Lee Friedlander is today acknowledged as a master of American photography. His style—clear, witty, direct, and at the same time evasive—has remained consistent though applied to a wide variety of subject matter. After thirty years of photographing nearly every day, he continues to search with great enthusiasm and curiosity for more precise interactions between what we see and how the photograph represents what we see. Yet he doesn’t fit neatly into any of the accepted categories of photography: in the late 1980s it has become common to find critics excepting Friedlander from the particular fashionable theory they are advancing.
For the past thirty years, the span of Friedlander’s career, photography has been dismembered and put back together physically and theoretically by both artists and critics in a frenzied search for innovation and acceptance. Artist-photographers have moved from small cameras to large cameras and back again; they have painted on prints and negatives; and they have experimented with new developments in color.
During this time Friedlander has continued to work with a viewfinder 35mm camera that suits his proclivity for quick, precise decision making. He uses a simple, clear, unmanipulated black-and-white printing technique. He is more concerned with surprising ways of seeing than with unusual techniques and subjects.
In 1963, when his work was beginning to attract attention, Friedlander described what he was photographing as “the American social landscape and its conditions.” The phrase “social landscape” was subsequently used in the titles of two exhibitions in 1966 and 1967 that included his work. It implied that he brought the studied, leisurely technique of photographing a static landscape to the highly mutable, necessarily abstract notion of “society.” Both the irony and essential humility embodied in this phrase set him apart from reformers and social critics. His photographs of the 1960s defined an increasingly pervasive, rootless existence. They contained a skepticism about American society and the ability of the individual to understand it fully, let alone change it. Tempered by distance and wit, Friedlander’s images accepted contingency as a prime condition of the social landscape. In a decade that offered great promise for personal involvement in social and political change, his was an iconoclastic position.
In the twenty years following his first museum exhibitions, Friedlander has developed his art in a surprising number of directions. Through travel and commissions, he has taken his camera off the street and into many new areas; but he continues to build on his initial feelings and discoveries made in the street, where he was the confident stranger juggling observation and participation, diffidence and intrusion. He has acquired subsequent generations of admirers—not all of them artist-photographers, as was initially the case—who have followed his search for the elusive visual metaphors that may at first seem confusing and intentionally difficult but that in fact clarify his and our position in the social landscape.