squares. His pictures of flowers and trees are as unconventionally beautiful and odd as his nudes and portraits.
In other words, there is no single subject or genre that defines Friedlander. Perhaps that is why it takes so many pictures to show what makes him great: He embraces the world with an idiosyncratic style that confounds, amuses and occasionally instructs, a kind of latter-day, lens-based Walt Whitman. What he has to teach us is a democratic way of seeing.
He appears in many of his pictures as a shadow or reflection, or more directly as a dumbfounded regular guy sprawled on a hotel chair in his underwear. He wants us to believe that he is an antihero, all cynicism and scowl. But however much punch the pictures pack, they also are bouquets to everydayness, to the experience of the vernacular. It's no wonder that his style finds its source in the common snapshot. But snapshots these are not.
Photography grew up when art was concerned with perspective, the one-eyed way of seeing that painters perfected in the Renaissance. Lenses duplicate the effect of a space that spills toward the viewer like a funnel. But, as Friedlander demonstrates, it is entirely possible to bypass the hierarchies of conventional perspective and create a photographic space that is mainly a matter of surface, flat and diffused, like a Jackson Pollock painting inside out.
You see this most easily in his recent pictures of cactuses, cottonwoods and scrub in the Southwest, where branches hog the foreground to the near exclusion of what lurks behind. This is especially amazing when, in one image, you realize that the background is no less than Yosemite Valley, Ansel Adams's signature subject.
As for those who are already fans of Friedlander's work, the show is less about pictures that have not been seen before than about putting his achievements in context.
At first glance the exhibition, which was organized by Peter Galassi, director of the museum's photography department, seems unimaginative. It runs chronologically and follows the artist's path from project to project. Since Friedlander seems to have sprung to life as a photographer fully formed, there are no key turns in the work's direction or stylistic developments to account for, as there would be in a Picasso or Pollock retrospective, say. (One exception: A label points out the moment when Friedlander switches from a 35mm camera to a wide-angle Hasselblad.) Instead, through his generous selection Galassi asserts that the heart of Friedlander's art lies in its plenitude. And, even more radically, he suggests that pictures in aggregate, rather than any individual photograph, constitute the meaning of this particular photographer's work.
The organization of the show essentially follows the course of the artist's two dozen books, starting with "Self Portrait" (1970) and followed by such landmarks as "The American Monument" (1976), "Factory Valleys" (1982), "Portraits" (1985), "Letters From the People" (1993) and the more recent "The Desert Seen." The pictures Galassi has culled from these beautifully produced volumes are hung in groupings, salon style, to elegant rather than clumpy effect. In the middle of the galleries are cases that house copies of the books or examples of the limited-edition portfolios that accompanied them.
That photography may be an art fundamentally indebted to the book is an idea much in the air these days. Even collectors, generally a conservative bunch, are starting to see books of photographs as objects worth acquiring -- the rarer the better, of course. But seldom has an exhibition had the temerity to suggest that the works it puts on the wall play second fiddle to their reproductions on the page.
When Friedlander started his career in the '50s, photographing jazz musicians for record album covers, publication was the thing; only a few places, the Museum of Modern Art being one, put pictures in frames and hung them on the wall. Magazines such as Life and Look represented the pinnacle to which many photographers aspired, and even a rebel artist like Robert Frank used the printed page as an outlet in his classic 1958 book "The Americans."
Since the 1970s, the focus has shifted to the gallery and the museum wall as photographs entered the mainstream of the larger art world. But today, thanks to the influence of photographers such as Friedlander, the domain of the art of photography may be shifting again, off the walls and back onto the page.
Still, it pays a visitor to the exhibition to stop and visually screen out all but a single image -- take your pick -- to marvel at its complex composition and the wealth of information it contains. That there are nearly 500 to choose from, all with the characteristic we can only call Friedlander's style, makes the show itself worth marveling over.
To experience the exhibition on the page, there is the show's catalogue, "Friedlander," published by the Museum of Modern Art ($75). Its 504 pages include not only an essay by Galassi but also more than 800 reproductions of Friedlander's work, making it even bigger than the exhibition.
Friedlander is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, through Aug. 29. The museum is closed Wednesdays. Call 212-708-9400 or visit www.moma.org.