The Broader Picture: Reading between the lines

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE letters that you never see being written, and they are the kind in which people reveal their deepest, truest selves. What does it take to find an unwatched moment in which to scratch 'WAYNE + JANN' on a wall, or to spray 'FUCK THE RICH' on to a piece of masonry? Probably just a powerful feeling that this is the only medium available to the writer. Look at the inside of a cubicle in any public lavatory and see not just filth but a catalogue of desire - for self-expression, for contact, for some sort of satisfaction denied in daily existence.

This fugitive correspondence, addressed to the unknown without shame or limitation, is among the subjects of Letters from the People, in which the celebrated American photographer Lee Friedlander borrows the informal lexicon of the late-century city street - its alphabet, its numerology, its sense of functional decor - to create a book that is far from just another beautifully printed essay in post-Cartier-Bresson urban-demotic photography, or a reprise of Watching My Name Go By, the pioneering record of New York subway spray-painting photographed in 1974 by Mervyn Kurlansky and Jon Naar. Friedlander gives you that kind of folk art, too, but Letters from the People is much more besides: a rearrangement of the language into something new. On pages almost 15 inches square, he begins with the alphabet. Ten different letter As, taken from traffic signs, graffiti, shop displays, each in its own space, sometimes one to a page, sometimes five. Then, similarly, five Bs - one isolated from the window of a burger bar, another stamped in metal. Then three Cs: stencilled on a steel grille, dripping on wood, decaying on the glass door of a shop. Then three Ds. And two Fs. A lone G, an I, a J, three Ks, two Ls and two Ms. And so on, all the way to a solitary Z, on a street sign in Akron, Ohio.

By this time, which is when Friedlander switches his attention to numerals, a rhythm has begun to take hold. The contrasting play of lines and textures, of the extemporised and the machine-made, runs alongside the A-to-Z progression. There are subtexts, such as the conjunction of an F and a decorative heart and the reflection of an Italianate church in the window of a shop in Boston, Massachusetts, or two images from New Orleans: the warped contour of an N in the melted tarmac of a street, and the spontaneous beauty of a 4 in chalk. Soon, too, the numbers begin to repeat in stuttering combinations: 25, 50, 69, 78, 434, 775. Then the letters, from ABC to the terse mantras of the walls and the windows: GOD, CAdollars H, SIN, JESUS.

Now, with medium and vocabulary and syntax established, the messages can begin. The informal ones are the most insistent. A fading 'NO' in San Juan, Puerto Rico, followed by the ringing echo of a same-sized 'NO' in New York City. The raging 'FUCK YOU SPIPDER MURPHY' in a Boston passageway. Less knowable emotions: 'WHERE IS RICHIE?' three times on a doorway in New York. And the more formal notes we send to each unknown other. CIGARETTES. BOOKS. LUNCH. OPEN. BUS STOP. NO POSTING. PRIVATE DRIVE / BAD DOG. Jokes, too, like the message sent by the empty parking spaces of MISS STATUM and MR GORDON, hers with a dark stain on the gravel, his with a discarded magazine.

Friedlander, who lives in New York and turned 59 last month, has always been a hard man to pin down. Before Letters, his most recent books featured his female nudes - photographed in ordinary domestic circumstances, natural features and temporary blemishes unretouched, recording a beauty that had nothing to do with conventional ideas of glamour - and the jazz community of New Orleans. A kind of intimacy was probably their only common thread. He says, in his purposefully unassuming way, that when he began to assemble the material for Letters from the People in 1979, he didn't really know what he was up to.

'It's a surprise to me, too,' he said last week, 'although of course it's not something I've invented. Brassa, Walker Evans, Atget - lots of photographers have done work with signs. It's in the tradition. When I started doing it, I didn't even know what it was going to turn out to be like. Then about two years ago I looked at all these boxes of photographs, and I saw that there was something there to consider. So I went to my designer friend Katy Homans, and we started laying them out, letter by letter, page by page. It ended up being this crazy book.'

He is careful to avoid any categorical statement of significance. 'The individual . . .' he began tentatively, when asked what it all means to him, and then thought better of it. 'Well, the first half of the book is one thing and the second half is another, and they seem to work together. You could say the letters are quite odd in that they're all used, in the sense of weatherbeaten, or pushed about. Type is something we generally think of as perfect, but here the letters are . . . used . . . like the rest of us. And they take on a life of their own. They're in a different environment. They're out there in the world. But I don't know what they mean, no. It just was there. And then, all put together, it starts to look like something. My wife would look at me sometimes like she thought early senility was setting in: a man bent double in the middle of the street, taking a photograph of the letter W on a manhole cover. It's just one of those things where you follow your nose, I guess.'

If you see a man in the street pointing a 35mm camera at a manhole cover this morning, though, it won't be Lee Friedlander. He's heard the voices of the street, and moved on. 'I'm trying to learn how to do landscapes,' he said. 'In the western part of America - the Rockies, the deserts. Places that have an intensity.' On the streets of Seattle, meanwhile, 'Baby T' is addressing 'Dale' in words whose intensity has lost nothing since 1985:

She's my friend

And I'll tell you

She ain't no good

She don't love you

She don't love you

Like I do

'Letters from the People', by Lee Friedlander, is published on Tuesday by Jonathan Cape, 75 pounds

(Photographs omitted)