Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander is a influential American photographer who works predominately in street and social documentary. Studying photography in California he soon became despondent with the introduction to photography courses available and would take more interest in the advanced painting course by Edward Kaminski, a painter and photographer. He soon dropped out of the school, but due to his connection to Kaminski, who saw potential in him he was invited to rent a room above his studio and live with his family, learning much under his mentorship in both photography and painting. He later moved to New York City in 1956 where he photographed jazz musicians and record covers, he always considered jazz music to be his second love, after photography.

The vast majority of his work is black and white, using Leica 35mm cameras capturing the social landscape predominately in America. His vast array of work shows a controlled variety in subject, while always within the social landscape and street style the use of shadow, street furniture, his own shadow and foreground interest he continuously produced images of the people and the places he worked.

In 1963 Friedlander had his first solo show at the International Museum of Photography and would go on to be a main contributor to the ‘New Documents’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was also throughout his career awarded many accolades, he received an Honorary Fellowship to the Royal Photographic Society and had a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005. However due to his ill health and arthritis Lee Friedlander is housebound yet continues to produce photographs, namely his collection called ‘Stems’ a look at his life during his knee replacement procedures. His work would focus on the textures, something that was very rare in his earlier work.

Lee Friedlander’s work as I have mentioned maintained various different elements from street furniture, the use of reflections and shop signs and also, in a reverse to what photographers generally understand to be a rule of thumb, to ensure your shadow or reflection isn’t in the frame, Friedlander used this element in his work on a number of occasions, even producing a book ‘Lee Friedlander: Self Portrait’ and in this book curator Peter Galassi said,

“Friedlander, though, in a manner that was fast becoming a hallmark of his work, went after the idea like a dog for a bone, encouraging his surrogate self to behave like a charater with a mindlessness of his own. His shadow became the protagonist of mini dramas of the street; or sometimes it was just the dopey bystander, or the nosy jerk who cant resist poking his head into things.

Friedlander’s reflection, too, offered a wealth of opportunities for comic self-deprecation. Many of these picture are like in-jokes at aphotographer’s convention, send-ups of the trials and tribulations of the trade.”

This fascinating use of his own self in these images stands Lee Friedlander, in my opinion to be a pioneering social photographer, his ability to go against the rule and produce images that as Galassi refers to, his ability to further add content to a photograph, without overwhelming the frame and adding in various cases, humour, self-deprecation, and drama. These elements step his work from being not only social documentary but also commentary, putting his style and self onto his work.


©Lee Freidlander

This first image of Friedlanders work that I want to look at was taken in Pittsburg in 1980. The intense foreground interest of the sign splits the frame perfectly in half, grabbing the viewers attention with the historic signs the positioning of the figure in black draws us further into the frame connecting the foreground and background. The open space behind the sign is shown perfectly with placement of the person, walking in line with what appears to be a row of foliage or rubbish, this gives each side of the sign a sense of connection otherwise lost by the imposing position of the sign.

“Somebody else could walk two feet away to get those poles and tress and other stuff out of the way, I almost walk two feet to get into it, because it is a part of the game that I play. It isn’t even conscious; I probably just drift into it… its like a found pleasure. You’ve found something that you like and you play with it for the rest of your life.”

Friedlander said this of his use of his surroundings, I find it interesting how it isn’t a conscious decision. Just a seemingly natural composition for himself, it leaves me to question my own choices in composition further and what the differences would be if I was to consider them less and photograph what I just ‘found pleasure’ in.

© Lee Friedlander

© Lee Friedlander

This second image of Friedlander’s shows his use of shadows in a self portrait style, the perfect placement on the back of the subject head and back. I see the use of the shadow here as a representation of simplicity over style, the basic head and shoulders of Friedlander overlaid on the stylish fur coat and collar, shows the contrast between fashion and simplicity or men and women. The semiotics of this image add a depth and dynamic that is often not considered by other photographs using a more subtle example.

©Chris Payne

©Chris Payne

This last image is one of my own, taken using a source of inspiration from Lee Friedlander’s work of shopfronts and light, the silhouette of the person walking across the front of the store is akin to the way Freidlander uses placement of his subject within the frame while also the placement and composition is a similar style to some of his street work, giving the viewer an understanding of the space surrounding the focal point.



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