Shop-window mannequins are one of the great clichés in street photography. Perhaps the temptation to revisit and add to a seemingly tired form is what attracted Friedlander. It's been shot to death, but is it dead? Just to be sure Friedlander shot it several more times for good measure. There's no risk of these bullet ridden corpses rising again.
Most photos in the book follow a similar pattern, juxtaposing a building's reflection with a mannequin behind plate glass. Again and again this motif is repeated until it verges on typology. But to what end? For me one or two such photos would express the idea adequately. The book has 103.
If I seem to come down especially hard on Friedlander it's only because I hold his earlier work in such high esteem. He is probably the single most influential photographer for me. For many years he has been as prolific, unmoored, and curious as any shooter out there. But what attracted me most to his earlier work was its playfulness. There was a sense of absurdity and deeply surreal humor which revealed a wise soul behind the lens. Time and again he injected that playful spirit. It's so vital and so rare! Try to find a playful spirit in any contemporary art photographs. Go ahead. I dare you. But sadly Friedlander offers no respite. His new work does not show the old spark.
For me this has been building for the last several years. Even as Friedlander's pace of publishing has increased —to a rate of 2+ books per year recently— I've found it more difficult to follow his whims. Like any good student I've studied each new book thoroughly, but with mild interest, more out of duty than passion. The sad fact is that I've begun to view these books with the same growing suspicion with which I view much contemporary photography. Could it be that the emperor has no clothes? Until now I've given Friedlander the benefit of the doubt, but Mannequin heightens my suspicions.
The book is published by Fraenkel in conjunction with a recent gallery exhibition. Jeffrey Fraenkel has tirelessly championed Friedlander for decades. I can't help wondering what he must have honestly thought of the work when Friedlander first brought it to him. Were they really "unsettling and radically new compositions." Was Friedlander really "working at the height of his powers." Perhaps Fraenkel really thought so. The more cynical view is that he realized the work was half-baked yet chose to release it anyway, knowing that any book with Friedlander's imprimatur was guaranteed to sell. In any case no amount of fawning copy is going to breath life into these photos. I'm very sorry to report that they are as static and lifeless as any shop-window mannequin.