Lee Friedlander

American Photographer

Born: July 14, 1934
Aberdeen, Washington
I always wanted to be a photographer. I was fascinated by the materials. But I never dreamed that I would be having this much fun.

Summary of Lee Friedlander

If the age-old adage that "reputations are made on the company one keeps" holds true, then MoMA's New Documents exhibition of 1967, where he took his place alongside the likes of Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, would mark Friedlander's breakthrough as an artist. Though Friedlander's participation in New Documents led to only one sale, it brought him to the attention of the Pop artist Jim Dine and the two men worked subsequently on a book collaboration (photographs and etchings) called Work from the Same House (1969). That book was well received, enabling Friedlander to consolidate his position as one of the new photographic provocateurs a year later through his first solo book, Self Portrait. The then novel idea that the photographer could be acknowledged as part of his (or her) photographic environment was to become a perennial feature of Friedlander's work.

The spontaneous street, or 'snapshot', aesthetic had been a staple of the photographic arts since Robert Frank's late-1950s Americans project. But, as with Arbus and Winograd, the term 'documentary' seems woefully insufficient when trying to explain 'mundane' subject-matter this rich in connotation. Friedlander's style - featuring street signs, incredulous shadows and self-reflections, public monuments, nudes, and, later, even landscapes - would bring a disquieting quality to what was ostensibly familiar. Even given the sheer range of his subject matter, Friedlander was able to present an impressive portfolio representing the unique and intricate details of contemporary American life.


Progression of Art



Nashville is drawn from Friedlander's early series Little Screens. Six images from the series appeared in a 1963 Harper's Bazaar photo-essay. This image captures a portion of a room, likely a motel room, illuminated by a television. The only human figure depicted is on the screen, a televisual portrait in extreme close-up with the woman's eyebrows pushing against the upper edge of the frame. Friedlander's presence is implied by a man's dress shirt hanging from the bathroom or closet door. Walker Evans had introduced the Little Screens series as "deft, witty, spanking little poems of hate" which encourages the spectator to read the image as a comment of the rise of television, though the precise nature of any social critique remains somewhat ambiguous. However, just as photography would unsettle painting's supremacy in the art academies, so too television, art film, and video art would question the limits of still photography. In this sense, Friedlander's scrutiny of the proliferation of television screens seems somewhat prescient.

Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection


Self Portrait, Provincetown, Massachusetts

From his earliest days, Friedlander has approached the self-portrait in a raw and unorthodox manner. Here for instance, he confuses the hierarchy within the frame by positioning an illuminated light bulb between himself and the onlooking spectator. As with most of his self-portraits, Friedlander's presence is either secondary or compromised by other elements in the image. Historian and curator Rod Slemmons suggested that Friedlander "provides us with a new visual world in which obstruction, confusion, and accident are the driving forces" and when the spectator is challenged in this way, she or he is given license to draw their own conclusions from the picture. It is often said of photographers that they 'paint with light' and here the photographic artist is caught between the two light sources - artificial and natural (the latter pours in through the window to Friedlander's left) - by which he 'paints' his pictures: a self-portrait, in other words, reminiscent of the painter and his palette.

Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection


Maria, Las Vegas

One of Friedlander's favorite subjects is his wife and muse Maria. At first glance, Maria appears to conform to the adoring 'sitter' convention one has come to associate with classical portraiture. However, on closer inspection we notice that Maria is in fact framed within a frame, sharing the inner frame indeed with her silhouetted husband. The picture does avoid his more complex and evasive framing tendencies, yet Friedlander's secondary presence manages to upset the equilibrium of the scene since it serves to remind us that Maria's returning gaze is meant first and foremost for her husband. Putting that detail to one side, Maria is posed in medium close shot, illuminated by the rectangular shards of light that pass through a horizontal (venetian) window blind. Friedlander brings then a chiaroscuro effect to a set up that bears a resemblance to a still from a 1940s film noir. This portrait was to feature in Maria, a collection of images of his wife, sometimes seen with other family members, shot between 1960 and 1992 (the year of the books first publication). The book featured a conversation with Friedlander which he brought to a close with an epigraph to Maria borrowed from Patrick White's novel The Tree of Man (1955):
"Then he stirred his tea again, and from the round red eddies of tea contentment began to radiate. She sat opposite him, smelling of scones and permanence. There would be every opportunity to learn her off by heart."

Gelatin silver print


New Orleans

Given the time and place to which it belongs (1970 New Orleans), we are able to locate quite specific meanings in an image that sits squarely within Friedlander's 'social American landscape' cycle. Though major civil rights victories had been won - notably 1964's Civil Rights Act and 1965's Voting Rights Act - more indirect forms of segregation endured well into the 1970s. Yet New Orleans is by no means a straightforward political 'statement'. Rather, it demonstrates Friedlander's talent for transforming seemingly inconsequential subject matter into more puzzling, more nuanced, narratives.

We see two white females in surroundings that are clearly unfamiliar to them: they are in fact tourists (or aliens) and we deduce this because they have stopped to take pictures of an out-of-frame event with their instamatic cameras. Their actions are in contrast to the black woman occupying the right of the frame. She is headed in the opposite direction to the tourists and her back is turned to Friedlander's camera. Patently unfazed by the off frame 'event', she is in her familiar surroundings - seemingly one more anonymous denizen of New Orleans - and she appears to be going about her usual daily business. Given what one knows of the political climate of the day, and given the way in which Friedlander's frame is divided up (one third to the black woman, two-thirds to the tourists), one might be drawn to the conclusion that Friedlander's image is an artful and understated critique on the complex dynamics of American race relations. Critics of the photographer might be inclined to put the argument that Friedlander was little more than a tourist himself, and that he too is engaged in collecting snapshots of his travels (albeit with a professional standard Leica). But we know from his biography that Friedlander was very much at home in America's multiracial southern milieus and he had formed close personal and professional ties with the Jazz and Blues communities.

Gelatin silver print


Father Duffy. Times Square, New York City

Friedlander's photographs are celebrated for their ability to captivate and beguile the spectator. His images are elusive and as such his photography functions on its own terms as a system of signs for which one constructs her or his own meanings. Nowhere is this facet of his work more evident than in Father Duffy. Indeed, this image, which adorned the cover of the exhibition catalog for his 2005 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, stands out as one of Friedlander's signature photographs.

Father Duffy is part of a series on American monuments in which Friedlander proposed a new look at romanticized political, military, and religious icons. At a denotative, or literal, level this image shows a monument to the Irish-American chaplain and war hero (Father Duffy) though it (his) name is lost (forgotten) amidst the disorderly encroachment of buildings and hoardings. On a connotative, or unspoken, level Father Duffy hints at a tension between old forms of religious authority and the new religion of consumerism: skyscrapers have replaced steeples, advertisements tower over the cross - we are implored to 'Enjoy Coca-Cola' - while even blank billboards, to the upper right, lower left and left center edge of the frame, seem to speak the new truths of postwar consumer culture: 'watch this space' they say. When asked about the American Monuments project Friedlander's remarks were typically opaque: "there's something sweet about it in some way" he said, and though the series could be "fascinating" he also declared it "dumb as hell". The fact that Friedlander preferred not to 'explain' his work was, according to the historian Graham Clarke, part of its strength. Friedlander "purposely distorts the world we take for granted", wrote Clarke, and suggested that his main gift to his art was that he allowed photography to be "part of a larger way of seeing and constructing meaning".

Gelatin silver print - Museum of Modern Art Collection


Shadow, New York City

In another of his iconic images, Friedlander exploits a common photographic 'mistake' by allowing his shadow to encroach on his frame. Though this technique was not unheard of - Eudora Welty employed the effect as early as 1942, her full-length silhouette cast on the phallic Ruins of Windsor, and Friedlander's contemporary Garry Winogrand allowed his shadow to fall on a couple holding chimpanzees in 1967's Central Park Zoo - this self-reflexive trait became Friedlander's trademark.

Shadow is, on one level, another of Friedlander's many New York City street photographs though it clearly does not conform to the usual conventions of 'social landscape' photography. Rather, Friedlander's presence almost insists that the image be read as a commentary on the nature of the relationship between the photographer and his subject. Though we can find Friedlander's shadowy presence in images across different subjects (Maria, for instance), this photograph carries a more sinister tone. Connotations abound as the hunter stalks his unsuspecting prey: a female draped in faux fur no less. Yet once more, the meaning in Friedlander's work is illusive. We are tempted to read the image as a statement on male voyeurism though it is not clear whether or not Friedlander wanted the viewer to take this work seriously. Speaking of his liking for shadows, Friedlander commented that "At first, my presence in my photos was fascinating and disturbing", as it is here indeed. But, he continued, "as time passed and I was more a part of other ideas in my photos, I was able to add a giggle to those feelings".

Gelatin silver print - International Center of Photography Collection


Central Park, New York City

Of all the photographic categories, 'the landscape' can boast the longest history. Moreover, the landscape begets the closest historical correlation between photography and academic painting with the landscapist in both specialisms often becoming preoccupied with chasing a representational precision that might affect in the spectator a heightened awareness of the natural and platonic world. Indeed, Friedlander has tended to shy away from landscapes because of the pointlessness of photographing scenes that, in his words, are already "just too perfect". This image was borne in fact of a commission that only then inspired Friedlander to develop a completely autonomous landscapes collection.

The resultant series was based on parks and municipal locations brought together under the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th century American landscape architect. Friedlander turned his Hasselblad - the sharp focus and high contrast bringing the image its superior graphic quality - on New York's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the Niagara Falls State Park with the results being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the auspicious occasion of Central Park's 150th birthday. Friedlander's take on the 'manmade' landscape avoids the picturesque style that characterizes panoramic landscapes. In contrast to his cityscapes and portraits the natural objects in the Parks collection are stripped of connotation. Indeed, the exhibition's curator Jeff L. Rosenheim suggested that Friedlander had treated the objects in his lens as "living works of art" that deserved to exist strictly on their own terms.

Gelatin silver print

Biography of Lee Friedlander


Lee Norman Friedlander was born in 1934 into the small (population: 13,000) fishing and logging community of Aberdeen, Washington. His father, Fritz (Friedlander) was a Polish-Jewish émigré who had arrived in America just before the outbreak of WWI. Sadly, Friedlander's mother, Kaari Nurmi, herself an émigré of Finnish descent, died of cancer when her son was just seven years old. Following her death, his father, felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of becoming a single parent, sent Lee to an area of rural Washington where he was raised by a farming family. Father and son were not estranged however and the pair would spend free-time and holidays together. It was Fritz in fact who helped nurture his son's interest in photography and by the age of just 14 he was earning pocket-money as a photographer. Indeed, one of his first commissions was to photograph the pet dog of one of Aberdeen's most well-known residents for her personalized Christmas card. In 1950, he attained his driver's license which allowed him the freedom to explore the music clubs in Washington State and his other love of Jazz, Blues, and R & B music was sealed.

Education and Training

In 1952 (aged just 18), Friedlander moved to Los Angeles where he briefly attended the Art Center College of Design. Although he failed to see out even the first semester, he made the acquaintance of professor Edward Kaminski, a photographer and painter who was to become a close friend and mentor. Friedlander rented a room at Kaminski's house where his landlord regularly hosted house parties. It was during these domestic soirees that Friedlander met, and took inspiration from, some of the most renowned photographers of the time including Wynn Bullock and Imogen Cunningham. It was on the back of Kaminski's advice however that Friedlander relocated to the East coast. Having arrived in New York, Friedlander almost immediately secured a job photographing some of Atlantic Records' most celebrated Jazz musicians. Once settled in New York, Friedlander found other work as a regular freelancer. He worked for various magazines including Sports Illustrated where he met his wife, Maria DePaoli, an assistant editor at the magazine. The couple married in 1958, relocating soon after to New City in the Hudson Valley. They parented two children, Erik and Anna (born respectively in 1960 and 1962).

DePaoli became her husband's muse but she was also the driving force in consolidating her husband's early reputation. She helped him create his own publishing company, Haywire Press, through which he (they) published Self Portrait (1970). Indeed, without DePaoli's initiative and commitment, it is possible that that book would have been forgotten since it was she who took it upon herself to visit every existing bookstore in New York City with the goal of convincing booksellers to take it.

Mature Period

As his career moved into the 1970s, Friedlander (usually accompanied by his wife and children) undertook a number of road trips. These outings - or photographic expeditions - were inspired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) collection housed at the Library of Congress in Washington D. C. On a visit to the library, Friedlander had been attracted to the idea that the world-famous collection was organized, not by photographer (for example Dorothea Lange or Ben Shaw), but rather by geographic location. Friedlander was thus inspired to commence his own socio-geographical projects wherein his thematic emphasis saw a shift in prominence from self-portraiture towards urban American cityscapes and public monuments (though these genres would often coalesce within the same frame).

Friedlander's best-known cityscapes of this period were taken on Route 9W out of New York, in Albuquerque and in New Orleans, though in keeping with Friedlander's worldview, the locations could be almost anywhere in urban America. In 1976 he published The American Monument through which he offered a complex view of America by means of its memorials to public figures, be they heroic, obscure or even outlandish. Moving into the 1980s, and given that his reputation was by now secured, Friedlander was able to take on commissions. One of the first was Factory Valleys: Ohio Pennsylvania (1982), funded by the Akron Art Institute. As the exhibition/book title suggests, Friedlander observed factory workers in Ohio and Pennsylvania through his lens, though he refuted any suggestion that they were portraits, preferring to describe the collection simply as a study of people "making things we all use".

Interestingly, a seemingly inconspicuous series of nudes taken by Friedlander of an unknown student in 1979, later appeared in the September 1985 issue of Playboy. The student in question (paid just $25 for the sitting) was in fact Madonna, on the cusp of becoming the most famous female pop star in the world. One of the prints from the series was sold at auction in 2009 for $37,500.

Late Period

In the early 1990s Friedlander completed two long running projects: Nudes, in 1991, and Letters from the People, in 1993. However, having been loyal thus far to his trusted 35mm Leica, Friedlander started to experiment with a Hasselblad Superwide, a square format machine with a negative four times the size of the former. Though less mobile, and therefore less amenable to one's immediate environment, the Hasselblad offered images of much greater depth and detail and Friedlander explored the pros and cons of each format through a series of paired images. Since the nineties, he has continued to work in both formats (latterly, indeed, he has even been experimenting with an iPhone camera). One of his most important later collections however was 2004's Sticks & Stones: Architectural America through which he explored, over a period of some 15 years, America through its architectural features: from the vernacular to the grand but without the intrusion of human figures (save for the occasional shadow of Friedlander himself).

Friedlander has been happy to return to the themes that occupied him as a younger man too, the updated In the Picture: Self Portraits 1958-2011 being a case in point. But arguably his most important recent project was 2010's America by Car. Using rental cars, Friedlander had visited all 50 American states compiling a series of 'strange and beautiful' social landscapes all from behind the wheel. The Los Angeles Times called the collection "a revealing portrait of America as a beautiful, kitschy, gritty and diverse landscape" while The Washington Post suggested that "At 76, Lee Friedlander [was] still one of the greatest American photographers".

The Legacy of Lee Friedlander

Since the New Documents exhibition of 1967, Friedlander has established himself amongst the trailblazers for the next generation - 'post-Frank' - documentarians. Indeed, in a career now in its sixth decade, the media-shy Friedlander has published no less than 50 photographic collections while his photography forms a part of the permanent collections of the main museums worldwide.

Aesthetically, Friedlander's snapshot aesthetic showed little respect for compositional conventions. He challenged - by such means as strong and overlapping shadows and reflection, and a general preference for mundane subject choices - the very assumption of what might make a good photograph. One might reasonably argue that, with his contemporaries Diane Arbus and Garry Winograd, he helped set free the next generation of photographers from certain canons and even promoted, through his own shadowy presence, the idea of photographer as performer. The historian Graham Clarke suggested finally that "Friedlander's images [had] changed the history of the photograph", and through their play on denotative and connotative points of reference, his photographs had offered the spectator a new "critical vocabulary by which to read [modern photography's] development".

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42nd Street movie theater audience, N.Y.C. 1958 (1958)

Standard Station (1966)

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