A Complex Take on Simplicity: Western Landscapes by Lee Friedlander

Yishi Wang, Online Staff Writer

Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, master photographer Lee Friedlander traveled across the American West to document its diverse terrains and well-known geographic sites. The resulting book, Western Landscapes, is both incredibly simple and complex at the same time. 

The book is straightforward in the sense that there is only one subject: nature. Although Friedlander has been celebrated for his urban work, this project does not contain a single person. All 189 square-format photos of trees, stones, mountains, and beaches are unmistakably undisturbed by any trace of human activities. While this sense of extreme isolation is at times unsettling, it does successfully create an atmosphere in which the audience can temporarily discard their humanly perspectives to instead appreciate the pure and pristine state of nature.  

If the sequence is broken and all the images evaluated individually, these landscape shots are pretty, but none of them are particularly mind blowing. Subjects remain unsurprising, and the frames are consistently packed dense with layers of natural components, albeit very beautifully so. I am in no way challenging Friedlander’s artistic voice—in fact, I enjoy the loneliness and serenity embodied by these photos—but the images by themselves simply aren’t as exciting as depictions of a bustling city or a foreign culture might be. 

However, what is complex about this book is how Friedlander has sequenced the images in a way that presents pairs of two juxtaposing photos on the same spread. Two frames that are filled with either similar or contrasting lines, shapes, or patterns situated right next to each other create a powerful visual stimulation that guides the audience’s attention around the spread. Taken together, these geometric expressions construct a new perspective with which one can interpret the book, a perspective that does not focus on the identity of the subjects but rather emphasizes on the inherent abstractness of nature’s beauties. 

Ultimately, Lee Friedlander’s Western Landscapes is a fantastic photo book with elegant landscape photos and truly remarkable sequencing.

Lines vs. Spots
Both frames separated by a similarly shaped white block in the center
Extending lines
Guiding lines that lead to the center of each frame