Thursday, August 20, 2009


Although Lee Friedlander's photography was partly inspired by Social Documentary and Street Photography, and by photographers like Walker Evans, Robert Frank and most importantly Garry Winogrand, he had his own style at representing the real life of the American urban life. The biggest difference that stands Friedlander among social photographers is that he used a style detached from the literary symbols or comments that Social Documentary and street photographers often use to state their point-of-view in current politics and living conditions in the United States. His main aim in photography was to reveal moments that both identifies and creates the urban life, with its disorder and formlessness. He reveals in his photographs portraits of people trapped in urban frames of some sort, such as shop-windows or doors and use different levels of projections to create this trapped feeling both geometrically and emotionally. If he makes a comment about the current urban-life like his contemporary fellow-photographers, it is a more metaphorical and existential comment than a political-one. The real objective that he tried to find with his photography is to define the place of human-beings in the urban life and in the city itself.

The two photographs that showed the people trapped by the city best are his self-portrait Buffalo- New-York, 1968” and “Boy in Window, 1962”.

The first photograph is the one which possesses the most complex framing and the second-one is the photograph which shows the idea within in the most literal way. If we look at the shop-window photographs in the 60's America in the sense of a consumerism critique, we can say that they make two layers of projection collapse into each other- hence two levels of different realities- and with colliding the different projection layers of the consumer world and the product-world into a one-dimensional projection, these photographs also collide them together, equalizing their roles and defining one with the other. The consumer who buys the products will, in the capitalistic critique, become another product shaped by the capitalistic systems such as the mode. In this critical sense, the use of photography will create a metaphorical connection and state its criticism in a subtler manner than of the social photography of the 50's. Friedlender's photography Boy in Window is according to this critic the most literal example of this tradition, placing a little boy in a shop window as a product. And the sing “Have a Pepsi” just under the boy in the picture also connotes one of the most popular and well-known product of this system, fortifying the 'message' of this picture. We can see in this photograph two different icons from the popular 20th century American photography, the first is the different commercial signs, either as slogans like “Have a Pepsi”or trademarked ads like 'Pepsi-Cola' on the right-bottom corner of the image or '7up' on the right-top corner. This level of advertisements is in collaboration of another iconography style of a close era to make this photograph work in message and in its iconographic value; it is the tradition of photographing distressed or intimidated children that Social Documentary photography, especially these from Lewis Hine or Dorothea Lange. Although we cannot say that this boy in the photograph doesn't have the equal role in the society or the photograph doesn't have the same aim as to those of Hine or Lange, we can nevertheless appreciate that his expression forces the viewer to make a critic about his current placement in the photograph as trapped, and because the picture also includes several elements of advertisement world, though the photograph doesn't implicitly tell a statement or a message, the viewers are easily grasp the meaning behind this composition. This is an excellent example to study how 'Friedlander's photographs work. Almost all of them are trying to figure where the portrayed person stands in this world and though they don't have such powerful and literal meanings, through the use of different elements in the composition, Friedlander creates each time clearly his statement about the changing world that he wants to examine and represent.

Other than the use of consumerism theory, there is also another way to approach in this photo and in other photos of Friedlander with the means of existentialism. Friedlander is the photographer of his era who was most involved with the role and the place of people into the urban society. With its 'modernizing' life-style and urbanization, the life started to change very quickly in the 60's and Friedlander's photographs often try to find a place for his portrayed people, including himself in numerous self-portraits and photographs that has his reflection or shadow in it.

In photographs like 'Boy in the Window', 'Buffalo-New York, 1968', 'Colorado, 1967' and 'Paul Tate', the portrayed people are always in a frame of some geometrical sort; either most commonly by shop windows or by doors etc. Hence the frame in frame context of the images creates a sort of metaphorical prison for its 'characters', the common citizen in this urban life is often trapped from the modern society's tools. His world created by the flattened realities of projections is a disorderly created world where its objects collide with each other and don't have their own proper place and importance or meaning giving by the society. That is how he could create a new solitary picture out of a photo of John F. Kennedy displayed in the window of John F. Kennedy Community Center and his own reflection at that window, in his photograph of 1967 titled 'Colorado, 1967. This is a new solitary image, because of the fact that e cannot see Friedlander's face hindered by the white sheet of paper, we have in this photo a body without a face and a face (J.F.K. Portrait) without a body. They are standing very close in the final one-dimensional projection together, so they eye of the viewer accepts John F. Kennedy's face as the hidden face, connecting the two level of projections together. In this sense, this photo is extremely successful in Friedlander's style to create a sort of surrealist 'whole' from the different part of the compositions.

This sense of portraying the street is also dominant in his picture 'Father Duffy, 1974' where the sculpture of a World War I hero can have the same hierarchy and the same amount of space- if not even less- than a Coca-Cola sign. They both have the same place and same use in the modern world; they are both a product of some sort. This is a highly ironical and critical image showing how the current system can turn a war hero into a product or a commercial icon for an ideology. Like his other photographs, in this picture too the 'portrayed' person -alive or dead alike- is trapped into different geometrical forms and different materials. In this case, firstly the sculpture is behind bars designed to protect it from outside and divide it from the others at the same time, which is unsuccessful according to this photograph- and also in a literal sense he is 'bottled up' like a Coca-Cola.

This photograph can also be read as a visual versus written context. There are two dominant elements in this picture, one is the visual elements like the crucifix and Father Duffy's sculpture and the other is the text of the commercials. In this urban world defined by Friedlander, word is dominant over the visual. The quality and the meaning of the image -the sculpture- is lost in a sea of different written ads that keeps this photo unbalanced. There are layers of texts interfering with the sculpture disallowing the viewer to focus his attention to the sculpture. The place of this portrayed human is lost too into the commercial and consumerist world of today.

Friedlander was also trying to find his own space into this world that he was photographing. That is the reason why he often used his shadow or his reflection as a part of the composition and why the photograph that has the most complex levels of framing is his own portrait. This means that he saw himself more trapped than the people he portrayed, because he was conscious that he added another frame of entrapment in his pictures with the use of photography. People became more trapped with his witness and his understanding of the situation, that means that only when he acknowledged them to be trapped, they became so.

His shadows or reflections entering into the picture were also interpreted by some critics as a parody or ironical reference to the most common errors of amateur photography. According to the conventions of photography, one of the basic and most important rule is the photographer to hide himself not to hurt the integrity of the reality created by the photograph. In this sense, Friedlander choose to stay self-conscious. He didn't see himself as forming a different reality or representing the reality, but simply transforming it with the uses of the medium and he tried to expand the limits of it.

Joel Meyerowitz interpreted Friedlander's use of himself as an object in form of his shadow or his reflection as 'a way to identify that he was there.' (i) In this way, Friedlander is always self-conscious about himself as the photographer and the medium he works with. Social Documentary and Street Photography forbade to the photographers the creation of an illusionary world; the primary duty of both photographic schools is to represent the real life and situations, also in the case of social documentary the grave-ones which needs to draw attention to. As Jonathan Green puts in his article 'Straight Shootings in the Sixties', Winogrand tried to 'make the camera an extension to his eyes', trying to capture the reality of the situation stood in front of him, whereas Friedlander 'made his eyes an extension of the camera' (ii). What is different in these understandings of photography is that Winogrand tried to create an illusion to show his photographs as the reality itself. Even though this understanding is connected to the realism movement, the result are still an illusion, because what a photographer can do with his photographs is only to represent the reality in another form. The use of real materials as objects in the medium will define an art object's bond with the reality, but the medium itself is always artificial. What separates Friedlander from other photographers of his era is the acceptance of this fact in his photographs. Also by the means of self-consciousness, he tried to identify that 'he was there'; his place in this world, and that 'he was the photographer'; his use and identity in this world.

What separates Friedlander from other photographers of his era was this search for the proper place of individuals in the society, that is his existential point-of-view and what separates him from other existentialist photographers is the use of geometry to define this place.


Green, Jonathan, 1983, “Straight Shooting in the Sixties”, American Photography – A Critical History 1954 to the Present, New York, Abrams, p.105-110

Meyerowitz, Joel. Westerbeck, Colin, 1994, Bystander: A History of Street Photography, Bulfinch Press

Lee Friedlander. Website: (accessed: June 15, 2008)

Siegel, Lee, 2005, “What Makes Lee Friedlander's Pictures Good?), Slate Magazine, Website: (accessed: June 15 2008)

(i)Meyerowitz, Joel. Westerbeck, Colin, 1994, Bystander: A History of Street Photography, Bulfinch Press

(ii)Green, Jonathan, 1983, “Straight Shooting in the Sixties”, American Photography – A Critical History 1954 to the Present, New York, Abrams, p.106

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