All photographs copyright Lee Friedlander.
“ … photographs are so loaded with information. They’re remarkable. As I said, you get both the tree and the forest.”
Recognized as a master of contemporary photography, Lee Friedlander has always been short on words and “notoriously media shy.” Instead, he speaks through his photographs, which have portrayed America as an unusual and almost alien social landscape. Many of his photographs employed complex compositions that mixed both order and chaos, often on desolate streets, creating feelings of tension, peculiarity, and unease.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington in 1934, Friedlander was influenced by Eugène Atget, Robert, Frank, and Walker Evans. He moved to New York in 1956 and began photographing for Atlantic Records, where he captured blues and jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane. He worked as a photographer for magazines such as Esquire and Sports Illustrated, but it was at this time that Friedlander began to photograph the chaos on New York streets, searching for serendipitous moments that people would refer to as the snapshot aesthetic.
“The idea that the snapshot would be thought of as a cult or movement is very tiresome to me and, I’m sure, confusing to others. It’s a swell word I’ve always liked. It probably came about because it describes a basic fact of photography. In a snap, or small portion of time, all that the camera can consume in breadth and bite and light is rendered in astonishing detail: all the leaves on a tree, as well as the tree itself and all its surroundings.”
Friedlander’s big break came in 1960 when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to focus on his art, and he received further grants in 1962 and 1977. He used a Leica 35mm camera, capturing black and white photographs of everyday people, places, and things. “With a camera like that, you don’t believe you’re in the masterpiece business. It’s enough to be able to peck at the world.”
Friedlander turned his eye towards the social landscape and contemporary urban life. While he photographed prolifically in New York, some of Friedlander’s most fascinating work came on road trips throughout the US. His American landscapes portrayed a strange, foreign world. Normal, everyday, and even boring aspects of modern American life at the time were transformed into surreal and strange places.
While Friedlander left interpretation to his viewers, his psyche and viewpoints always boiled just below the surface. His compositions, simultaneously chaotic and orderly, seemed to portray an inner turmoil about what he was seeing. Friedlander was fond of photographing storefronts, street signs, fences, and empty streets. He photographed the small televisions that were sprouting up throughout America with the same passion that Robert Frank photographed his jukeboxes.
Friedlander’s major break came in 1967, when John Szarkowski, the curator at MOMA, included him in a “groundbreaking exhibition,” titled New Documents. The exhibition included Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus and celebrated the viewpoint of the photographer within documentary photography. This show would jumpstart the careers of each photographer.
In a press release, Szarkowski stated, “Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it. Their work betrays sympathy – almost affection – for the imperfections and the frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value.”
Friedlander would bring himself even further into his work by shooting self-portraits in a variety of styles, frequently through including a shadow or reflection of himself, and often masking his face. This culminated in his first publication, Self Portraits, in 1970. While his photographs held an air of ambiguity to them, Friedlander was always aware of his presence in them.
“I suspect it is for one’s self-interest that one looks at one’s surroundings and one’s self. This search is personally born and is indeed my reason and motive for making photographs. The camera is not merely a reflecting pool and the photographs are not exactly the mirror, mirror on the wall that speaks with a twisted tongue. Witness is borne and puzzles come together at the photographic moment which is very simple and complete. The mind-finger presses the release on the silly machine and it stops time and holds what its jaws can encompass and what the light will stain.”
Friedlander furthered this idea on a more recent project, Road Trips in the mid-2000s, where he photographed 50 US states with rental cars. He captured American social landscapes from inside his rental car, including the car in his images. This brought his presence into the image and also seemed to be a commentary on suburban and American culture.
Friedlander has worked on a variety of other projects over the years, including one on American monuments, factory valleys, parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and even flower stems while he was homebound due to surgery. But one of his most fascinating projects was his Western Landscape photographs.
Taken during a series of road trips in the 1990s and 2000s and including some of the west’s most photographed landscapes, such as Yosemite, Death Valley, Big Bend, and the Tetons, Friedlander’s images had a much different perspective than the often idealized and beautified traditional landscape photographs. His photographs were both beautiful and ugly. The complex and chaotic work pulls us away from the traditional pristine and clean landscape images of Ansel Adams and seem to show us more of Friedlander’s inner turmoil. While this was a completely different subject matter than he was used to, the photographs have a strange and remarkable similarity in look and tone to his social landscape photography.