fine art photography

Copyright 2017  All Rights Reserved. 

Copyright 2017  All Rights Reserved. 

The new Hi-Y Sweetheart smiled brightly from her seat on the low stone wall.  She was getting her picture taken for the high school yearbook.  The gangly student photographer with heavy eyelids had an awkward grin, and seemed ill at ease.  He’d sure never make it to the big time, she thought.  Imagine, a photographer who couldn’t smile!  How would he ever coax Pepsodent smiles, the kind we all expected, from his subjects?!  He was a hard worker and bright enough, and genuinely kind.  He might get a job in a photo lab as a technician.  Maybe someday he’d even open his own little photography studio with a hired hand to do the smiling.

That scene took place about sixty years ago.  In the meantime that awkward boy, Lee Friedlander, left his hometown in Aberdeen, Washington, to become one of the most celebrated street photographers of the 20th century.

Lee was born in Aberdeen on July 14, 1934, of immigrant parents, according to his biographers.  By the time he got to high school he was the official yearbook photographer.  Lee loved jazz, just like the rest of the male intelligentsia at Weatherwax High.  I would often see little knots of high school boys that always included Lee, talking about the newest jazz record.  Jazz played a role in his photography career almost from the beginning.  Relying again on his biographers, we learn that he went to the Art Center of Los Angeles and began studying with Edward Kaminski.  An article in The Los Angeles Times says he got bored with the Art Center and became Kaminski’s private student.  With Kaminski’s encouragement he went to New York City to try to enter the art scene there.

Many of Lee’s photographic portraits seem to pay as much attention to the things on the wall and to the surroundings as they do to the subject matter.  In several of his portraits you’ll see a coordinated arrangement of person, lamp, and wall ornaments.  In a compelling portrait of Maria, sitting just behind a floor lamp, the strong oval at the bottom of the shade coordinates with the round glasses which Maria wears.  The matching or coordinating elements are purely visual.  Lee seems to savor them like he would a tasty chocolate.  It might also be likened to the same tune played on different instruments in a jazz piece.

Improvisation is a key element in many of Lee’s photographs.  One example is a photograph which provides a peek through a rectangle in the painted border on a plate glass store window; when we look in we see a man taking a nap on his desk.   Another is a photograph of a hefty white-shirted man standing with his hands on his hips under a neon ice cream sign.  A menu taped onto the plate glass window is superimposed directly onto his ample chest.  A spontaneous kid hug is captured in an enchanting photograph of his two children when they were little.  I love his ability to capture the moment.

Lee’s photographs often incorporate his own shadow, a photographic practice ordinarily frowned upon.  However, the sense of serendipity is never so well played out as in these shadow pictures.  A photograph of his shadow playing across an upholstered chair in a store window, as though he were actually sitting in the chair, brings a chuckle every time I look at it.  Given that the photograph was shot in Wilmington, Delaware, near my current home, it has special meaning for me.  Another photograph of Lee’s shadow superimposed on the back of a blonde lady wearing a shaggy, fur-collared coat is another example of the spontaneity provided by simply putting his shadow into the photo.


great photographers...   Lee friedlander

A page from the 1952 Weatherwax High School yearbook, Quinalt, with

photo of the author (#5) taken by Lee Friedlander.

He began his photographic journey by shooting covers for jazz music albums, not a big surprise given his earlier interest in jazz.  Back in the day, of course, a record album’s cover covered a big expanse, and needed an appealing photograph in order to sell the music inside it.  As Lee’s career unfolded, awards and exhibits and honors began piling up: he was awarded three Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grants, five National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and in 2005 the Hasselblad award, an award whose recipient list for previous years reads like a Who’s Who in 20th century photography.  He has produced over 20 photography books, including one titled, American Musicians, a photographic collection with a section on Country Blues and New Orleans Jazz, and another titled Jazz.   

Of particular interest is an interview at the back of American Musicians.  Lee and his wife Maria, interview the saxophone great, Steve Lacy.  In most interviews with Lee as the interviewee, Lee responds with single phrases, and you get the impression that he’d much rather just take pictures than talk about them.  In this interview which Lee and his wife conduct, Lee is the erudite aficionado who not only knows a great deal about jazz but he also knows who was playing with whom, and where, and when, and what.  He certainly allows Mr. Lacy to shine, but you feel by the time the interview is over that Lee loves everything about jazz and could talk on endlessly about it if he had the chance.

Jazz music is characterized by multiple melodies performed simultaneously, with varying degrees of improvisation.  Kind of like a lot of Friedlander’s photography.  Only his “multiple melodies” are juxtaposed visual elements, often wildly different, yet cohabiting and forming a kind of uneasy union.  Take his photograph of a rather senior lady working with cold, shiny machinery, expressing a delicious sense of whimsy, with her hands lifted in mock surprise, for example.  (Lee often titles his photographs with the place and the year, which is not particularly meaningful if you don’t know what he saw there in the first place, so I will briefly describe the photographs I wish to discuss.)  Lee must have gotten a good laugh from a self portrait he took in Chicago.  Here the disparate elements are his grim-faced self standing in front of a store window ad for “Photos 4 for 25 cents,” with 5 photographs of barely-clothed beauties on the wall behind the window.  Another of my favorites is his photograph of a pack of dogs on a dirt hillside in Egypt.  In the background is what is probably the Great Sphinx of Giza, about the same size as the dogs.  

Lee was the staff photographer for the Weatherwax High School

yearbook,  Quinalt.  It is unknown if Lee was the photographer of

his own portrait above.

A bit of a stretch is fitting Lee’s deep respect for his subjects into the jazz paradigm.  It goes without saying that most jazz musicians would almost rather blow or pick or sing than they would eat.  But the same could be said of an endless number of vocations.  Lee respects his subjects by not trying to change them.  He is never the featured player in his photographs; that is, he does not appear to alter the intentions or expressions of the individuals whom he photographs by any actions on his part.  My guess is that he doesn’t significantly interact with his models during a shoot, and by this neutrality he doesn’t interfere with their individualities or with their dignity.  His photographs of DeDe and Billie Pierce and Wooden Joe Nicholas show strong people who know who they are and are proud of it.  His nudes often either look away from the camera lens or actually close their eyes; they stay in their worlds and Lee stays in his.  Had Lee been the grinny boy I had imagined would make a good photographer back in 1952 he might never have been able to present with honesty the strength of “Rory McEwen, Ayshire, Scotland,” or the pride of “Mr. and Mrs Eddie Morris, New Orleans, 1958.”

I had thought when I started out to write this piece that I had invented the idea of Friedlander’s  photographic preoccupation with the concept of jazz.  Actually, several critics make this connection, notably Rod Slemmons in Lee Friedlander Photographs, published in 1978.    If you google Lee Friedlander images or thumb through his prolific work at the library, I think that you will agree that the majority of his work is visual jazz.

Peggy J. O. Schultz, February, 2014