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Lee Friedlander Photo

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."
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Lee Friedlander Signature
"I am not very good with ideas, except backwards."
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Lee Friedlander Signature
"In other words, a 100th of a second (shutter speed) can eat whatever is in front of it. It doesn't matter how much is in front of it, because it renders it all very fast. So why not?"
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Lee Friedlander Signature
"I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary's laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It's a generous medium, photography."
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Lee Friedlander Signature

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.

Accomplishments

  • Portraiture and self-portraiture is an important feature of Friedlander's portfolio. This facet of his canon can be traced back to an early professional background where he produced portraits for some 200 music album sleeves. Though for aesthetic reasons he has since chosen to work in monochrome, his early commercial portraits - featuring the likes, no less, of Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, and John Coltrane - often display a strong affinity with color.
  • In 1963 Friedlander published The Little Screens series photo essay in Harper's Bazaar which consisted of six photographs, each named after the city in which they were taken, and showing everyday domestic spaces illuminated by the portable television sets that had become a staple of American homes and motel rooms. Viewed as a commentary on contemporary American mores, Little Screens is an early indicator of Friedlander's career-long desire to explore through his lens the more prosaic aspects of modern American living.
  • There is something of an automatic and inexhaustible ("If I had a chance, I'd be out shooting all the time") quality to Friedlander's work: "I'm not a premeditative photographer', he stated, I "see a picture and I make it". His black and white photographs, shot, as was the preference of the new documentarians, with his 35mm Leica, would tend therefore to promote fragmented and uncoordinated compositions over geometric and spatial alignment. Indeed, the bent of documentary photography heretofore was to offer the spectator a window on reality whereas the meanings carried in Friedlander's images remain deliberately obscure and equivocal.
  • As with his esteemed peers Arbus and Winograd, Friedlander's new documentary approach allowed for the point of view of the photographer to impose his or her personality on the subject matter. A unifying characteristic of Friedlander's work was a particular liking for reflections, usually his own, in windows, glass doors and mirrors. He is also recognized for his fascination with repetition - shooting in the same cities and on the same streets over and again - while his attraction to signs, billboards and other hoardings saw critical readings of his work aligned with the postmodern idea of a hyperreal (the idea that all truth is masked by signs) America.

Biography of Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander Photo

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.



Progression of Art

1963

Nashville

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

1968

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

1970

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

1970

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

1974

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

1966

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

1992

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


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Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba-Groom

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Lee Friedlander Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba-Groom
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 18 Jul 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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