Artist Biography: Lee Friedlander (1934)
“If I had a chance, I’d be out shooting all the time. You don’t have to go looking for pictures. You go out and the pictures are staring at you.” Lee Friedlander’s photographs carry the curse of secrecy. They always seem to know something that escapes us. Their formal beauty is rooted in the abrasive solitude they breathe.
Friedlander was born in Aberdeen, Washington. He attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where he met an instrumental figure in his early career: Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records which, together with RCA and Columbia Records, gave him his first assignments. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus were all captured by his camera. In 1937 he moved to New York and began working for the magazines Seventeen and Esquire. Art director Marvin Israel introduced him to Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Walker Evans. The latter wrote an article on Friedlander’s series The Little Screens which was published in Harper’s Bazaar in February 1963. Ten years later, Evans would also write an essay to accompany his first portfolio, Lee Friedlander: 15 Photographs (1973).
While Winogrand was busy storing up fragments of reality and Arbus was dissecting the society of the day, Friedlander decided to investigate cultural props—namely, symbols. The iconography was the message, as illustrated in the series The Little Screens: empty hotel rooms with TVs blaring, abandoned, solitary places. Television was king in every home in America, but here that glowing squawk box is unsettling; its perversion stems from the fact that the audience is missing. These lovely still lifes fill us with a sense of unease forever fixed in the imaginary of the English-speaking world. They are as contemporary as the plots of films like Kids, Margin Call or The Ides of March, currently relevant and frighteningly dreadful in equal measure. Friedlander portrays the soul of America.
Screens, portraits, nudes and monuments: Friedlander turns everything that catches his eye into a subject of study. Without fanfare, he presents a fragment of reality and creates a new alphabet of signs and metaphors. It requires an effort. He doesn’t make it easy, but that was never his intention.
The New Documents exhibition at the MoMA marked a turning point in his career, although Nathan Lyons, curator at the George Eastman House, had already included his work in Toward a Social Landscape (1966) along with that of Winogrand. Today this show is regarded as having planted the seed of the new documentary photography style represented by Winogrand, Friedlander and Diane Arbus. After John Szarkowski consolidated their professional reputations with the MoMA’s New Documents show, these three artists would redefine photography as a vehicle for gaining an intimate knowledge of reality.
Friedlander’s project and book The American Monument (1976) has become one of the greatest masterpieces that ever attempted to analyse the soul of America. In it, he attempts to show how many monuments are lost or camouflaged against a changing backdrop, revealing that landscape’s tempo and constancy (or lack thereof). He has also published other seminal books, such as Like a One-Eyed Cat: Photographs by Lee Friedlander, 1956-1987 (1989) and American Musicians (1998).
Fundacion MAPFRE owns some of the iconic images of lonely televisions that were part of the exhibition and book The Little Screens, aside from an exemplaire of his first portfolio Lee Friedlander: 15 photographs (1973) -number 48 of 75- published by Double Elephant Press.
In 2005 the MoMA organised a great retrospective of Friedlander’s entire career. His pictures are mini-essays: images that demand careful consideration and thought.
Lee Friedlander continues to take photographs every day.