Related Articles: Gallery, All

The Little Screens: Lee Friedlander at Fraenkel Gallery

By Rachel Churner

Over the past six weeks, we've become accustomed to the visual drone of the TV, always tuned to CNN, MSNBC, Peter Jennings on ABC. We leave the TV on just in case, so that we know if another anthrax exposure is confirmed, another suspect is arrested, another threat is made. The sound is kept low or muted, so that we can go on with our days "uninterrupted" because all that's really needed are the images from this new shining roommate.

In a series of photographs now on display at Fraenkel Gallery, Lee Friedlander has captured the comforts, intrusions, and aggravations of a world where the television always glows. The black and white photographs in The Little Screens, all taken in the early 1960s, casually record the turned-on tube in a variety of household settings. The TV's bulbous shape may have slimmed down and the rooms' contents updated in the last forty years, but the resonance of the images has remained.

The silent screens glow with a close-up of an eye, staring outwards into the empty room; with a man atop his motorcycle alongside the bedroom's radiator; with a poster reading "wanted by the FBI," tentatively held by two hands pressing in on the edge of the screen. Documenting "the half-light we never notice," as photographer Walker Evans noted in 1963, Friedlander humanizes the continual glow and constant flickering, so that the people in the pictures become substitutes for those people who are not there.

For though someone may have been watching the TV program, no one is present in these rooms. A TV screen filled with a woman's face sits not on a table or stand, but comfortably in a plush chair, embodying the female who may have sat there before. The television itself takes on the role of friend, lover, and entertainer through its life-like radiance. But the occasional shadow cast across a chair or the intrusive pair of feet at the edge of the frame implicate the photographer in the scene. By refusing to let us forget that he is present, Friedlander compels us to acknowledge that the medium of photography, and by extension TV, is not human, but man-made.

The Little Screens are masterfully executed snapshots, painstakingly claimed at that moment when the television began to take over the American home. Yet still important in a world where we sleep with nightlights. As Evans noted about these photographs in Harper's Bazaar (1963): "for the thousandth time let it be said that pictures which are really doing their work don't need words." Enough said.

The Little Screens at The Fraenkel Gallery runs through October 27, 2001. The exhibition is accompanied by a hardcover catalog, published by Fraenkel Gallery. Gallery hours are Tuesday - Friday, 10:30 am - 5:30 pm; Saturday, 11 am - 5 pm. For more information, call 415.981.2661.