Well, I ended up taking a week off since I was on vacation, after all. But I’m jumping back into my routine, and thought I’d find an image that had some added significance to discuss. This week, I’m looking at a photograph by one of the most influential American photographers of the past 50 years, Lee Friedlander. His work has been instrumental in the development of my own style, and I continue to be inspired by his ongoing visual explorations.
The photograph I’m looking at today is from Friedlander’s series “The American Monument.” It is with intention that I am looking at this body of work now, against the backdrop of the vocal and sometimes violent re-examination of the presence and the meaning of statues and monuments that stand in cities across the United States.
This particular monument that Friedlander photographed, stands in what might be considered the “center of the world,” New York City. So, what is it that I see? It is a black and white photograph, shot on film, which is obvious when it is revealed that the image dates from the 1970s. Though the angle seems, slightly wide, the depth of field is sharp throughout, and the background stacks layer upon layer around the main subject, a statue of one “Father Duffy.”
Some cursory searching online found this information:
“Father Francis Duffy of Most Holy Trinity Church on 42nd Street near Broadway served with the Fighting 69th, a mostly-Irish regiment in World War I, was severely wounded, and received the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery on the battlefield. His monument in Duffy Square, the triangle formed by Broadway, 7th Avenue and 47th Street and dedicated in 1937, features Father Duffy in his World War I uniform standing in front of the Celtic cross.”
The location of the statue is part of Times Square, and it is interesting to see how much has grown around it, not only when Friedlander took his photograph, but as it looks today. Part of what I find fascinating about “The American Monument” series is that many of the featured monuments that have receded into their surroundings. Often, they look as though they have been neglected or forgotten. They become lost in their environments, or perhaps those environments have changed and transformed from when the statues were first erected. The Father Duffy image is a perfect illustration of this. If we examine how Friedlander chose to show us this scene, we can see that the statue is only one small component of the entire scene. The composition is almost like a jigsaw puzzle, with the image of Father Duffy lost in a sea of advertisements, block letters, scaffolding, and buildings. The alignment at the top of the frame is slightly off kilter, due to the perspective of the photographer looking up from ground level, while the wrought iron spikes of a fence along the bottom of the frame brings a jagged severity composition.
I find it interesting to ponder the fact that the monument we see in this photograph is a tribute to both a priest and a soldier. It brings a deeper meaning to the image for me. The symbolism of a spiritual leader is at odds with the crass consumerism on display around him. Secondly, the man who is lionized here was a soldier in World War 1, and his efforts to fight for his country were perhaps ironically resulting in giving us our freedom to drink an endless supply Coca Cola while waiting in line for some half-priced Broadway show tickets. The clash of reverence and irreverence is palpable. What is also quite interesting is once a Google image search is done on this monument, you can plainly see that the environment that Friedlander captured in the 1970s has changed dramatically to what one finds there today. Times Square was always considered the crossroads of the world, so any change really should not be surprising. As the area transformed under Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s, the real estate value increased at an unbelievable pace. Considering all of this, I am actually a bit surprised the statue wasn’t relocated somewhere else.
A recent photo of Father Duffy Square.
I wonder what Friedlander might add to the current national dialogue (arguments) about the role of statues and monuments in our country. As stated earlier, the overall feeling of the body of work is one of neglect or ignorance. However, we as a society are in the process of re-assessing who is considered a hero and who is a scoundrel, a murderer, or a traitor. Every monument is a commemoration of both a victory and a defeat. Both the conqueror and the conquered. If history is written by the victors, these statues, of course, focus on the exploits that have no doubt caused someone else great pain and suffering. From a nationalistic standpoint, it may be easier to hail a hero from a war overseas, and let the benefit of time polish the luster of the monument. However, when those commemorated have inflicted bloodshed on our own soil, against our own citizens, should these statues be allowed to stand any longer?
Perhaps Friedlander would choose not to overtly politicize his intent. To further your pondering, I will close with a wonderful quote I found by John Szarkowski on this work:
“… I think we are moved more deeply by Friedlander's intuitions concerning the nature of America's relationship to its past, concerning the vernacular materials out of which with attention we might fashion a culture, concerning the evidence of these countless attempts to preserve and nourish the idea of community. I am still astonished and heartened by the deep affection in those pictures, by the photographer's tolerant equanimity in the face of the facts, by the generosity of spirit, the freedom from pomposity and rhetoric. One might call this work an act of high artistic patriotism, an achievement that might help us reclaim that work from ideologues and expediters. His work, in sum, constitutes a conversation among the symbols that we live among and that to some degree we live by.”