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Lee Friedlander

Documentary, Landscape, Photojournalism, Portraiture

Biography: In 1967 John Szarkowski, the photography curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, organized the exhibition New Documents. It would be the first major public showcase for a wide selection of work by Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, three photographers whose work, according to Szarkowski, showed new developments in documentary photography: disconcerting portraits from Arbus, apparently snapshot like photos from Winogrand, and complex, layered street images from Friedlander. Of these photographers, Friedlander has since proven to have the longest and most consistent career. Like Winogrand, the young Friedlander had been deeply influenced by Robert Frank's book The Americans, which had come out in 1958. Until then he had been making portraits of jazz and blues musicians in New Orleans.

In 1963 he got his first solo exhibition in the George Eastman House in Rochester, and shortly thereafter produced a photo essay for Harper's Bazaar. One of the photographs from this visual narrative, that of the baby on the TV screen at the foot of a motel bed, became famous. Like Frank's photographs, Friedlander's images were interpreted as a merciless mirror of American society. Friedlander's work is, however, much less emotional than Frank's. His photographs from the 1960's, in particular, seem to be about the movement of formal elements with respect to one another. The human figures in his street images seem misplaced, surrounded by visual pollution such as signs and advertisements, and disappear under the weight of reflections or under the shadow of the photographer who is taking the picture from outside of the frame.

Friedlander always worked in series: street images, flowers, trees, gardens, landscapes, nudes, the industrial and post- industrial environment, portraits, self-portraits. The self-portrait reproduced here is one of the most confrontational: the photographer sits slumped in the easy chair in a motel room, dressed only in his underwear. Despite the clearly visible sex organ, this is definitely not an example of masculinity, but a merciless self-assessment.

Among the important series produced by Friedlander in the late 1970's and early 1980's were a reportage about forgotten memorials to events in American history, portraits of workers in North American industrial areas threatened with unemployment, and portraits of computer operators. In 1991 Szarkowski once more devoted an exhibition to Friedlander, this time of his nudes, work that feminist critics rightly attacked for his reactionary vision. Ultimately Friedlander's significance lies much more in his early photographs, in the way in which, with his camera, he gave shape to the banality of daily life, and recorded the complexity of the American social landscape from a strong appreciation of the importance of formal values.
Article / Bio Source: Hripsime Visser, in: 100xPhoto, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 1996.

More on Lee Friedlander:

Artcyclopedia: Lee Friedlander
Several Links to Online Galleries of Lee Friedlander

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