History of Photography Research Paper

John Jazul

of Photography

Erin Pauwels

18, 2017

Lee Friedlander: A New Way of Seeing

            One time in my History of
Photography class, the professor, Dr. Pauwels, asked our class, “What do you
think he is trying to document?” One the screen, projected were few black and
white photographs: one shows the reflection of photographer from store window
with television inside, one was the photographers shadow on the back of a woman
wearing fur coat, and one was the back of a yield sign with a pyramid structure
on the background. Having seen a lot of photo books, I might have come across
some of Lee Friedlander’s work before, but it was during that History of
Photography class I got formally introduced to his work. Right away, I felt
direct aesthetic and spiritual kinship between my personal work and
Friedlander’s work. So, when Dr. Pauwels asked the question about the subject
of Friedlander photographs, I felt the urge to explain what I perceived of
Friedlander’s work as if it was my own work and said, “he is documenting how he
sees things, instead of documenting the things themselves”. During at this
point in that History of Photography class, we haven’t come across this kind of
documentary photography. We’ve talked about Lewis Hine, Walker Evans and Robert
Frank; all of them portrayed a definite subject matter in their work. Friedlander’s
work on the other hand, shows fragmented, complex composition, and multi
layered frames.

Susan Sontag’s essay, In Plato’s Cave,
she said “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our
notion of what is worth looking at and what we have right to observe. They are
a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing” (Sontag 3). Sontag
suggests that photography is an ethics or a way of seeing —what is worth
looking at and what we have the right to observe. In this context, Lee
Friedlander changed photography through his personal approach to documentary
photography, his personal way of seeing. Documentary photographers often focus
on socio-economic issues, but Friedlander had a different idea of “what is
worth looking at”.  Like other
photographers at that time, Friedlander travelled around the country to take
pictures. Unlike other documentary photographers, Friedlander didn’t go to
rural areas to document poor farmers, or photographed marginalized people. His
subject matter is often the fragments of everyday banal moments. Written on his
biography in Fraenkel Gallery website, “With an ability to organize a vast
amount of visual information in dynamic compositions, Friedlander has made
humorous and poignant images among the chaos of city life, dense landscape and
countless other subjects” (Lee
). With this ability, this new way of seeing, Friedlander won
multiple awards such as three Guggenheim Fellowship, five National Endowment
for the Arts Fellowship, and a MacArthur Foundation Award (Handy). If
Friedlander’s approach to photography and his subject matter is so different
from other documentary photographers’, one might ask “is he really a
documentary photographer? Then, what story or event was he trying to tell?” I
think it is important to look at what documentary photography is.

In his essay “Documentary Approach to
Photography”, Beaumont Newhall discussed about the history of documentary
photography from Matthew Brady to the Farm Security Administration
photographers and described what a documentary photographer is. Newhall said, “It
is important to bear in mind that ‘documentary’ is an approach rather than end”
(Newhall 5).  So, what is this
‘approach’? “These things, taken for their picturesqueness, may and often do
form photographs of great beauty. But unless they are taken with a serious
sociological purpose, they are not documentary” (Newhall 5). Newhall
differentiated documentary from other genre of photography; other types of
photography may focus on aesthetics, but documentary must have a “serious
sociological purpose”.

So, was there a “serious sociological
purpose” in Lee Friedlander’s photographs? John Szarkowski, the Director of
Photography in the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, answered this question in the
release of the New Documents, the
exhibit that showcased the works of Diane Arbus,Gary Winogrand and Lee
Friedlander, “Most of those who were called documentary photographers a
generation ago, when the label was new, made their pictures in the service of a
social cause. It was their aim to show what’s wrong with the world, and to
persuade their fellows to take actions and make it right… In the past decade a
new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward
more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.
Their work betrays sympathy — almost an affection — for the imperfections and
the frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as
the source of all wonder and fascination and value — no less precious for being
irrational” (Szarkowski).  Through this
statement, Szarkowski drew a line between old documentary photography, and the New Documents. Lee Friedlander’s
photographs showcase this “documentary approach toward more personal end”—toward
his personal, often more formal often complex way of seeing.

Lee Friedlander was born in 1934 in
Aberdeen, Washington. He started doing photography as a teenager. In 1952, he
studied at Art Center School in Los Angeles and then moved to New York City in
1955. Early on he photographed for magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Holiday,
and Seventeen. Through this
professional work, he made a lot of friends, including Walker Evans and Robert
Frank. Friedlander’s maturity came in the early 1960s when he photographed the
same theme Evans and Frank did, “the American social landscape”. The difference
in his approach though, is his playfulness and more modernist approach. (A COMPREHENSIVE RETROSPECTIVE OF LEE

Even documenting the same subject matter
as Evans and Frank, Friedlander introduced his own personal way of seeing. In
this photograph titled, Mt. Rushmore,
South Dakota, 1969
(fig.1), we can see two elderly people with binoculars
and camera on their faces. On the reflection on the big window on their back is
the landscape of Mt. Rushmore and the other people outside, and through the
window we can see the people inside the building. In a quick image search of
“Mt. Rushmore”, we’d find just the landscape of the sculpted mountain,
sometimes with people posed in front of it. The difference and the brilliance
of Friedlander is the way he layered this composition and not photographing it
straight. Through this layering he was able to create an interaction with what
Friedlander is looking at, what these people are looking at, what the people
behind are doing. The composition forces the view to make connections between
the layers to create a story.

In Friedlander’s photographs in Portraits series in Fraenkel Gallery
website, we can still see the same Friedlander’s playful way of seeing even to
the one of the oldest genre of photography—portraiture. One example is
Friedlander’s photograph titled Maria,
Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1966
(fig.2). This picture is very odd portrait his
wife, Maria. Her head was cut-off that you can barely see the bottom of her
eyes with her glasses on. We can see her scarf, her beauty mark; she’s wearing
a plain color coat. Friedlander’s shadow cast upon her. So, is this Maria’s
portrait, or Friedlander’s self-portrait? It’s both. And again, Friedlander
used layer —his shadow on the foreground, Maria in the middle ground, and the
door in the background. Even though it can be considered self-portrait, the
character and the personality we can identify through her clothes is Maria. And
the door with its geometric shape, just adds to the ambiguity of this
photograph. Personally, I think the most interesting part of the photograph is
the half-smile. At first not knowing this is a picture of his wife, I thought
the subject might probably knew Friedlander’s sense of humor, and it all made
sense when I found out this was his wife.

Today at his 80s, Lee Friedlander still
continues to work. He still applies the same unique way of seeing he developed
through the years adapting it to today’s fast paced world. In his work for the
New York Times in 2015, “Lee Friedlander Captures the City’s Hustle and Flow”,
there are still this Lee Friedlander sense of humor to each of the photographs.
But, the photographs now are wider and complex thus absorbing more information
from the scene. In this photograph of a woman holding her phone in middle of
the busy New York streets (fig.3), Friedlander juxtaposed her with the
billboard of another woman’s face on the background. A complex photograph like
this usually fall apart compositionally because of all the distractions, but
Friedlander’s juxtaposition between the woman on her phone, and the woman on
the billboard grabs the viewers’ attention. At first, we look at their
similarities, then we look at the face of the woman on the phone, she looks
lost in this sea of people.

Together with the
other artist in the New Documents and
John Szarkowski, Lee Friedlander changed documentary photography. With his
unique way of seeing, he used a more personal approach to record the world
around him. In effect, the whole visual language of documentary photography is
transformed. Us, newer photographers, benefited in this transformation because
it opened new possibilities of documenting the world. In today’s world, overly
populated with photographs, it’s always refreshing to see a photograph that
showcases a unique vision, explores photography as medium, and presents a
personality—kind of like Lee Friedlander at his time. 


Release),  Department of Communications,
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 15 May 2005.


Handy et al. “Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center
of Photography Collection”, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the
International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 216


Profile). Fraenkel Gallery (https://fraenkelgallery.com/artists/lee-friedlander)

Newhall, Beaumont. “Documentary Approach to Photography.” Parnassus,
vol. 10, no. 3, 1938, pp. 3–6. JSTOR, JSTOR. (www.jstor.org/stable/771747)

            Szarkowski, John, New Documents (Press Release), The Museum of Modern Art, February


Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” from On Photography [1977] (New York:
Picador, 2001), pp. 3-24.

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