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Lee Friedlander

American Photographer

Lee Friedlander Photo
Born: July 14, 1934
Aberdeen, Washington
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I always wanted to be a photographer. I was fascinated by the materials. But I never dreamed that I would be having this much fun.
Lee Friedlander

Summary of Lee Friedlander

If the age-old adage that "reputations are made on the company one keeps" holds true, then MoMA's New Documents exhibition of 1967, where he took his place alongside the likes of Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, would mark Friedlander's breakthrough as an artist. Though Friedlander's participation in New Documents led to only one sale, it brought him to the attention of the Pop artist Jim Dine and the two men worked subsequently on a book collaboration (photographs and etchings) called Work from the Same House (1969). That book was well received, enabling Friedlander to consolidate his position as one of the new photographic provocateurs a year later through his first solo book, Self Portrait. The then novel idea that the photographer could be acknowledged as part of his (or her) photographic environment was to become a perennial feature of Friedlander's work.

The spontaneous street, or 'snapshot', aesthetic had been a staple of the photographic arts since Robert Frank's late-1950s Americans project. But, as with Arbus and Winograd, the term 'documentary' seems woefully insufficient when trying to explain 'mundane' subject-matter this rich in connotation. Friedlander's style - featuring street signs, incredulous shadows and self-reflections, public monuments, nudes, and, later, even landscapes - would bring a disquieting quality to what was ostensibly familiar. Even given the sheer range of his subject matter, Friedlander was able to present an impressive portfolio representing the unique and intricate details of contemporary American life.

Key Ideas

Biography of Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander Photo

Lee Norman Friedlander was born in 1934 into the small (population: 13,000) fishing and logging community of Aberdeen, Washington. His father, Fritz (Friedlander) was a Polish-Jewish émigré who had arrived in America just before the outbreak of WWI. Sadly, Friedlander's mother, Kaari Nurmi, herself an émigré of Finnish descent, died of cancer when her son was just seven years old. Following her death, his father, felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of becoming a single parent, sent Lee to an area of rural Washington where he was raised by a farming family. Father and son were not estranged however and the pair would spend free-time and holidays together. It was Fritz in fact who helped nurture his son's interest in photography and by the age of just 14 he was earning pocket-money as a photographer. Indeed, one of his first commissions was to photograph the pet dog of one of Aberdeen's most well-known residents for her personalized Christmas card. In 1950, he attained his driver's license which allowed him the freedom to explore the music clubs in Washington State and his other love of Jazz, Blues, and R & B music was sealed.

Important Art by Lee Friedlander

Nashville (1963)

Nashville (1963)

Nashville is drawn from Friedlander's early series Little Screens. Six images from the series appeared in a 1963 Harper's Bazaar photo-essay. This image captures a portion of a room, likely a motel room, illuminated by a television. The only human figure depicted is on the screen, a televisual portrait in extreme close-up with the woman's eyebrows pushing against the upper edge of the frame. Friedlander's presence is implied by a man's dress shirt hanging from the bathroom or closet door. Walker Evans had introduced the Little Screens series as "deft, witty, spanking little poems of hate" which encourages the spectator to read the image as a comment of the rise of television, though the precise nature of any social critique remains somewhat ambiguous. However, just as photography would unsettle painting's supremacy in the art academies, so too television, art film, and video art would question the limits of still photography. In this sense, Friedlander's scrutiny of the proliferation of television screens seems somewhat prescient.

Self Portrait, Provincetown, Massachusetts (1968)

Self Portrait, Provincetown, Massachusetts (1968)

From his earliest days, Friedlander has approached the self-portrait in a raw and unorthodox manner. Here for instance, he confuses the hierarchy within the frame by positioning an illuminated light bulb between himself and the onlooking spectator. As with most of his self-portraits, Friedlander's presence is either secondary or compromised by other elements in the image. Historian and curator Rod Slemmons suggested that Friedlander "provides us with a new visual world in which obstruction, confusion, and accident are the driving forces" and when the spectator is challenged in this way, she or he is given license to draw their own conclusions from the picture. It is often said of photographers that they 'paint with light' and here the photographic artist is caught between the two light sources - artificial and natural (the latter pours in through the window to Friedlander's left) - by which he 'paints' his pictures: a self-portrait, in other words, reminiscent of the painter and his palette.

Maria, Las Vegas (1970)

Maria, Las Vegas (1970)

One of Friedlander's favorite subjects is his wife and muse Maria. At first glance, Maria appears to conform to the adoring 'sitter' convention one has come to associate with classical portraiture. However, on closer inspection we notice that Maria is in fact framed within a frame, sharing the inner frame indeed with her silhouetted husband. The picture does avoid his more complex and evasive framing tendencies, yet Friedlander's secondary presence manages to upset the equilibrium of the scene since it serves to remind us that Maria's returning gaze is meant first and foremost for her husband. Putting that detail to one side, Maria is posed in medium close shot, illuminated by the rectangular shards of light that pass through a horizontal (venetian) window blind. Friedlander brings then a chiaroscuro effect to a set up that bears a resemblance to a still from a 1940s film noir. This portrait was to feature in Maria, a collection of images of his wife, sometimes seen with other family members, shot between 1960 and 1992 (the year of the books first publication). The book featured a conversation with Friedlander which he brought to a close with an epigraph to Maria borrowed from Patrick White's novel The Tree of Man (1955):
"Then he stirred his tea again, and from the round red eddies of tea contentment began to radiate. She sat opposite him, smelling of scones and permanence. There would be every opportunity to learn her off by heart."

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Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba-Groom

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Lee Friedlander Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba-Groom
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 18 Jul 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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