Tom E. Hinson Curator of Photography
Friedlander, the retrospective exhibition that opened on March 1, is the most comprehensive survey to date of one of the finest and most prolific practitioners in the history of photography. Lee Friedlander’s remarkable five-decade career, which continues unabated, is marked by talent and intelligence, curiosity and energy, technical expertise and formal inventiveness, all marshaled in support of an unflagging passion for the creative potential of the photographic medium. With contagious humor and animation, he eagerly scans the ordinary with an inquisitive eye to record distinctly American scenes and images. Obsessively documented, the commonplace becomes memorable, the nonchalant picture characterized by formal cohesion and ironic ambiguity. Presenting more than 350 prints that span the 1950s to the 2000s, this retrospective organizes Friedlander’s complex oeuvre into more than 50 discrete groups of images, each defined narrowly by date, theme, and style, and all revealing the subtle variations linked to his keen powers of observation and transformation.
The show is complemented by 22 examples of his trade and special-edition publications, on loan from the collection of Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz, that are displayed throughout the galleries in cases. From the beginning of Friedlander’s publishing endeavors in 1970 (thus far he has created nearly 30 monographs), he has collaborated with designers, binders, printers, and publishers to produce special editions of his trade books. Set apart by their beautiful bindings and frequently housed in elaborate cases, these books always include one or more gelatin silver prints or gravures.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1934, Friedlander fell in love with photography as a teenager. For three years he lived, worked, and briefly studied in Los Angeles at the Art Center School before moving in 1955 to the New York City area. For the next 15 years he worked as a freelance photographer for many of the picture magazines active at that time, allowing him to travel widely on diverse jobs. His passion for music, especially live jazz and blues, led him to photograph musicians for their album covers. The show begins with six wonderful examples of these early commercial assignments, color portraits of such notable musicians as John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, and Miles Davis. Otherwise, all the photographs in the exhibition are black and white gelatin silver prints made with just two cameras: the iconic 35mm Leica rangefinder and the medium-format Hasselblad Superwide, which he switched to in the early 1990s.
During his early years in New York, Friedlander befriended a large circle of artists, including Walker Evans and Robert Frank, whose photographs inspired him to interpret his everyday environment in a witty yet straightforward manner. By the early 1960s his unique vision and style had started to emerge in off-balance street photographs that evoke the complexity of modern life, giving every element, no matter how disparate, equal status within the composition. He incorporated pictorial devices such as multiple reflections and overlying shadows, used obstructed vantage points, cropped off expected details, and included intrusive, often irritating, vertical elements.
Always working in series, throughout his career he has mined what he calls “the American social landscape,” with its bountiful, layered view of city streets—shop fronts, ads, televisions, and cars. This central theme has been generously supplemented by an avalanche of negatives recording an inexhaustible range of beguiling subjects: portraits, self-portraits, social gatherings, urban and suburban buildings, monuments, landscapes, nudes, still lifes, studies of people at work, and more recently landscapes made in the American West. Since the early 1970s, Friedlander’s mastery of craft, affection for tradition, and amazing curiosity have fueled his keen sense of observation, ever more insightful and sensuous. Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art and the exhibition’s curator, describes the photographer’s distinctive style: “Full of wit and pleasure, Lee Friedlander’s photography is also full of challenges. Fact and fiction, beauty and comedy—he has embraced all these at once, scrambling our notions of what a photograph can be.”
Friedlander debuted in New York in the summer of 2005, traveled to Europe, then returned to America before making its closing appearance at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The show is accompanied by a major publication containing more than 750 plates. The CMA’s Education and Musical Arts departments will present a variety of related programming.