Two markedly different New York exhibitions, of work by Sze Tsung Leong and Lee Friedlander, test the potential of landscape photography as a vehicle for the exploration of diverse – global, local, political and pictorial – concerns

SzeTsung Leong spent his childhood between Mexico, Britain and the United States – perhaps the experience contributed to the pronounced global aspect of his recent photography. A new series Horizons, on show at New York’s Yossi Milo Gallery (until May 17), includes pictures made in Inner Mongolia, Italy, the Isle of Skye, Jordan, India and Germany.

Using an 8 x 10 inch view camera, and a variety of medium formats, Leong has produced a series of unobstructed landscape images, often from an elevated viewpoint, that range from cityscapes to wilderness. The sheer diversity of locations and subjects – industrial or agrarian, poverty-stricken or wealthy, peopled or desolate, new-build or ancient – might be expected to deliver a similarly diverse set of pictures.

 

But Leong’s photographs are deliberately constructed to impose a unity, of sorts, on the scenes surveyed. This is achieved most obviously by the repeated positioning of the pictorial horizon in the same place (about a third of the way up the frame) in each image. Viewed on the gallery wall, where the pictures are uncaptioned and closely abutted, the same interchangeable horizon appears to run through far-flung, and proximate, locations.

 

The resulting homogeneity, and the collapsing of geographical distance, are strategies designed to provoke a consideration of the contingency and fluidity of the relations between cultures and regions, As Leong writes in an accompanying essay: “The drifting horizon reveals the tendency for the arbitrariness of distinctions, the randomness of orders. Political borders, for example, rarely delineate essences – they are only the boundaries that overlap in the most dominant way…Any way we divide up the world will overlap with other orders…As a result, the boundaries of what we consider the local need not be limited to physically confined, specific places – the local can be mobile and dispersed.”

In contrast to the epic and global scale of Horizons, Lee Friedlander’s A Ramble in Olmsted Parks (at the Metropolitan Museum until May 11) explores the possibilities of a determinedly personal, local investigation of landscape photography.

Though the putative subject of Friedlander’s pictures is the park designs of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, his photographs pursue compositional and pictorial themes that have been evident in much of his work, in a variety of locations, since the 1980’s. That said, familiarity does nothing to detract from the bewilderingly complex, astute and decentred compositions of sharply-rendered webs of branches and veils of twigs

 

© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Olmsted was responsible for many of North America’s nineteenth century public and private urban spaces – amongst them the Capitol building landscape, Washington Park, New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s’ Jackson Park and Louisville’s Cherokee Park. Friedlander’s interest in his designs appears to have been sparked by an initial commission for the Canadian Centre for Architecture; yet his photography continued long after completion of the brief.

To the extent that the Olmsted photographs reveal interests that are evident in similar Friedlander projects – of cherry blossom in Tokyo, apple orchards in New York, olive groves in Spain, or cacti in Arizona – they bear witness to the possibilities and benefits of an unflinching, concentrated and extended exploration of formal pictorial concerns. In his own words, he “needed to use all that I had learned, every trick, my best gear, whatever wit I was capable of, and I had to be as sharp and aware and immediate as a spark.”

 

© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

Cherokee, Louisville, Kentucky, 1994.

© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

 

Despite the very different motivations that animate their landscape photography, Friedlander and Leong share an awareness of the impossibility of their enterprises. Leong describes his own photographs as “incomplete fragments”. While for Friedlander: “Landscape! The subject of landscape as a photographic possibility is both pleasurable and very difficult. The subject itself is simply perfect, and no matter how well you manage as a photographer, you will only ever give a hint as to how good the real thing is.”

 

Guy Lane

 

 

Sze Tsung Leong, Horizons, (until May 17, 2008)

Yossi Milo Gallery 525 West 25th Street, New York

 

 

Lee Friedlander: A Ramble in Olmsted Parks (until May 11, 2008)

The Metropolitan Museum, 1000 5th Avenue, New York