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Fifty years apart, two ‘series’ of pictures based on that most American obsession – the automobile – were created by one of the living legends of American photography: LEE FRIEDLANDER

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Lee Friedlander Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, SF

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ONE OF THE great ‘discovered’ archives in photography is that of Ernest J. Bellocq, born in New Orleans in 1873 to a middle class Creole family. Bellocq had taken up photography as a hobby in the 1890’s and then developed it into a career as a commercial snapper, covering the usual gamut of mundane local assignments. After retirement, Bellocq became well known around the French Quarter as an eccentric character, though shy and  reclusive, often compared to that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It was upon Bellocq’s death in 1949 that an extraordinary collection of 89 gelatin 8 x 10 glass dry-plate negatives were discovered in his desk. All depicted prostitutes from the Storyville district of New Orleans – so named after Alderman Sidney Story who proscribed the 1898 legalisation of prostitution in a specified area of the city (an ordinance that survived until 1917).

This fascinating collection, noted for its intimate and empathetic depiction of working girls, might well have remained obscure but for the intuition of a 32-year old American photographer called Lee Norman Friedlander. In 1966, he purchased the remaining 89 plates (no one knows how many others had been previously destroyed) and studiously set about recreating authentic images, contact printing onto gold tone printing-out-paper1 – a method Bellocq was likely to have used himself. Limited by the amount of the scarce paper Friedlander had available, approximately 30-50 copies from each plate were editioned, with up to 100 of the most popular images. In 1970, Bellocq’s place in history was cemented by the legendary photographic curator, John Szarkowski2, with a show of these prints at New York's MoMA entitled: E. J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits.

Lee Friedlander had a close relationship with New Orleans through his love for Jazz. He frequented the city, shooting Jazz artists and the clubs where this indigenous music was created. There, Friedlander had become friends with Larry Borenstein, a compulsive collector who ran a gallery in the 1950’s and from whom he bought the Bellocq glass plates. Whilst living in New York in 1956, Friedlander had supported himself by photographing Jazz musicians – like Count Basie – for record covers, now avidly sought after collector’s items. His intimate New Orleans portraits of aged black musicians were eventually published as The Jazz People of New Orleans in 1992 (Cape).

If Lee Friedlander’s only claim to fame was the restoration of an unknown genius, it would have been an achievement in itself. But in fact, that young instinctive photographer was himself to become one of the recognised giants of 20th century American photography –with a career that has lasted for well over fifty years.Born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington, Lee moved to Los Angeles to study photography at the Art Center School (1953-55) but soon moved on to New York to try for freelance assignments. Here he encountered his ‘heroes’: Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Richard Avedon and Walker Evans – artists who were to profoundly influence his life and work.

Evans’ 1938 exhibition and catalogue: American Photographs, held at New York’s MoMA  – the first exhibition ever devoted to the work of a single photographer – was a major influence on this new generation. [Interestingly, Szarkowski noted in a text on the pictures: ‘It is difficult to know now with certainty whether Walker Evans recorded the America of his youth, or invented it.’ This cautionary note might well apply to all photographers working within the ‘street’ genre.]All Friedlander’s subsequent images were black and white, shot primarily with a Leica M series 35mm camera – until the early 1990's, at which point he switched to a medium format Hasselblad Superwide.

Although Friedlander’s first exhibition was in 1963 (at the seminal George Eastman House, Rochester) it was the New Documents show at MoMA, again curated by John Szarkowski in 1967, which marked him as significant. Szarkowski had declared the three exhibiting artists (Friedlander, Arbus & Winogrand) demonstrated: ‘new developments in documentary photography’. Like Garry Winogrand, Friedlander had been mightily impressed by Robert Frank’s 1958 book, The Americans, now considered a cult classic. This had ushered in a new sensibility in image-making whose essence chimed with the sentiment encountered in novels like Kerouac’s On the Road. The deadpan, laconic, laid-back attitude mixed with a modicum of naive innocence – a characteristic easily found amongst blue collar and rural Americans – informed both the eye and the subject matter of a new breed of American photographer. Fortuitously, it also happened to reflect Lee Friedlander’s own personality and demeanour.

A perfect illustration of this is Friedlander’s commission to photograph 1964’s new models of American automobiles for Harper’s Bazaar. You first have to put this into context: a young freelance photographer with just one notable exhibition to his name, a prestigious, first-class magazine, and a high-status subject which obsessed the national psyche (auto manufacturers were not above industrial espionage to uncover rival designs and style innovations). In addition, automotive advertising was well established – sexy locations, sexy women, square-jawed all-American males and the sexy dream machine itself surrounded by, preferably, all the aforementioned. The buzz words were glamour, style and aspiration.

Hired by two young hot-shot art directors, Ansel and Bea Feitler, who had previously used Andy Warhol for a similar venture, the various cars were to be delivered in utmost secrecy to locations specified by Friedlander to have their portraits taken. As Lee recalls: ‘I just put the cars out in the world, instead of on a pedestal.’ Out in the world meant alongside burger joints, not Park Avenue; alongside gas stations, not Guggenheim Museum; alongside a used car lot, not the Metropolitan Opera house. The only figures present were accidental passersby and reflections in window glass.

The mono photographs were the total antithesis of all that was understood by ‘promotional’ advertising imagery, whatever the brands involved.Fearful of advertiser and reader backlash, Harper’s Bazaar paid for, but never published, the images and they remained forgotten until Friedlander rediscovered them in his archives. The prints eventually appeared in book form: The New Cars 1964 (Fraenkel Gallery, USA, 2010). The attitude struck by Friedlander when confronted by this golden career opportunity – at once courageous, innovative, insouciant, droll – perhaps sums up the essence of his being better than the numerous analytical essays produced by critics in the intervening years.

Fifty years before Robert Frank’s The Americans, the urban realist painter, Edward Hopper, had described America as a ‘chaos of ugliness’. Over familiarity had made the elements to which Hopper referred invisible to the ordinary American, but the new generation of photographers found it formed a ‘natural’ vista as relevant – if not equal to – the traditional landscapes of art.

The so called ‘social landscape’ of America was a natural source for Friedlander’s eye and the method of recording – travelling anonymously from place to place – ideal for his modus operandi. He has always worked in series and this practice has produced a riveting body of work, each clearly defined. One of his great triumphs has been the series of 192 images collected as America By Car. This introspective visual report on the individual states of America was captured from that most American of viewpoints – the front seat of an automobile – between 1995 and 2009. With ingenious use of reflections in the rear view mirror, wing mirrors and windscreen, Friedlander offers a fractured, multi-plane composite image incorporating familiar totems: signage, desolation, urban pollution, ironic coincidences and national cliché. Here he marries his affection for the symbols and accidental texts of urban culture (as recorded in Letters From The People, DAP, New York 1993) and candid, spontaneous street snaps epitomised by Lee Friedlander: Photographs (Haywire Press, 1978).

Cropped to a square format, the pictures in American By Car remind the viewer that much of Friedlander’s seminal work was made in parallel to the evolution of Pop Art iconography, and it is clear that emblems introduced into the visual culture fifty years ago can still resonate today.This travelogue is all the more poignant as Friedlander, at 77, is now housebound by an arthritic condition and his most recent work is constrained by this situation.

London gets a rare chance to view prints from two of these key series as the Timothy Taylor Gallery will be exhibiting selected images from both the America By Car portfolio and New Cars 1964. This is the first opportunity to see Lee Friedlander up close and personal since the notable Photographer’s Gallery show in 1976. 

Lee Friedlander’s contribution to contemporary photography has been recognised by numerous awards including – 1962: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship; 1977: Mellon Chair, Rice University, Houston, Texas; 1981: Medal of the City of Paris; 1999: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 1999: French Chevalier of the Order of Arts & Letters; 2005: Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography. In an irony Friedlander himself would enjoy, one of the most quoted of his career achievements was his receipt of $25 for a set of black and white nude photographs of Madonna which appeared in Playboy in 1985 – a single image from the series fetched $37,500 at auction (Christie's) in 2009. 

f22 is indebted to Carla Borel for invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

Lee Friedlander is represented in New York by Janet Borden, Inc. and in San Francisco by the Fraenkel Gallery.

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