41 Years Later: Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument

Growing up, I never paid much attention to monuments. They simply didn’t register in my visual field. To my young eyes, they were a part of the landscape that seemed to have been there forever; therefore, they were a part of the landscape that I took for granted. A child of Taiwanese immigrants, I must have felt estranged from American monuments; the people and events commemorated could not easily belong to me.

Maybe that’s why my first encounter with Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument (in the oversized stacks of my college library) left me somewhat underwhelmed. As I flipped through Friedlander’s large 12”x17” volume (his seventh), bound in blue-green cloth and held together with black album screw posts, I wondered, Just what am I looking at? The 213 black-and-white photos—of statues and busts, pyramids, plaques, and obelisks—were culled from thousands Friedlander took between 1963 and 1975 on road trips across America. The monuments seemed ordinary and were made even more so by their treatment within the frame. In Friedlander’s wide-angle view, monuments compete with signs and advertising, pigeons and pedestrians, trees and telephone poles. In one of the book’s most well-known images—a postmodern mashup of the highest order—FATHER DUFFY stands silent and stoic in his military dress before a large cross in Times Square. His fists are slightly clenched, as if he’s bracing himself for a fight. Flanked by buildings and fenced in, he’s surrounded by a forest of signs: “Enjoy Coca-Cola,” “kts. tk   s. tk,” and, much smaller, “FRESH DISCO” and “MATURE ADU…FIRST NEW YOR…TRIPLE X.”

I admit I wasn’t ready to appreciate this work. I put the book back on the shelf and didn’t think about it again until recently.

*

The word monument comes from the Latin root monere, “to remind.” But the root has a second meaning, “to warn.” As Michael D. Garval writes inA Dream of Stone, there is something “preternatural, even vatic…about the monument.”

*

On a Friday night this August, white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, VA to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate icon Robert E. Lee. The following morning, they marched again. Counterprotestors met them in a stand against racism. At 1:42 pm that day, a white supremacist drove his car into a group of antiracist counterprotestors[1], murdering Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman, and injuring several others.

On August 22, after a heated meeting with residents and activists, the Charlottesville city council unanimously voted to shroud the statue of Robert E. Lee and another of Stonewall Jackson in memorial to Heyer. On August 23, two large black tarps were lowered. Soon after, a white, bearded man began to cut away the tarp covering the Lee statue. “We need him to be here,” he said. Arguing that the monument should stand as a lesson from our past, he continued, “We, by covering up our history, are committing a great wrong to everyone who is an American.”

But who says we need a monument to remember?

*

In 1800, Nathaniel Macon, a congressman from North Carolina, declared “Since the invention of types [printing], monuments are good for nothing.” Macon was a known hater (he opposed the Constitution and nearly everything else, and nevermind that he would reverse his position on monuments), but his viewpoint was not an uncommon one during that first century after America’s founding. Having recently taken down symbols of the monarchy and driven out the British—an equestrian statue of King George III was toppled in New York in 1776 and its lead melted into approximately 42,000 bullets—erecting new statues was not exactly high up on the national agenda.

The sentiment, that “stones cannot show gratitude,” as Macon put it, continued into the first half of the 19th century. In 1847, Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle “To commemorate such a character as [George] WASHINGTON we want, (we say,) no monument but his country, and his countrymen’s hearts! When they forget him, let him be forgotten… God has his spirit; and his country has his memory.”

To Whitman, the true monument to Washington lived in the hearts of Americans and was “warmed by vital life-blood which will never forget the sainted hero.” He asks whether that is not better than “the cold pomp of marble.”

Something warm, something cold. Something living, something dead.

Decades later, Whitman would publish “Washington’s Monument, February, 1885.” (It came out three years before the monument’s completion in 1888—a whole century had passed since plans for the monument began in 1783.)

The poem begins “Ah, not this marble, dead and cold”…

It ends: “Wherever Freedom, pois’d by Toleration, sway’d by Law, / Stands or is rising thy true monument.”

Whitman is broadly considered to be one of America’s greatest poets. He famously called America the “greatest poem.”[2] It makes sense, then, that the epigraph of American Monument is an excerpt from Leaves of Grass:

All doctrines, all politics and civilizations, exurge from you,
All sculpture and monuments, and anything inscribed anywhere, are tallied in you,
The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records reach,
is in you this hour, and myths and tales the same,
If you were not breathing and walking here, where would they all be?

*

August is ending, and I am still reading, grieving, trying to hold myself up and to hold up my loved ones. I have a feeling that I should try to find a copy of Friedlander’s American Monument. Maybe I can find something there—something about… American monuments…? Being American…? Something about what Americans honor/dishonor…? I’m not sure, but I think there might be a key in there, something I’d missed before.

I go looking for it, but it’s not easy to find. It’s long been out of print. The first edition was published in a limited run of only 2,000. On eBay, a copy with “light sunning to the extremities” and a FINE interior will set you back nearly $2,000.

I’m in a New York bookshop when I see a copy behind glass, but the shopkeeper informs me that the store is closing. Back home in Los Angeles, I search the LA Public Library catalog. There’s a reference copy at the Central Library, but when I get there, the book is missing. They send someone to locate it, but it still can’t be found. I’m sure someone’s stolen it.

My alma mater is a ten-minute drive away. Luckily they have a copy—the one I’d leafed through all those years ago. I’m surrounded once again by familiar brick and brown tile and the chlorine smell of some books aging. Because I am, conveniently and incorrectly, registered as an undergrad there, I take the book home to study.

*

Lee Friedlander was, like me and so many others, a child of immigrants.[3] His father, Fred (formerly Fritz), was a German Jew and his mother, Carrie, a Lutheran Finn. When Fred moved to Portland, Oregon shortly before WWI broke out, statues were going up at an unprecedented rate in America. Erika Doss, author of Memorial Mania, calls this period “statue mania.” Spanning roughly 5 decades, from the 1870s to the 1920s, the statue boom was spurred by both an affective desire to mourn in the aftermath of the Civil War and anxieties about national identity. The enthusiasm for statues only increased after WWI—“with its industrial mechanization of death, [WWI] was one of the first instigators to a collective need to remember.” Thus reads the entry for “monument” in the Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience. Thousands of (oftentimes mass-produced) monuments honoring America’s war dead went up at this time.

Lee Friedlander was born in 1934 when these monuments were relatively new. I wonder what he thought of them as a child. Did they look to him as if they’d been there forever like they did to me?

*

The American Monument begins at the beginning of textbook American history—at the colonies’ fight for independence. The opening halftone is of “Liberty, with French, Indian, Highlander, and Green Mountain Soldiers” in Ticonderoga, New York, the site of the first American victory of the revolution. It’s a simple composition with the statue in the center. Liberty is depicted in a neoclassical style as a woman in a flowing garment. Her face, in profile, looks to the left of the frame, as though gazing into the past. Two thin musket barrels stick out behind her from somewhere around her calves (perhaps pointing to the future?). At the monument’s base are three men—the Iroquois, French, and Green Mountain soldiers referenced in the caption. The whole statue sits on a roundabout, and, along its circumference, several small lights point upward. It has snowed recently.

A premonitory image, it sets up the rest of the book. Liberty—fought for, defended by, and upheld by men—achieved through war. Of the first ten monuments that make up the book, eight are war-related. There are monuments to war commanders, to a secretary of war, to soldiers of the Spanish-American War, and to “Those Who Made the Supreme Sacrifice” in all wars. Of the ten, three depict women; however, of those three, two are female figures of war.

When The American Monument was published in 1976, the Vietnam War had just ended. It was also, coincidentally, the nation’s bicentennial. Public confidence was low. The events of the first half of the 70s—US withdrawal from the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, the Watergate Scandal, Nixon’s resignation, and a deep recession accompanied by stagflation—led Gerald Ford to remark in his 1975 State of the Union Address, “the state of the Union is not good.”

If Friedlander has a position on all of this, it’s not immediately clear. Known for his layered and information-dense compositions, Friedlander’s dry style of direct observation records without explicit celebration or condemnation. He lets his subjects speak for themselves by allowing in as much contextual material as possible. In his image of Frank Luke, Jr.’s monument, the WWI fighter pilot is pricked all over by a tall spiny plant closer to the foreground. In another image of a statue modeled in part on the Greek goddess Athena, Friedlander has replaced the goddess’s owl of wisdom with another bird, the common pigeon. One takes flight from her fingertips and another has come to rest on her head. Is it funny or sad or serious or a combination of the above?

The ambiguity isn’t accidental. In 1963, Friedlander wrote that his subject was the “social landscape.” For some perspective on his terminology, we can look to Walker Evans (whose unsentimental approach to photography influenced Friedlander and has continued to hold sway over the field of contemporary art photography) and his seminal 1938 book American Photographs. Lincoln Kirstein asserts in that book’s essay that the photographer’s services are social [emphasis mine] and that the “unique contemporary field of the photographer” was to show “the facts” “surgically, without the intrusion of…comment or necessary distortion, “to fix and to show the whole aspect of our society, the sober portrait of its stratifications, their backgrounds and embattled contrasts.”

To that end, American Monument succeeds spectacularly. With its democracy of vision, America appears in all its messy, tangled, violent contradiction. Friedlander bears witness. A sequence of six monuments of Native Americans, for example, is followed by two identical equestrian statues of Andrew Jackson (nicknamed “Indian Killer”). The monument on the left of the page, photographed in Washington D.C., faces the one on the right, photographed in New Orleans. The two Jacksons on their identical, rearing horses, galloping into battle against… themselves.

Monuments glorifying wars both foreign and domestic are countered by a peace monument, printed in a modest size, of “Swords Into Ploughshares” at the United Nations Plaza Gardens. A highly problematic monument depicting “The Emancipation” precedes monuments to enslavers (Christopher Columbus), slave-owners (Andrew Jackson, George Washington), and Confederate soldiers (William Harris Hardy and a number of common soldiers). A monument of a Confederate infantryman in New Orleans is printed beside a monument of a Union infantryman in Peekskill, NY.

A set of monuments to the “Doughboy,” a colloquialism for WWI soldiers, are shown with rifles up. Firearms at the ready in their quiet neighborhoods, they appear to be the actual aggressors. A rifleman in Stamford, Connecticut points his weapon at two women and a baby in a stroller. And then there are the last two Doughboys of the series, another set of contradictions altogether. A doughboy in Clearwater, Florida is dwarfed by an exceptionally large tinsel Christmas tree. And an identical statue in St. Albans, Vermont titled the “Spirit of the American Doughboy” is covered by rapidly falling snow.

Succeeding the Doughboys in the book’s sequence are two sections on Civil War monuments taken in parks where they exist at their highest concentration. Photos taken at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi (1,325 monuments and markers) account for five pages of the book and the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania (1,328 monuments and markers) account for six. This reversal of historical chronology, putting the Civil War monuments after the Doughboys, reflects a statement Joan Didion makes in her latest book, South and West. Of the south, she writes, “The Civil War was yesterday but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about 300 years ago.”

There’s a sly genius to Friedlander’s sequencing, of which much can be said. Let’s look at the book’s ending. The penultimate image is of General George Rogers Clark’s monument in Louisville, Kentucky. In the image, Clark’s body is turned toward the Ohio River, but he faces the camera directly, breaking the fourth wall. He wears a vaguely impish expression. His right arm, relaxed and crooked at the elbow, forms a gentle arc. He gestures towards… what? It appears the Clark monument is pointing towards the Fourteenth Street Bridge, a railroad bridge of not much significance. In reality, the monument points to the approximate site of Corn Island, which Clark first settled, and where he built a fort during the Revolutionary War. Due to human activity (that Clark began) the island gradually eroded and is now completed submerged.

But let’s get back to the bridge with its many meanings and associations. The bridge, basically defined as a structure that allows you to cross from one side to another. To bridge: to span, to form (a way), to join. Clark, a figure from the past, points towards something on the horizon—the future, let’s say—a bridge that connects south to north. Is Clark the subject of the photo or just an intermediary? The bridge may perhaps be read as the photo’s true subject—an American monument in its own right. In Hart Crane’s poem to a different bridge (incidentally illustrated by three Walker Evans photographs), we get this line, “Over the chained bay waters Liberty—”

And over Friedlander’s bridge?

We’re in Washington, D.C. It looks to be late fall. A few leaves are clinging to some overhanging branches in the foreground. Friedlander’s final monument is of Brigadier General Albert Pike, the only Confederate monument in the district. Pike is but a tiny figure in the distance. A half dozen pedestrians are given more photographic real estate. The caption for the image ends, “Now removed.” Erected in 1901, the statue was taken down in 1972 to make way for an interstate.[4]

There it is—the key I was looking for. The image augurs our present moment; it foreshadows the fall of the figural monument. In the book’s concluding essay, Leslie George Katz calls Friedlander’s album “a memorial in photographs to the American monument.”

*

A political thread can be teased out of Friedlander’s monograph, provided you know what you’re looking at (I didn’t at first). If there’s a responsibility inherent in witnessing—and I believe there is—how can you bear witness to something invisible to you? First, attempt to see; so, start by looking.

Wim Wenders: “The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes. In other words, what you show people… is political.”

I’d never paid much attention to monuments before, but now I do.

*

In 1924, in the Jim Crow South, a monument of Robert E. Lee goes up in Charlottesville’s Lee Park (renamed Emancipation Park just this year). Its placement near the majority-black community of Vinegar Hill is far from innocent. Vinegar Hill would later be destroyed by “urban renewal” projects.

In 1921, Charlottesville’s monument of Stonewall Jackson in Jackson Park (renamed Justice Park this year) is placed on land seized by the city from its black owners in the majority-black McKee Row. It is located near to the former Court Square, the site of a slave auction block and the county’s jailhouse, stocks, gallows, pillories, and whipping post, and where, leading up to the Civil War, slaves were routinely whipped or hanged.

There’s no ambiguity. The monuments did not go up to honor Lee[5] or Jackson, but to uphold white supremacy and to sharply demarcate zones for whites and zones for all those who had been othered. Put up as reminders, put up as warnings.

I’ll come out and say it straight: these monuments have no place in our public spaces.

*

What makes a monument worth preserving? A monument to Robert E. Lee must stay up, they say, but a memorial to Michael Brown gets destroyed on Christmas Day. When asked, the Ferguson Police Department responds, “I don’t know that a crime has occurred…But a pile of trash in the middle of the street? The Washington Post is making a call over this?”

What does it mean to be American? Who decides? Who writes the history of our homes and our neighborhoods, our landscapes and bodies? For too many people, for too long, the history of America has been one of suffering and oppression. Can this be acknowledged somehow, in our monuments, in our selves?

It’s September now and I’ve returned Friedlander’s book to the library. Autumn hangs in the air, the season of Friedlander’s photo of Albert Pike’s monument.

So much talk of monuments; I am weary. I’ll end with some words by Adrienne Rich from “An Atlas of the Diffcult World,” her poem to all that is “unmonumented” –

A patriot is a citizen trying to
wake
from the burnt-out dream of innocence, the nightmare
of the white general and the Black general posed in their
camouflage,
to remember her true country, remember his suffering land:
remember
that blessing and cursing are born as twins and separated at birth
to meet again in mourning
that the internal emigrant is the most homesick of all women and
of all men
that every flag that flies today is a cry of pain.

Can we acknowledge all this? Maybe— here, this is a start.

Workers lower a tarp over the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville. Photo taken by C-Ville staff. Composition showing Friedlander influence.

*

Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument was reissued this month by Eakins Press.

[1] It’s worth interrogating why this was widely covered as a “car attack” and not a “terrorist attack”—as if the car committed the crime and not a man. See, for example, a CNN article: “Heyer was killed Saturday when a car plowed into a crowd…” Or this usage of passive voice from the New York Times: “Ms. Heyer, 32, was killed when a car driven by a man…plowed into the crowd.” Compare that to Times coverage of the Barcelona terror attack a few days later: “a van driver plowed into dozens of people.”

[2] I have to acknowledge that while Whitman celebrated diversity in his poetry, he personally believed in social Darwinism and the colonial mission of Manifest Destiny.

[3] It’s possible, as Daniel Morris suggests in After Weegee: Essays On Contemporary Jewish American Photographers, that Friedlander, orphaned early in his life, a child of immigrants, and a Jewish American photographer, can be read as an “alienated wanderer.” Through his work, and through his self-portraits in particular, he forcefully inserts himself into the American landscape.

[4] In 1977, after the book’s publication, the monument of Albert Pike was re-erected in a spot close to its original location.

[5] Lee himself was against monumentalizing. He advocated for the kind of “prescriptive forgetting” outlined by Paul Connerton, the kind of forgetting that can repair broken bonds, that allows groups previously in conflict with one another to live peacefully again as part of a collective body. Lee said in 1865, “I think it wiser…to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”


Angela Chen is a Taiwanese-American text-image artist. Her photographs have appeared in The Margins and The Paris Review. She is one half of Chen Sisters Looking at Things. Born in Los Angeles, she currently lives and works in Brooklyn. Follow her @anchi.chen

One Reply to “41 Years Later: Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument

  1. This essay is beautifully written. With the clear thoughts and logical layout, it depicts the philosophy about harmful monuments. This is a helpful work for raising people’s conscience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *