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Tony Gentry

Cribbing from the Master

Updated: May 17

Thanks to our phones, all of us are photographers now, and that means we carry with us, all the time, a tool to make pictures that are more than just snapshots or selfies. Your phone can’t do everything a Nikon can; maybe you don’t have the talent or dedication of a professional, but by visiting gallery shows, perusing coffee table books, maybe reading thoughtful essays by critics like John Berger or Susan Sontag or Geoff Dyer, maybe some of it begins to wear off on you. Maybe you find yourself looking a little more closely, and occasionally surprising yourself with an interesting image.

All that said, here’s a list of photographic strategies I noted (Notes app on phone) at a gallery show of black and white pictures by Lee Friedlander visited last July. This droll documentarian of American townscapes is a master at framing shots using split-screens, juxtapositions, mirrors, shadows and, well, for instance:

  1. Close up versus distant people to shrink one of them

  2. Mirrors to show different view

  3. Rear view mirrors

  4. Open car door, its window a frame

  5. Split a person with a vertical pole

  6. Pole as deceptive focal point

  7. People going opposite directions on either side of divider

  8. Poster plastered wall plus blank wall

  9. Maybe with an arrow

  10. Squared geometry of receding buildings

  11. Glamorous poster juxtaposed with dowdy maid in window

  12. Partial words on wall (woe) comments on image

  13. Hole in wall as frame for image

  14. Window reflection and other side of slit what it’s reflecting off kilter

  15. Elongated shadow of pole as divider

  16. Wallpaper patterns

  17. Distant pyramid paired with street sign triangle

  18. Tilted poles like arrows in ground

  19. Piles of junk paired with church

  20. Do all of these tricks in one photo

  21. Ad on poster framed in bedroom window

  22. TV screen image as comment on room

  23. Patterns, diagonals, squares

  24. Chain link fence as screen

  25. Empty picture frame hung on chain link fence

  26. Back of head not face

  27. Multiple shadows

  28. Shadow of photographer looming

  29. Nude framed in block of light thru window

The show was fascinating, each photo a puzzle, and collectively a lesson in how our mind’s eye unconsciously guides and shapes what we see (and fail to see). Walking out of the gallery, spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around midtown Manhattan, attempting to snap shots like his. It was fun, one of the year’s more memorable afternoons. And here’s my favorite Friedlanderish picture, of a barber shop in the 30s:

Lagniappe: Check out this New Yorker article about Vivan Maier, who died unknown but left a trove of remarkable street photographs.

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