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Photographer Lee Friedlander’s Monumental Legacy in Books

A look back at the photographer's life and influential work.

In May 2013, Pratt Institute photography chair Stephen Hilger had a daring idea: to collect every book made by the photographer Lee Friedlander. After speaking to Friedlander, Hilger approached the director of libraries, Russell Abell, and explained that he wanted students to have access to Friedlander's complete bibliography. Abell not only agreed but took the plan a step further, suggesting that Pratt host an exhibition of the books in the library space.


The result was Lee Friedlander: The Printed Picture, an exhibition in Pratt's Brooklyn campus library that ran from April to October 2014, co-curated by Hilger and Peter Kayafas. The exhibition featured a conversation between Friedlander and his book-production team at the opening and culminating in what academic types call a Festschrift—a short book designed to accompany and celebrate the exhibition. The reason Hilger's initial idea was daring, and indeed the reason the acquisition of the books was worthy of celebration, is that Friedlander has published an enormous amount of them—almost 50, depending on how you count—in his career, which spans from 1969 to the present day. ("The book is more my medium than the wall," he has said.) For the exhibition, the cover of every Friedlander book was reprinted to exact size and hung on the wall along the staircases, almost in the way family pictures might be in someone's home. The magnitude of Friedlander's output was overwhelming—the book covers lined three flights of stairs.

While most retrospectives address this sort of breadth by sorting an artist's career chronologically into eras, Hilger decided it was more apt to organize Friedlander's oeuvre into ten thematic categories: Self-Portrait & Family in the Picture; Work & Collaboration; Flowers, Trees, & Stems; Landscapes; Nudes; Musicians; American Icons; Monuments; Sticks, Stones, & Letters; and Retrospective.


Given Friedlander's artistic process, it seems this is a more valuable way to view his work. In his first monograph, Self Portrait, Friedlander says the photographs "were not done as a specific preoccupation, but rather, they happened as a peripheral extension of my work… they came about slowly and not with a plan but more as another discovery each time… I try not to think about it, to work intuitively." For Friedlander, whom Hilger describes as a "workhorse," it's shoot first, ask questions later. When looking at his contact sheets, Friedlander sees where his eye has been taking him and groups his pictures into books, much in the same way that Hilger tried to sort those books into categories. In the Q&A portion of the conversation at the opening, a photography student asked Friedlander for advice. "Go out and work," he responded. "When the sun comes out." The work, though, is not just in taking pictures but in going through them.

Flipping through the Festschrift or strolling through the exhibition, which contained vitrines displaying books correlated with each of the ten categories, you'd see themes continuously weaving in and out of Friedlander's consciousness—often decades apart, he will revisit an idea but come to a completely different conclusion. Perhaps the most striking example is the contrast between the 1970 Self Portrait and the 2000 book of self-portraits eponymously titled Lee Friedlander. In the former, a young Friedlander inserts himself, sometimes playfully, into the world around him; in the latter, an older Friedlander often stares directly into the camera, close to the lens, almost confrontationally—same photographer, same concept, drastically different significance.


When I sat down with Hilger in his office at Pratt, he stressed "the monumentality of Lee's entire project as a photographer" but also emphasized that "his subjects are accessible in a way, very much a part of everyday life, and very much a part of experience." From Factory Valleys: Ohio & Pennsylvania to The Desert Seen to The Jazz People of New Orleans, there is a distinctly American, "from sea to shining sea" quality to Friedlander's work. Perhaps on one end of this spectrum is America by Car, a collection of pictures taken from a car window with the scenery constantly changing outside, an ode to the everyman American road trip; and on the other is American Monument, a book of statues across the country and possibly Friedlander's most famous work, exploring our collective fascination with forever commemorating the best of us in static representations. Taken as a whole, his oeuvre could be classified under the heading of "the social landscape"—a term Friedlander actually coined, Hilger pointed out, in a 1963 interview with Contemporary Photographer magazine. But there's another category to Friedlander's work that's even more unique to him as a photographer and doesn't fit as neatly under this heading: family.

At this point, I'll divulge something that I probably should have at the beginning of the article: Lee is my grandfather. This certainly does not qualify me as an expert on his work, but I've been present for more of his photographs than most. It's not because I go with him when he goes out shooting—I've done that only a handful of times—but because he is always photographing. Always. Seeing him without a camera around his neck is like seeing someone who always wears glasses with his glasses off—it's immediately noticeable, and it doesn't look right. Often at a family gathering, at home or at a restaurant, I'll be speaking to someone and all of a sudden a flash will go off. At this point, though, it's not startling to me (although it can be to a friend or a date the first time). My only reaction is to wonder, for a moment, what I was doing that would look interesting in a photograph. Other times, I'll be speaking directly to him, and in mid-sentence he'll abruptly put the camera up to his eye and take a picture of me, like a gunslinger drawing in a duel, all without breaking conversation. What he sees in any given split second that compels him to immediately take a picture, almost like a reflex, has been a great source of mystery and wonderment to me my whole life. One of the benefits of being photographed to this degree is that, as many of my friends have pointed out when flipping through one of Lee's family books, Family (2004) or Family in the Picture (2014), my family photo albums are published and bound. But my personal connection to my grandfather's work has more to do with the photographs I'm not in.

In 1993, Lee came out with Letters from the People and dedicated to it me (I was two at the time). The book consists of photographs of letters and words posted or written on the street, with the opening pages depicting numerous iterations of each letter of the alphabet. I've always felt a strong connection to this book that I could never fully explain. Recently, I mentioned this to my mother (Lee's daughter), and she laughed at me for not putting it together. She reminded me that on the way to most of the many hundreds of baseball games I played growing up in Brooklyn, I insisted we play a game where we had to find the letters of the alphabet, in order, on signs and billboards (no license plates allowed) we passed in the car. It was one of the very few things that relaxed me before games. "It was your own Letters from the People," she said.

I've come to understand my relationship to my grandfather's photography in moments like this—finding a piece of myself somewhere in his work, and by extension him, and what swirls around his consciousness. Some of these moments have been small and tender, as with Letters, and some larger, like sifting through American Musicians and Playing for the Benefit of the Band after deciding to leave baseball to play blues guitar. To me, it's not just the family photo albums that were bound and published but little strands linking me to my grandfather, waiting to be discovered.

Read more about Lee Friedlander: The Printed Picture here.