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As public symbols of civic virtue and regional pride, the formal and iconographic range of monuments, memorials, and other commemorative statuary in American culture is truly astounding. Two hundred thirteen of them, shot over a period of 12 years, are represented by the photographer Lee Friedlander in The American Monument, originally published by the Eakins Press in 1976. This magnificent book’s much-anticipated second edition is now being distributed, and its arrival coincides with the opening skirmishes in what promises to be an extended battle over control of the historical narratives that our public spaces are commandeered to perpetuate.
Friedlander’s brilliant strategy — consistent with his propensity for “an excess of fact” — is to include within the photograph not only the monument itself but also a significant part its immediate surroundings (and sometimes, depending on the photographer’s proximity to it, more distant features of the landscape). In a few cases, the ostensible subject is visually incidental to the composition or even partially obscured. This emphasis is crucial, because Friedlander’s larger subject is the dynamic relationship between the monument (in its apparent permanence) and its location, its physical context — which continually changes, whether gradually or swiftly, to reflect the community’s values.
Epitomizing this approach is “Father Duffy. Times Square, New York, New York” (1974). An Army chaplain in World War I, Duffy served in a regiment made up largely of New York Irish-Americans. (His peacetime parish was just around the corner on 42nd Street.) Duffy’s bronze likeness — in boots and trench coat, Bible in hand — is besieged by the visual tumult of billboards, scaffolding, and spliced-and-diced “tkts” logos. The culture at large might venerate consumerism more loudly than it does religion or public service, but it has the decency to allow local heroes at least a bit of space.
Some of Friedlander’s subjects are well known, though the photographer excels at de-familiarizing them. In “Mount Rushmore. South Dakota” (1969), the titular attraction is a distant, faint reflection in the frame-filling plate glass windows of the visitors’ center, hovering above a blurry crush of tourists. (The photographer’s mastery of mid-tones, which this image demonstrates, was a major technical advance from his first book, the jazzy, contrasty Self Portrait.) In “Iwo Jima Memorial. Arlington, Virginia” (1972), the familiar dramatic cluster of Marines straining to raise the American flag — seen from an odd angle, at an uncomfortable distance — is barely recognizable, but the uninspired plaza it inhabits and the row of bland, blocky buildings in the distance are types we know all too well.
As a category of objects, Friedlander seems to say, its distinguishing feature is contingency in relationship to its site. Thus even forty years ago, the very phrase “American monument,” if not exactly an oxymoron, carried a sense of the provisional, the negotiable. If the planners’ original vision was compromised over time, well — that’s just what happens when the idealized concept meets destabilizing patterns of actual, everyday use. It becomes a case study in perpetuity.
In the interim since 1976, the social landscape has also evolved, and the propaganda function of public monuments has received intense scrutiny. While The American Monument takes no explicit political position on this issue, driven instead primarily by curiosity about affection for the genre itself, it is simply not possible to see some of these images in the same way we once might have. “People want leadership not only from the living but from the dead,” writes Leslie George Katz in the book’s original essay (reprinted in the present edition along with a new afterword by photo historian and curator Peter Galassi). But what people, and from which dead?
Of the four monuments in New Orleans that were recently (and courageously, it seems to this Northerner) removed from public view following protests by members of its diverse citizenry, none appears in The American Monument. But Andrew Jackson on horseback does, in two statues that might be cast from the same mold, located in Jackson Square, New Orleans, and in Lafayette Park, Washington, DC. Jackson’s audacious and successful leadership in the Battle of New Orleans and his subsequent Presidency probably ensure these statues’ permanence, but it’s easy, now, to read a certain vulnerability into them. In DC, a spindly iron fence encircles the statue and its plinth, which, on a mound of turf, is surrounded by outward-pointing cannons, emphasizing its isolation; in New Orleans, we get a stalker’s-eye view of the distant figure from behind an ornate gatepost.
Speaking of vulnerability, five diverse statues of Columbus appear here, too, printed (as many groups of related images are) on a single page. The New World’s indigenous peoples get their due in a sequence of six images, including “John Benton Corning Fountain. Hartford, Connecticut” (1972), a tribute to a local businessman of yore that features four native braves doing stereotypically brave-y things like wielding a tomahawk and scanning the horizon (or at least the expanse of lawn that is Bushnell Park, the fountain’s home).
Some of the book’s images are immeasurably, unforeseeably tragic. The sole ornamental flourish on the otherwise affectless exterior of “Federal Court Building. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” (1973) is a two-story-tall relief sculpture of a group of four gaunt, robed figures. It’s unclear from the image, but the motif is a Native American man and woman, and a man and woman of European origin. The work, by Bernard Emerson Frazier, is called “Unity.” Out of frame, on Friedlander’s right when he made the exposure, would have been the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where today there stands a museum-scaled national memorial to the 168 people killed in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh’s truckload of explosives.
A few pages on, we come across “East Coast War Memorial. Battery Park, New York, New York” (1974), which depicts an enormous eagle descending to earth, a laurel wreath in his talons. Along the right side of the photo, close enough to read, is a fragment of the memorial’s roster of war dead, engraved in stone; on the left, above the tree line in the distance, the top 30 or so floors of the World Trade Center — fated, of course, to become the subject of another memorial a few decades later.
All of which obviously has nothing to do with Friedlander’s intentions, but like the landmarks it documents, The American Monument has a dynamic relationship to its context. A quick Google search (as the reader will have surmised by now) facilitates casual research of the sites, which was far more difficult forty years ago. While a web search dispels some of the tantalizing mystery of these pages, it doesn’t diminish the power of the images. Their humor, awkwardness, and pathos remain intact. It’s the same book, but we use books differently now, and the user’s experience of The American Monument isn’t the same. And how could it be?