“I always wanted to be a photographer. I was fascinated with the materials. But I never dreamed I would have this much fun. I imagined something much less elusive, much more mundane.”
Lee Friedlander was born into one of the most difficult periods of American history, the Great Depression. But it was also an era for some of the world’s great photographers; people who would leave a legacy for Friedlander to inherit and expand upon once he took an interest in the medium during1948. After studying at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Friedlander moved New York to insert himself and photograph into the city’s jazz scene.
In addition to his record cover commissions, Friedlander took his 35mm Leica around the city and explored. The resulting photographs were abstract capsules of New York’s current epoch: storefronts, turnstiles, street signs and fenced in structures. Friedlander continued with this theme over the next decades, traveling all over the country. This also led to commissions by groups such as the Akron Art Museum, who in 1979 asked Friedlander to document the industry of the Ohio River Valley. Whether commissioned or taken by his own volition, these photos reflected Friedlander’s eye for juxtaposing whimsy and humor against poignancy and bitterness, appropriately representing the ubiquitous chaos that is urban living.
While Friedlander’s “social landscape” photographs have been a calling card throughout his career, they do not encompass his entire deck. Friedlander has also shown a pervasive interest it the worlds of self portrait –this process prominently began in the 60s and was revisited, starting in the 1990s– and portraiture of others; many of his subjects have appeared nude. Most famously, he photographed Madonna in the late 70s while she was still a student and an unknown. After her career took off, the photos appeared in the September 1985 issue of Playboy.
Over the course of Friedlander’s career, he has displayed a variety of influences from his fellow photographers. Early in his career, his work showed traces of Eugene Atget and Walker Evans. But after knee replacement surgery and unable to leave his home, Friedlander reinvented himself to photograph his limited surroundings. The book Stems is this period’s culmination, and much akin to the work of Josef Sudek, who was disabled for much of his career. Stems photographs showed little of Friedlander’s work patterns and textures.
In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective of Friedlander’s work, over 500 photographs. New York Magazine’s Mark Stevens was astounded by the number, but felt it appropriate considering how prolific Friedlander’s career has been.
To describe Friedlander, Stevens wrote, “He’s not a ‘decisive moment’ man, to use Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous phrase. He shows us ‘the decisive moment…. and then.’ He’s a verb, not a noun, a rhythm instead of a melody. In short, he’s well suited to portray this country.”
Now pushing towards 80, the modest Friedlander has continued to exhibit his work. Most recently, San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery held America by Car, published in 2010.
Lee Friedlander Photographs