Insights gleaned from Lee Friedlander’s photography

lee-friedlander-1
Photograph Copyright Lee Friedlander

[I] eat, drink, sleep photography, but due to constraints, I have been loosing my inspiration lately. Theologians back then called this “Dark night of the soul”. My partner-friend-self appointed grandpa Don suggested I learn about the past, I reluctantly accepted. He's turning senile but he occasionally is the voice of wisdom…ish. But what do you know? The old coot was right! (Plus one of his photos is now part of Flickr top 500. Won't here the end of it). The insights I got were so useful and uplifting, I had to make an article out of them in the spirit of the uber popular “Gleanings” articles.

I am starting with Lee Friedlander, as I feel that I understand where he is coming from. Here's some insights I gleaned from his work. I am sure you can also get a thing or two.

Who's Lee Friedlander in a nutshell
It's really something to see a photograph appear in developer. It's almost magical, as if the image was being created ex-nihilo. So powerful in fact that it inspired many photographers, including Lee Friedlander. When he was 5 he was asked to pick up some portraits at the photography studio, when he stumbled upon the darkroom, and more specifically the print being made.

This early spark lit his passion for photography and is credited for being one of the photographers that developed photography as an art form. He studied photography at the Art Center College of Pasadena but he dropped it because “The assignments were too boring”. One of his teachers counseled him to move to New York to persue his photography. He did so in 1956 where he shot Jazz musicians. He shot with Leica's but later shot with Medium Format cameras.

His career was propelled when he had an exhibition alongside Garry Winogrand and  Diane Arbus called “New Documents”. All three were protegés of John Szarkowski, the director of photography at MoMa from 1962 to 1991. He now has arthritis, and is now documenting his surroundings, his book “Stems” documents the time of his knee replacement surgery. He is still shooting, a great lesson in itself.

Influences: Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, Walker Evans
Click here to read the article on influence

Why he's known:
He documented the common in an uncommon way. In other words he made the uninteresting interesting, something that all photographers seek in some  way or another.

Insights:
Celebrate the mundane
How typical is it of us to dream of exotic locations to take photographs? Lee Freidlander's photography is all about the mundane, the everyday life. Whereas Winogrand's images tended to be impactful, Lee's images are all about the little special accents of the mundane. There's nothing “WOW” about them when you first look at his shots, they look like the boring scenes that we see everyday, but with a twist. I feel that these are the photographs with lasting impact, those with the initial “WOW” factor rarely stick in our minds. He doesn't photograph the mundane in a mundane way, he captures it in a special way, full of visual puns and juxtapositions. Most of us don't live like Indiana Jones or have the luxury to have month long vacations, most of us are trapped in life, the mundane.

That is why Movies are so powerful by the way, they make you escape the mundane for a couple of hours, but back to Lee. His photography is a celebration of everyday life, something that everyone knows and are intimate to. It's not everyday that you go to the beach or Disneyland, the rest of the days you are in the boring mundane. Lee Friedlander's work is very relevant for us because his shots look like they could have been taken anywhere in America.

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

When I first started photography, I firmly believed that photography practically meant going out and taking pictures. For some reason I always believed that my pictures were waiting for me in India and Japan. Experience and research taught me otherwise, the best, most meaningful photographs are right under your nose. Look inward for your photographs, not outward.

Most of us live in a banal world, Lee found the little miracles in this banal world that we often overlook. How many times have we negated taking our camera because we are so sure that we won't get any shot where we are going? I went to Ikea recently and what do you know? 3 spanking photographs. The biggest draw from Lee, is that he found a way to appreciate the mundane, his shots could have been done in the road to work, but we probably never take our camera because we think, what are the odds? (Thank GOD for camera phones!!??)

He even shoots from the car (and has a superb photo book about it):

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

 

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

 

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

How mundane is that? The biggest draw then is simply shoot everyday life, it's your wold, document it and fine the little things that make everyday special.

Why so serious?

lee-friedlander-6
Copyright Lee Friedlander

I take photography very seriously, but that doesn't mean I can't have a little fun. In Lee's photographs you can see his playfulness, look at the photograph above, the fur makes the hair of the shadow. Nowadays photography can become overwhelming, so much to learn so little time, but Lee's photography is a good reminder to have fun while shooting. Be playful, your pictures don't need to be as stiff as a rock…. photographs are externalized emotions, they are a reflection of your state of mind and mood, if you are happy and playful (makes you live longer!) why not let this transpire in your photographs? The way Lee does it is through fun juxtapositions, but there is other ways like through expression and subject matter.

Part of the crew, part of the ship
The self portrait is an art form by itself, and one must not think it's an ego trip. Sometimes it is, you are probably sick of a couple of your facebook friends because of that. But fact remains that you are a subject too, it's your world (the world seen through your eyes) so why not include yourself in it? Sometimes the element missing from a photograph is you or your shadow. Lee is a big fan of placing his shadow in the frame, heck I would consider it his signature.

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

 

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

But Lee also does great self portraits (also has a photo book about it), the way he deforms the images are interesting. Yes you are part of the world, but you are also a worthy subject yourself to be photographed. No ego trip here, just pure self expression. Remember you express how you feel, but you feel a certain way too about yourself, hence the self portrait. If you have a photographer friend take your picture, it's that friend's expression of how he sees you, your self portrait would be different as it expresses how you see yourself.

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

 

lee-friedlander-15
Copyright Lee Friedlander

 

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

The fact that Lee either deforms himself through lens optics of hides a part of himself through a shadow or an abject is very telling: It's how he views himself. Now the ramifications of such photographs are up for interpretation, does he see himself as enigmatic, undecipherable to himself (shadows on his face/partly hiding) or does he know he has a warped view of himself (Lens distortion)? Whatever the case, you are part of the world and a subject yourself, integrate yourself in the shots or make yourself the main subject, it allows you to express yourself about yourself.

The task of the photographer

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We live in a universe, it's both amazingly complex (the human brain is superior to our machines) and disconcertingly simple (e=mc^2). Lee Friedlander does the same in his photographs and shows us not to be afraid of complexity. This is essence the the task of the photographer, to get controlled complexity. What is in front of the lens is chaos, what should come out of the camera is order. The camera allows us to create order out of chaos because it compresses 3d space into a 2d space, making relationships that were unavailable before available through compression. Because of the nature of photography, a person can be far behind another and yet I can compress (or elongate) the distance depending on my perspective and lens choice.

Some of Lee's shots fills the frame with stuff, but it's controlled chaos, there is a thread holding everything together. It's not easy but Lee shows us what one aspect of photography is: To make a coherent frame out of the chaos that is in front of the lens. We will see how he does this a bit further down.

Basking in inspiration
Continuing the spirit of the post on Inspiration, Lee Friedlander was influenced by Jazz, just like Eugene Smith was inspired by Theater. His photography is both highly formal but he, like Jazz musicians is not afraid to improvise. With this indirect inspiration from Jazz, he created a unique style for himself, just like Eugene Smith's theatrical drama photographs.

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

But one big element to state on inspiration is that Lee bathe in it for his early work. He felt an affinity for Jazz and was a photographer of Jazz musicians, you can see how work and inspiration work together. To work in tandem, both work and inspiration must be aligned. While photographing he probably felt what they felt playing their instruments, making him the adequate photographer to capture such moments.
That must make us pause for a moment and have us ask “What IS it that I am passionate about”? Children? Street Scenes? Music? Theater? Games? and bring that element close to your heart. For me it's Philosophy and Theology, my whole photography flows from them. What gets your own juices flowing?

Looking at photographs: Lee Friedlander Edition

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

 

The above photograph is one of those photographs that could have been taken right outside your house, it's the mundane. But Lee's mundane is special, did you notice the shape below?

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

An ice-cream cone….formed by the cloud and the sign. This is the kind of photograph that rewards you for looking closer and longer. At first it seems like a snapshot of a random road of America, but on closer inspection, there is an ice-cream cone! But beyond the playful juxtaposition, the composition of the overall photograph works:

lee-friedlander-18-explanation2
Copyright Lee Friedlander

There is two repetitions in this frame. The first is the shadow of the sign that is repeated on the bottom by the shadow. The second is the cone shape that is repeated by the tree on the left and the other tree repeated by the house shape. Bridging to the chaos control discussion, even if this frame isn't complex, it does have order to it. Your brain sees order in the frame because it uses the Law of proximity and Law of Similarity of the Gestalt Laws of Perception. Basically they state that items that look together and that are close together are grouped together. Let's look at another one:

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

I love reflections, they make everything more complex. But chaos is again controlled like so:

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

The thing to understand here is, because of the law of Pragnanz , you brain tends to simplify things, so essentially what you see above is how the brain interprets things. There's strong vectors started from the figures, going down because of the pillars of the buildings in the front, everything is then broken down because of foreign element has been introduced: The photographer. Lee put himself where the brain expected continuity (another Law of perception), breaking the pattern of the verticals making the frame work. Let's look at a last one:

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

Reflections again. They have a way to bring two worlds together. In this case a furniture store and the street scene. Just like the previous photograph, what makes the photograph work is the strong vector lines that are a product of the scene and the relection of the back. Let's take a look:

Copyright Lee Friedlander
Copyright Lee Friedlander

Everything leads to the middle of the frame, you can see a mix of vectors due to the bed but also the lamp outside and the neons inside. There is also a repetition of the horizontal vectors. The frame works then because there is a mix of the actual scene and the reflected scene coming together to create one unified composition.

Quotable Quotes by Freidlander

Why so serious?
Why so serious?
lee-freidlander-photography-quote2
On Priorities

 

Comment by Joel Meyerowitz
Comment by Joel Meyerowitz

 

Just do it
Just do it

The thing to know about Lee Friedlander is that he's a very non wordy photographer. He doesn't really write, give interviews or explains. When he does give interviews, he's still an enigma! Jhon Szarkowski comments:
“(…)The conference was attended by critics, aestheticians, other philosophers, social scientists of various specialties, prophets, and politicians, most of whom seemed dedicated to the proposition that the group might, if it put its common shoulder to the wheel, determine what photography ultimately meant, so that the question could by Sunday morning be declared dead, and never again waste the time of the panelists. (…)
Friedlander (perhaps innocently, or perhaps with some higher Metternichian sophistication) had momentarily foiled the philosophers and the politicians and the social scientists by giving them nothing but pictures, which was not quite the grist their mills needed.”

 Taking it further: Select Articles

Museum of contemporary Photography
ASX: Lee Friedlander
British journal of photography article


Taking it further: Select Books
lee-friedlander-book

 

 

 

 

This book is the one to own on Friedlander, published by the MoMa. It contains a great overview of Friedlander's career with select photographs. The softcover version is more affordable than the hardcover version, which is pretty much a collector's item if you can find it mint.

 

 

 

His whole series of photographs on America by car. The images are frankly surreal, you feel like you are there. The most interesting thing for me is how Lee keeps the interest going while having the same element over and over again on every frame: The inside of the car.

 

 

 

 

This is a most amazing Book that really shows how to diversify a single recurring theme. Self portraits can become cliche very quickly, this is like a breath of fresh air. This book is as close as you are going to get to Lee Friedlander talking about Lee Friedlander.

Taking it further: Select Videos

 

 

About The Author

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