The Lee Friedlander Collection in the National Museum of American History’s Photographic History Collection is comprised of five black and white gelatin silver prints taken during the 1960s. This period marked a time in the history of photography when photographers were increasingly interested in capturing scenes from daily life. Street photography attempted to offer a view of the social landscape. As part of a group of photographers interested in street photography, Friedlander captured a unique perspective of his daily observations. Dating from 1962-65, these photographs are representative of Friedlander’s style during the first important phase in his career.
Photography had always been a central part of Friedlander’s life, even at a young age. Friedlander started photographing at the age of fourteen. Growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, he took whatever photography job that was offered to him. Some of his earliest jobs included assignments such as documenting fire damage and photographing a woman’s dog for a Christmas card. After graduation from high school in 1952 he moved to California where he attended Los Angeles Art Center School. Shortly after enrolling, he left the school feeling that the assignments weren’t stimulating. He had already mastered the basics of photography due to his experience as a teenager, so he grew tired of his introductory class and instead sat in on an advanced class taught by painter and photographer Edward Kaminski. After dropping out of the school, he maintained contact with Kaminski who suggested that he move to New York to begin his career.
Taking Kaminski’s advice, he relocated to New York and began to professionally freelance for several magazines, including Esquire, Art in America, and Sports Illustrated, among others. He also extensively photographed jazz musicians for album covers. In 1960, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to pursue his personal work in photography. After being given a solo show at the George Eastman House in 1963, magazines began to publish Friedlander’s personal work. It is this personal work of the 1960s that is included in the Photographic History Collection.
Street photography, or photographs of everyday subjects as seen by an interested observer, was a frequently explored area in photography during the first half of the twentieth century. Seminal photographers who preceded Friedlander such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans and Robert Frank all explored the street scenes as subject matter for their work. These photographers captured a particular moment from daily life that might have gone unnoticed, but through the photographer’s quick eye and finger the everyday subjects become immortalized in a photograph.
Friedlander, who studied the work of these photographers, was heavily influenced by them. A favorite subject for Friedlander was shop windows and signs with lettering or images, something which he drew from the work of Evans and Atget. Signs and storefronts feature prominently in the works held by the Photographic History Collection. In these images, Friedlander incorporates signage, people, or other subjects behind the glass of storefronts, as well as groups of people on the street in front of stores. Friedlander probably chose to document these kinds of images because they offered a view of American society at the time. What people were wearing, the activities they were performing, their expressions, objects behind glass storefronts and signage all conveyed an aspect of the current social climate. Friedlander’s working style allowed him to quickly capture what he observed and go relatively unnoticed by those around him. His use of a 35mm Leica camera enabled him to work swiftly as well as draw less attention to himself as he documented people and objects from public life.
Friedlander’s visual style is not something that can be easily defined. Refusing to subscribe to a singular style throughout his career, he varies what he photographs as well as how he chooses to portray them. He photographs his subjects in a variety of ways—from close proximity or stepping back to encompass a broader view of the scene. Friedlander’s style is often characterized by a highly focused photograph with sharp clarity. He bisects rectangular planes by dividing it with an object such as a telephone pole or depicting reflections on a glass storefront to ground the image in the two-dimensional form.
In 1970 Friedlander published a book entitled Self Portraits which included photographs he took during the first ten years of his career. In Self Portraits, Friedlander’s shadow or reflection can be seen in every photograph. By capturing his image or implication of his presence, the viewer can place themselves in the position of Friedlander at the moment he took the photograph. This particular style can be seen in most of the images held by the Photographic History Collection. Friedlander’s reflection can be seen in the glass of store front windows and some of his subjects stare right at him His presence in these photographs serve as a reminder of the bystander and viewer, and contribute to the complicated debate of photography as a way of seeing.
Sometimes it takes the eye of a photographer to bring what is typically considered an average occurrence to the forefront in an interesting image. Lee Friedlander was part of a group of photographers whose intention was to capture the current social landscape through the lens of a camera. By photographing subjects such as people on the street or store windows, Friedlander created a lasting image of American society at the time.