Lee Friedlander

Posted on February 22, 2013


I 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 the 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 – Lee Friedlander 1996 (Galassi 2005, pp 14)

Friedlander by Peter Galassi - Lee Friedlander Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art New York

Friedlander by Peter Galassi – Lee Friedlander Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art New York

The above quotation says a lot about Lee Friedlander. He has been taking photographs for a very long time, since the early 1950s. He is still taking photographs. He is endlessly fascinated by the medium, its potential to surprise and its democratic nature.

I have referenced Friedlander in the supporting texts for two of my projects: I am an Ironman – Self Portraits  and Urban Artists at Work.  For these projects,  I was interested in his self portraiture and portraits of people absorbed in their work.

Friedlander has made many self portraits over the years. What struck me most about his work was that he has not been afraid to show himself as he really is despite his advancing years (I know that feeling). He inspired me to push ahead with my own self portraiture project the way I did. The images I made were like Friedlander’s. I did not attempt to present myself as other than I am –  the portraits are just me caught at a  moment during my day. I look directly at the viewer and am a little distracted. Each photograph was taken when I had just got back from a physical training workout.

Friedlander’s At Work (Friedlander 2002)I have reviewed previously here. The book he produced showed several series of people photographed whilst working. The subjects were caught absorbed in their work activities. What was most interesting for me about these photographs was 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.

What binds Friedlander’s work together for me is his continued fascination with the generosity  of the medium. His work is endlessly punctuated by curious juxtapositions, frames within frames, shadows, reflections, tricks of perspective, self reflexive motifs and such like. There is a sense of play in his work which seems to have persisted throughout his career. When asked what was the subject of his work 1963 , he replied ‘The American Social Landscape’ (Galassi 2005, pp 37).  This seems to me to be an apt description. His focus is largely on America and most often on the vernacular. He portrays these subjects with his own witty and incisive style. He has a distinct taste for ‘faulty’  photographs and accidental shots which allow us to ‘see the world with entirely different eyes.’ as  Moholy-Nagy said in 1927

Whilst it might be said that Friedlander worked on series of photographs, I have the distinct impression that the series emerged ‘after the fact’. He went out, took pictures which interested him and later on, sometimes much later on, the idea that some of them linked into a series emerged. For example, Friedlander’s photographs of ‘The American Monument’ were made over some 12 years before the idea putting them together into a book came about (Friedlander 1976). There is a learning point here! Sometimes it is a good idea to just go out and make some photographs. In the making ideas will emerge and form into a cohesive work. Photography is very much a means of discovery and enquiry.

Friedlander’s enquiry into the use of photography has rolled on over the years. He has moved on from his portrayal of ‘The American Social Landscape’ to embrace portraiture, nude studies, flowers, landscapes and as mentioned above self portraiture. His enthusiasm for photography (in all its forms) and its capacity to surprise is exemplary. I hope I manage to maintain my own enthusiasm into my 80s!


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

Friedlander L. (1976) The American Monument New York: Eakins Press

Galassi P. (2005) Friedlander New York: Museum of Modern Art