There isn’t much more that can be said regarding the importance of Friedlander’s work on the psyche of subsequent generations of photographic enthusiasts and artists alike. From his self-portraits to his Little Screens, Friedlander’s work is simultaneously charged with an inner and external pathos that presents both as a partial reflection of the artist’s psyche and a reflection of America itself. His work has challenged the notion of what street photography can be and in parallel, has equally challenged the notion of what landscape photography is. His work defies easy categorization and yet, for the most part, you can spot a Friedlander from a distance. His consistency, his personal vision, and his interest in America and the landscape of America in both pictorial and cultural terms are what have combined to culminate in a severely influential career.
In some ways, the concerns that Friedlander addressed in the late ’50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s are present again in the contemporary moment. The American Monument and Factory Valleys both address American perspectives regarding history and labor that in retrospect feel somewhat prescient in the current moment with the toppling and sequestering of many of American monuments in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In Regards to Factory Valleys, the Covid moment has asked American labor to also be sequestered and manacled to the home office. These observations, though improbably foreseen were reflective of Friedlander’s own moment and concerns. His emphasis on labor, in particular, bookends the change in America from a New Deal Post-War Consensus to a Neoliberal free-market economy under Regan in which jobs began leaving America in the early 80s and the work that Friedlander made with the publication of Factory Valleys foreshadows the problems of the free market as America began to explore the shift from industry to Wall St.
With Friedlander, the self-referential is also never far from the external social commentary that he made quietly and with great pertinence. His self-portraits and the images of his family, particularly his beautiful wife Maria are constants in his work. He returns to the theme of the familiar through the use of these portraits and we feel his presence in them perhaps even more than his self-portraits, which by comparison feel dispassionate, and on occasion almost hint at a self-loathing or systematic self-doubt when you begin peeling back the layers to address Lee himself and the triple framing of images within images where often there resides fragments of America, ambient text visible through signage, and makeshift collaging collides with the reflection of the author caught in the amber of a divisible if chaotic framework. His implied personal love of jazz also informs a number of his brilliant color portraits of the late 50s in which jazz musicians Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, and King Curtis hold the frame with a diligent strength and stand out as the minority of colorwork that Friedlander participated in, which makes the images all that more powerful in their retrospective glow.
A few other motifs resonate with the consistency of assuredness only found through the lens of a masterful artist whose ability and trademark style create a type of photograph easily noticeable and different from his peers. In the case of Friedlander, it is the cocked angle of his camera as he leans out the car door or shoots a scene from across the dashboard. His use of mirrors and text to refract an otherwise easily “readable” landscape or street scene have been hallmarked through his efforts over the years and one can attest to the fact that they hold up after decades and often verge on a strange discordant character that not only makes them different but makes them highly compelling. My only misgiving in regards to Friedlander’s work is his nudes which have always felt like an inappropriate subtraction to his overall rigor. They have always felt out of place and something like a poor Bill Brandt knock-off. I don’t buy them personally, but I do get the pop culture nod to a hirsute Madonna as a subject within the work and the oddly bohemian lens from which they are produced. I know this is a divisive body of work in the artist’s career. No new light has been shed with my thoughts.
All of these bodies of work find their way into the large and informed catalog of Friedlander’s work culled from his archives for an exhibition at Fundación MAPFRE in Spain co-published by Editorial RM. The book captured a great cross-section of Friedlander’s work that is excellently designed and laid out in a manner that showcases Friedlander’s obvious talent through chronological assertions. I assume the curatorial aspect of the exhibition ran in tandem with this notion. The book is probably the best catalog for Friedlander since the Galassi, Benson, and Azim MoMA offering. The rest of his publications are sub-divided by monotopic to fit pursuit leaving decent monographs floating about with perhaps too many overviews. I believe this catalog escapes that problem and for a person entering into the world of Friedlander presents an excellent opportunity at a fair price to begin delving in. The interview between Maria Friedlander and Jeffrey Fraenkel is appealing and the essay by Carlos Gallonet is both excellent and alluring. Highly Recommended for people who do not own a number of the single volumes of his work and wish to have an updated retrospective of the master’s ouvre in one volume.