Lee Friedlander’s oeuvre can be characterised by a unique ability to create ordered compositions from otherwise chaotic scenes, often juxtaposing simple elements with playful guile. A highly influential figure in the history of photography, Friedlander has been recording the American social landscape since the late forties.
The American social landscape, describes an entire generation of American photographers who were more interested in “distilling personal experience rather than in projecting a socio-political viewpoint” (Badger 2007, p.140). Lee Friedlander used the term in 1963 to describe his work in an interview with Contemporary Photography magazine (Kieffer). The term was firmly established as a photographic genre following two compendium exhibitions in 1966, Twelve Photographers of the American Social Landscape, exhibited at the Brandeis University and, Towards a Social Landscape, exhibited at George Eastman House (Friedlander exhibited at both).
The 1967 exhibition, New Documents, curated by John Szarkowski at MoMA, elevated Lee Friedlander, along with Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus as major figures in the contemporary photography world. The introduction to the exhibition stated that “their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy – almost an affection – for the imperfections and the frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as a source of all wonder and fascination and value” (Szarkowski 1967).
At fourteen, while working part-time in a camera shop, Lee Friedlander’s relationship with the camera began. He moved to New York after dropping out of art school, where hanging around the jazz clubs, he found work photographing album covers. The energy, freedom and improvisation he was exposed to during his time on the jazz scene carried into his photography. Throughout a career which spans more that six decades, Frielander primarily shot black and white 35mm film on a Leica rangefinder camera. His photographic influences are deeply routed in the work of Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Weegee, André Kertész and Robert Frank. A seminal moment for Friedlander, and indeed many photographers of his time, arrived with Robert Frank’s book, The Americans. Sean O’Hagan describes it “one of the most important photography books of the 20th century” (2009). The Americans essentially redefined documentary photography and established, what Szarkowski referred to as “a new iconography for contemporary America” (1968).
Key to the development of photographers of Friedlander’s generation, was the increasing interest in the medium by the large art museums, allowing him to forgo commercial drudgery in pursuit of more personal work which he made for nobody’s satisfaction but his own (Badger 2007). With a Guggenheim fellowship grant, Friedlander set out across America as Evans and Frank had done before him. Lee Friedlander’s photographic style was exciting and fresh, blatantly break all the rules. In his images, key elements are often obscured by poles and signage, his own shadow regularly creeps into the frame, he skillfully disorientates with car mirrors and store front reflections, giving multiple perspectives of his world in a single image.
I was first drawn to Lee Friedlander’s work in my research for Assignment Two. I wanted to insert myself or a representation of myself into my series, and Friedlander’s diverse range of self portraits aroused my interest. At first I viewed his work by the categories in which his books are published. His series’ include nudes, monuments, jazz musicians, signs, cars and self-portraits, to name a few. The more I research and view his work, the more aware I become, that all of Friedlander’s work is in some way a diary or record of his movements and experiences. In taking a photograph we record how an object within the frame looks at a precise moment in time. But in so doing, we also record the physical act of capturing that precise moment. Photography is a physical act. It is the physicality of photography that attracts Lee Friedlander to the medium, “you can’t make a picture of New York or Los Angles without being there. You have to be there” (Friedlander). Friedlander has spent his life recording the social landscape, preserving forever, precise moments in time. By acknowledging his own presence within the frame, he is probably better than most at doffing his cap to the physical act of recording these precise moments.
“Photographs also show the way that the camera sees. It’s not just me or you or anybody else. The camera does something that is different from our own setting.”Lee Friedlander“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.”Lee Friedlander“At first, my presence in my photos was fascinating and disturbing. But 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.”Lee Friedlander
Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography: How photography has changed our lives, London: Quadrille.
Fraenlel Gallery (2015) Lee Friedlander [online], available: https://fraenkelgallery.com/artis/lee-friedlander [accessed 7 Dec 2015].
John Paul Caponigro Illuminating Creativity (2015) Lee Friedlander [online], available: http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/conversations/lee-friedlander/ [accessed 7 Dec 2015].
Kieffer, M. ‘Lee Friedlander: Composing the Real‘, The Culture Trip, available: http://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/washington/articles/lee-friedlander-composing-the-real/ [accessed 7 Dec 2015].
MoMA (2015) Lee Friedlander [online], available: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/2002 [accessed 7 Dec 2015].
O’Hagan, S. (2009) ‘Robert Frank’s The American still shocks 50 years on’, The Guardian, 30 Nov, available: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/30/robert-frank-the-americans-exhibition [accessed 7 Dec 2015].
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