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Lee Friedlander Photo

Lee Friedlander - Biography and Legacy

American Photographer

Born: July 14, 1934 - Aberdeen, Washington

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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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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