Lee Friedlander – At Work

Posted on October 19, 2012


Born in 1934 Lee Friedlander has been a prolific photographer over the years. He is best known for his photographic documentation of the American social landscape. He has tended to work in long run series, leading to the eventual publication of a book. At Work is one such series. The book lee friedlander at work is a compilation of six separate projects completed over a 17 year period, between 1979 and 1995(Friedlander). The projects were all commissioned work. Some at the behest of gallery curators others directly for the companies involved. All the photographs are in black and white.

Covering such a long period as it does the book seems to trace the economic development of the USA. The early photographs are of people working in heavy and light industries. The people and the equipment look worn and tired, serving as metaphor for the state of heavy industry in the USA at that time. The series undertaken for Cray Computers and MIT in the mid 80s present a new face – the face of technology, albeit in its infancy. The two final series were captured in office environments. The first at Dreyfus shows people crouched over desks almost drowning in paperwork. The telemarketing series made in 1995 differs from the rest as the photographs show just the heads of the telemarketers as they talk to clients.

In all of the photographs Friedlander captures his subjects absorbed in their work.So as in the previous post covering Broomberg and Chanarin’s Trust this work falls into the ‘Absorbed Subject’ category that I have defined for my Contextual Study.

Looking at the photographs, I was left wondering why these people appear so absorbed in their work, as they don’t seem very happy . Rod Slemmons, Director of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography  speculates that  it is tempting to wonder how many intrusive exposures it took before these people dropped their guard and returned to the alert, Zen-like state of labor developed long ago to transcend poisonous repetition. (Slemmons).

Taken as a whole the photographs present a pretty gloomy scene. People seem tied to their machines/computers/desks. They appear to be part of a larger machine with little freedom to act independently. To me their faces appear stoic and resigned. There is no humour. It is interesting how a series of portraits of individuals can convey broader messages, such as the state of the US economy, the motivation (or lack) of people at work, the way capitalism bears down on people. I am hopeful that my own series Urban Artists at Work will do just this, although conveying a mood which is much more upbeat and positive.

The interest which these photographs generate in me the viewer is similar to that for Broomberg and Chanarin’s Trust arising through the combined elements of our identification with subjects, curiosity  and our human preoccupation with reading faces. Friedlander’s portraits are more of an environmental nature, mostly showing the subjects in half length surrounded by their machinery, desks, computers and such like. We are therefore able to interrogate the images more fully by surveying the surroundings, the subjects clothing etc. The images are perhaps less portraits and more historical documents. We see what appears today to be antiquated equipment, old style clothing and hair styles and so on. This adds to the interest of the photographs but does change their nature. In my own work for Urban Artists at Work  I have mostly shown the artists at half length and one can see how they are dressed and what their art looks like. I recognise that in so doing this will provide the viewer with additional data which will influence their reading of the work.

Friedlander’s  photographs are shown on the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography website here.

Friedlander L. (2002) lee friedlander at work New York: Distributed Art Publishers

Slemmons R. (2005) Friedlander: Sticks and Stones and At Work Available from:  http://www.mocp.org/exhibitions/2005/03/lee_friedlander.php [Accessed on: 19th October 2012]