Friedlander once told me that in his view Atget (large camera) and Lartigue (small camera) had together defined the range of photography’s formal potentials, which any subsequent photographer had only to apply to his or her place and time. He said that he found this circumstance liberating, creating a freedom from the obligation to invent. I did not argue with his sweeping indifference to the matter of personal artistic sensibility, but I recognized in it a clue to his own. He elected as the fathers of the modern art of photography two photographers who nominally had not been artists. One was a seasoned professional who worked day in and day out for over three decades; the other was a teenager. Neither had any reason for achieving what he did, except the love of making photographs.
—Peter Galassi, brackets those of the author (Friedlander, 2005, p. 34)
Lee Friedlander, born in 1934, began photographing what he would come to call ‘the American social landscape’ in 1948. His first solo museum exhibition would take place at the George Eastman House in 1963 while still in his 20s. John Szarkowski included his work in the highly influential New Documents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, along with photographs by Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. This same museum had begun collecting the artist’s work as early as 1964.
Friedlander’s wry visual wit and complex photographic statements were in a league of their own, even at this early age. He had trained his eye through more than a decade of travel, criss-crossing the continent primarily photographing musicians on assignment—over 100 record albums are graced by a Friedlander portrait, including the likes of Etta James, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others.
His first monograph, a slim, self-published finger-in-your-eye book titled Self-Portrait (1970), took all of photography’s taboos and up-ended them. The photographer’s shadow, or reflection in a shop window or mirror comprises two-thirds of the book; in the rest he’s dead-pan facing the camera or obscured by something between himself and the lens. The overwhelming sense from this book is that, in bringing these works together, Friedlander is having an immense amount of fun running contrary to all prevailing notions of proper photographic practice. From that point forward, he never lets up:
‘Friedlander’s expanded sense of photography’s possibilities would unfold richly over the next two decades [from 1970 forward]. An established and ever more efficient routine of darkroom work collaborated with his growing freedom from commercial assignments to yield a steadily rising output… The first great expression of the new grace and amplitude of Friedlander’s work was the personal project that would yield his second solo book, The American Monument, which appeared in 1976. As with the earlier Self Portrait and many future projects, Friedlander had begun working on this one before he realized the fact. Noticing that monuments of various kinds cropped up here and there in his contact sheets, he decided to pursue the theme in earnest.’ (Peter Galassi, Friedlander, The Museum of Modern Art, 2005, p. 51)
An early print of a key image in The American Monument project is offered here. It is a photograph of a bronze sculpture of Father Duffy which stands dwarfed amidst the cacophony that is Times Square. Physically surrounded by a black fence while visually engulfed by an unyielding urban geometry of buildings and wires, billboards, typography and signage, this monument to a WWI cleric is lost amidst the gray-scale chaos. This image graced the cover of the 2005 Museum of Modern Art retrospective exhibition catalogue.
Aware of the long-lasting power of the photobook, Friedlander has published over 50 titles in as many years, including his highly-influential first monograph, Self-Portrait (1970). Other important volumes include The American Monument (1976), Flowers and Trees (1981), Like a One-Eyed Cat (1989), Letters From the People (1993), American Musicians (1998), The Little Screens (2001), Sticks and Stones (2004), and Friedlander, the catalogue to the 2005 retrospective exhibition of his work curated by Peter Galassi at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.