PRINT April 1975

Lee Friedlander’s Guarded Strategies

LEE FRIEDLANDER’S PHOTOS ARE in a sense exemplary. Their cool, gentle disdain places them at a crossing point between photography and high art, where meaning can be made to shift and vanish before our eyes. In 1967, when The Museum of Modern Art showed photos by Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Friedlander, the exhibit was called “New Documents”; at the recent MOMA exhibit of 50 of Friedlander’s photos curator John Szarkowski termed the photos “false documents.” Szarkowski’s rhetoric about Friedlander has undergone the corresponding shift from asserting that the work represents a kind of device for improving our vision of the commonplace to asserting that it represents the outcome of personal “hedonism” while stemming nonetheless from “an uncompromisingly aesthetic commitment.” The overriding assertion now is that Friedlander’s concern is both “disinterested” and “artistic,” and the corollary disclaimer is about instrumentality. That is, the work is firmly claimed as part of an art tradition and distinguished from the documentary photography of the ’30s and earlier, which was meant to “change the world.”

Quite a few of the photos in the recent show had appeared either in Friedlander’s book Self Portrait or in the joint Work from the Same House, which coupled Friedlander photos with hairy, somewhat pudendal etchings by his friend Jim Dine. The ones exhibited at the Modern were those closest to elegance, geometry, cleanness, and high-quality camerawork, and, among the humorous photos, those displaying pure-minded irony and wit untainted by lowness or sexuality, which the book done with Dine had plenty of. All the rawest photos, in both subject and handling, were absent.

Friedlander’s work provides some of the first and best examples of what has become a widespread approach to photography. It was part of the general reorientation of the ’60s within American art. Within photography his work violated the dominant formal canons not by inattention but by systematic negation. High-art photography had had a tradition of being directed, by and large, toward some “universal” message. It had aimed to signify a “transcendental” statement through subtraction or rationalized arrangement of elements within the photographed space, dramatic lighting, expressive intensity of glance or gesture, exotic or culturally loaded subjects, and so on. If Friedlander uses these devices, it is only to subvert them, to expose their arbitrariness. But in shifting the direction of art photography, Friedlander has not rejected a transcendental aim—nor has he specifically embraced it. Instead his attention is on the continuum whose poles are formalist photography at one end and transparent, or information-carrying, photography at the other. Imagine a mapping system for photographic messages: the continuum formal versus transparent is at right angles to the continuum transcendent versus literal. (A photo of a fiery helicopter crash in combat, for example, is “transparent” and literal when it functions to document the particular crash; it is moved toward the formal if the style of the photograph or the “oeuvre” of the photographer becomes an issue, but it may still be a literal document. It is moved toward the transcendent range of meaning if it is taken as embodying a statement about, say, human inhumanity, heroism, or the tragedy of war, and into the formal-transcendent range of its efficacy as a bearer of this message is held to lie with its formal rather than strictly contentual features.) Without insisting on this device we can observe that even if an artist locates his work near the formal end of the one continuum, his messages no matter how commonplace or “vernacular,” are still free to wander anywhere along the other, from literalness to transcendence.

In moving toward “vernacular” photo images, photography has had to confront some of the issues behind Realism, such as whether a photograph is in any sense a document and, if so, what kind. Is it “about” what it shows concretely, metaphorically, representatively, allegorically? Does it refer to a moment alone? If so, how long a moment? Does it reveal only that moment, or does it indicate past and future as well? Or, is a photo a record of sensibility, or, is it most specifically about photography itself? These are metacritical questions about the range of messages a photo can convey as well as about how it signals what it signals. These questions are both contentual and formal, and they are all at issue in Friedlander’s work.

The meaning of a photographed instant is pivotal, though the problem is not flamboyantly explored. Among the reasons why it is unwise to compare Friedlander’s photos to “snapshots” the most telling may be that they are not commemorations of a moment; once you have seen more than one, his critical concerns clearly emerge. His conscious presence assaults the notion of transparency, breaking our experience of the moment photographed while at the same time alluding to it. Whereas the photos display the look and the subjects of literal and transparent photography, Friedlander’s use of these commonplace features shifts their meaning to another plane.

In commenting on E. J. Bellocq’s straightforward photos of New Orleans prostitutes1—photos that Friedlander had “found” and carefully reprinted—Friedlander calls Bellocq an “ultraclean realist.”2 He continues: “I think in photography that’s even more artistic than making [everything) romantic and fuzzy.”3 Friedlander uses the word “magic” to describe the camera’s ability to render things “in astonishing detail,” as he phrased it elsewhere. In Friedlander’s framing discussion of Bellocq, and in Szarkowski’s of Friedlander, the literalist image is somehow transformed into art-magic, but it seems that the only acceptable topic of discussion is the image—only the image is subject to control. Photography is something you do; magic is an ineffable something that happens. Friedlander has remarked that “the pleasures of good photographs are the pleasures of good photographs, whatever the particulars of their makeup.”4

The locus of desired readings is, then, formalist modernism, where the art endeavor explores the specific boundaries and capabilities of the medium, and the iconography, while privately meaningful, is wholly subordinate. Whatever meaning resides in Friedlander’s photographs, and it is more than the image management at the Modern has let show, this set of claims allows Friedlander, and the hundreds of young photographers following the same lines, to put playfulness and pseudopropositions forward as their strategy while identifying some set of formal maneuvers as the essential meaning of their work. The transiency or mysteriousness of the relations in their photos suggest the privatization of the photographic act. The result is an idiosyncratic estheticizing of formerly public and instrumental moves.

Yet the ambiguity of presenting a set of familiar images while simultaneously denying both their exoteric reference and their commonly understood symbolic meaning is problematical in such work, as in Pop art in general. Friedlander shares with Pop the habit of converting instrumental uses of a medium into formal and metacritical ones using the techniques and images of naive photography where Pop might use those of graphic art. “Composition,” control of pictorial elements, isn’t really enough to distinguish work that quotes naive imagery from what is being quoted, especially in photography, where the format and the framing of art and nonart are basically the same (in painting and sculpture there is usually at least a medium or a scale change). What is required in such work is aggressively conscious, critical intelligence (as opposed to sensibility or expressiveness), signaled by esthetic distancing.

Friedlander’s presentation is exhaustive yet cool, the effect markedly distanced. The voraciousness of a view that yields, in good focus and wide tonal range, every detail in what passes for a perfectly ordinary scene, the often kitschy subject handled in a low-key way, the complete absence of glamour, and the little jokes, these put intelligence and humor where sentiment or anger might have been. Distancing is everywhere evident in the palimpsests of shadow, reflection, and solidarity, in the fully detailed, small-town-scapes empty of incident, in the juxtapositions and the carefully composed spatial compressions and sliced reflections that are significant only in a photo. Art-making here entails a removal from temporal events, even though the act of recording requires a physical presence, often duly noted. Friedlander records himself passing through in a car, standing with eye to camera, and so on, in widely separated locations, always a nonparticipant.

Control is evidenced by Friedlander’s hard-headed, patiently systematic formal moves. Most of the issues of painterly “design” within a rectangular format turn up in his photos. There are echoes of analytical Cubism in the deconstruction, crenellation, fragmentation, and other deformations of space and image. He gives, too, the look of collage—the (apparent) joining of disparate elements and image fragments—filtered through the attitude toward stylistics, and even in the homeyness of the subjects. When Friedlander breaks the rules of “good” photography, his doing so amounts to an insistence on photography as photography. These rules are violated by a broader set of pictorial conventions. Take the compression of foreground and background fairly common in Friedlander’s photos. It violates the tacit rule that a representational photo should suggest space as we perceive it in the world, with any deformations being easily. decodable. Friedlander’s deformations rarely result from the optics of lenses, which we have learned to cope with. Rather, he arrays the pictorial elements so that they may connect as conceptual units, against our learned habit of decoding the flat image into rationalized space.

More importantly, spatial compression is a possibility peculiarly inherent in photography, where such junctures can happen accidentally. Friedlander characteristically locates the issue in the domain of control, which he equates with insisted-on consciousness. Once you accept that photography need not rest on the history of painting (where, before the heavy influx of photographic influence, at least, there had been no concept of chance imagery, only accident or better or worse decisions about intentional juxtaposition), you can accept as the outcome of conscious and artistic control, photos that have the look of utter accident. Friedlander’s work may make us think of naive photos that incorporate unwanted elements until we inspect a body of his work, when his habitual choice becomes evident, and chance and accident can be seen to diverge.

Chance imagery figures in the wider strategy of juxtaposition and collage. Collaging in Friedlander’s photos, no matter how it is accomplished, once again points out the nature of photography, its impartial mapping of light-dependent images at a single instant in time. All types of visual phenomena have essentially the same “weight” in a photo, formally speaking—but conceptually that is obviously not true. Friedlander’s collages involve not just spatially disjunct imagery but a conceptually based welding of elements of .different time scales into a unitary image. He tends to go for the dryly humorous junction, as in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1971, a rather typical naturalistic collage: a perky little cloud seems to sit like cartoon ice cream atop the back side of a leaning “yield” sign whose shadow angles down the unremarkable street. The sign is a long-term, weighty, manufactured element, the shadow is a natural, regularly recurring light-produced image that moves only gradually, and the cloud is a natural, randomly appearing visual element not as substantial as the sign but much more so than the shadow. Clouds, shadows, and signs feature fairly often in Friedlander’s iconography, along with clumsy statues and telephone poles, as types of phenomena marked for duration, solidity, provenance, and iconicity. Reflections and mirror images, like shadows, also appear often, and all are, in a sense, proto-photographs. All raise questions about the immediacy and the validity of the photographic document.

Friedlander’s reflection photos tend to be less casually humorous than some of his more naturalistic ones. Window reflections, a subset of light-dependent chance images produce superimposed collaging that often is so strong it is Hofmann-esque in effect. The substrate of the reflection is a manufactured surface, usually a commercial one. Images of people are cut by or paired with other images, often without any possibility of their consent. The high number of partial inclusions in these photos makes it difficult to determine exactly what is depicted—do we see, for example, a person’s reflection (is it the photographer’s or someone else’s?) on a storefront window or a person standing inside? Images of signs, of material objects, of natural phenomena, and of shadows—as well as of photos—are as much there as straightforward images of people. We grow confused. In a regionally marked photo, Los Angeles, 1965 photo cutouts of two implacably smiling TV stars, conspicuously taped on a storefront window, are the only clear elements, against ripply reflections of palms, clouds, and cars. It is only the simulacra of people we see without obstruction and must, on some level, respond to as though they were photos of people, unmediated.

A photo of a mirror image, like one of a photo, provides no superimposition and so is like a direct photo of the thing mirrored. The importance of the instant is subordinate to the cognitive tension about what is seen and which side of the camera it’s on. In some photos, large car-mirror reflections disrupt the unity of the image, turning the photos into diptychs or triptychs. Whether they form part of the ostensible subject, modify it, or subvert it, these images box in the space and provide a “fourth wall.” Such closure is accomplished in other photos by an obstructing foreground element. Like the oblivious passerby who ruins a snapshot, these elements obtrude between camera and ostensible subject. The fronted barrier provides a cognitive, not a formal, tension like the annoyance you feel when your theater seat is behind a pole or your view out the car window is blocked by a passing truck. Friedlander’s famous shadow or reflection, in virtually every photo in Self Portrait, also is a closing element. It is not a stand-in for our presence in the real-world moment referred to by the photo but an appropriation of it.

Some photos are falsely lame apings of genre, like the regional stereotype (the parking lot at the Lone Star Cafe, El Paso, composed into a pyramid with a pickup truck seemingly on display with the cafe sign on its roof and with cacti, gravel, and a neon star against the sky); individual or group portraiture (a flash-lit photo of potted flowers or, not in the show, a grinning group of firemen quickly posed class-portrait style before a smoking ruin); nature photography (pathetic, scraggly flowerbeds or trees); or architectural tableaux.

Portraiture is extensively undercut; people are opaque. We are kept mostly at arm’s length or further. The closer shots at the Modern were party photos in which several people pressed together across the picture plane or formed a shallow concavity. They seem to be ordinary youngish middle-class urban or suburban people—the kind of people who look at photos. Their expressions, although sometimes bizarrely distorted, say more about the effects of flash lighting than about personality or emotion, except the most conventionalized kind. The close-up is a form suggesting psychological encounter, and Friedlander uses it to negate its possibilities. People shown interacting with things often look unwittingly funny, or sometimes peculiarly theatrical, bringing a suggestion of seriousness to the irony of their situation. This is perhaps clearest in the photos with statues.

In Connecticut, 1973 a statue of a soldier, rifle at the ready, crouches on a tall pedestal in a small clump of greenery bordering a street of stores. Two women, one pushing a child in a carriage, have just passed it. The child, a small image at the right, is looking back. We are separated from the horizontal tableau by an almost-centered telephone-pole shaft and a street sign. In this photo are images of the immovable and noniconic (the pole), the iconic immovable looking movable (the statue), the fleeting human (the walking women and the child), and the stationary human (women seated at the statue’s base). Can we extract any transcendent message? If so, it is not about war but may be about human durations—perceived durations relative to those of icons. The humanly produced statue has a potential “life span” far longer than that of any person and exists in a different time frame: everyone in these photos ignore the statues, which remain fixed against a changing backdrop of temporal events. And the time frame of the photo is that of the statue, not that of the people. Or suppose this photo is more centrally about interaction. Its dominant vectorial geometry seems to tie the gazes of statue and infant, but no interaction occurs. The child’s back is to its mother, hers is toward the woman behind, and the other women in the foreground look off at right angles.

The possibility of such heavy metaphysics, despite their ordinariness, at first seems rather remote. The viewer must make some observations and decisions before considering it. The facticity of the image is in doubt; unquestionably the elements were present in the real world and the photo was not set up like a Michals, a Meatyard, or an Uelsmann photo. But it was set up like a Cartier-Bresson, in which the architecture required the presence of a human figure falling within a range of specifications in order to elicit the desired internal comparison between figure and ground. That is, Friedlander presumably positioned himself in the right spot and waited for someone to appear. And of course the irony is only in the photo—it is the photographer, with his prevision of a flat representation, who can present the people as transient self-absorbed entities enclosed in a humanly created space that has gotten away from its creators. The viewer recognizes that the statue’s impingement is unreal; its iconicity fools us into considering that it might be implicated, whereas we know it is no more so than the street sign or the telephone pole. The viewer can decide that the photo conveys something truer than the commonplace apprehension of reality, putting the photo within the bounds of surrealism. The viewer is unlikely to accept the as-if proposition that the statue is invested with more than the surface appearance of the real and can in fact interact with the people. (The backward-glancing child is tantalizing; is he a Wordsworthian creature with trailing memories of immortality, that is, of nontemporality, or is he, impossibly, conscious of the statue’s false menace? Is he not yet fully human and paradoxically not yet fully unconscious? Or is he just glancing back at the woman we assume to be his mother?)

The viewer accepts the simile that the statue looks as if it were engaging with the passersby only on the level of estheticized experience, or story-telling. We do not imagine that the photo is a literal document, about this particular spot in Connecticut or the figures in a townscape who appear in it. We assume the photo is synecdochic, intended to convey, if anything, something about people in general, or about some class of people, or about some class of images, or most attenuatedly, about some class of images of images.

The particular conjoinedness of images can be taken as a witticism rather than as a serious assertion about the real world. Interpretation, if it occurs, is a private task of the viewer’s. Grossness or fineness of interpretation is a covert issue in Friedlander’s work, just as grossness or fineness of looking is an overt one. It is likely that Friedlander doesn’t care to decide at what level his photos are to be read. He presents tokens of the type that might be called “significant pseudo-junctures”; his images function like the mention rather than the use of a word, noninstrumentally. Ultimately we are unjustified in associating the statue with the people just because their images share the same frame. This metamessage applies as well to photos of people with people; that is fairly clear in the party photos, for example, where you can’t tell who is associated with whom, except for the one in which a man is kissing a woman’s neck, and what does that signify at a party, anyway?

We can’t know from a single image what relation the people in it have to one another, let alone whether they communicate or what they did before or after shutter release, and the photos rely on our presuppositions to bias them toward a reading. The general lack of such personal markers as foreignness, poverty, age, and disability allows Friedlander an unbounded irresponsibility toward the people he photographs. His refusal to play psychologizing voyeur by suggesting that a photo can reveal some inner or essential truth about an individual or a stereotyped other is admirable. But it is part of the larger refusal according to which photographic propositions have truth value only with respect to photos, not to what is photographed. Even this refusal is unstated. Friedlander has laid vigorous claim to control over his camerawork but has omitted any active claim to control over reading. His work can be taken by casual viewers as value-free sociology and, because of his denial of photographic transparency, as artful construction for photography buffs.


Friedlander’s work has antecedents in the small-camera photography and street photography of such people as Eugene Atget and Walker Evans, to mention only two, but both Atget and Evans appear serious where Friedlander may seem clever, light, or even sophomoric. Atget and Evans photographed people of various classes, in their work roles and out. They cannot be accused of making their subjects the butt of jokes, whereas Friedlander does so almost always, though not the savagely involved ones of Arbus or Robert Frank. For both Atget and Evans, photography’s ability to convey hard information was not much in doubt.

In Evans’s American Photographs there is a deadpan photo, a Friedlander precursor, of a similarly deadpan statue of a doughboy on a personless street in a Pennsylvania town. He follows it with a Vicksburg statue of an unmounted Confederate officer and his horse, a monument to heroism in defeat; Evans’s framing of the image and its isolation against the sky exaggerate the transcendental histrionic gesture enough to kill it by overstatement. Next in the book are some pretty unappealing portraits of men and boys wearing uniforms. The sequence narrows down the range of meanings of the photos to the subject of war and violence and how they are represented in the world. Evans, like Friedlander, is not psychologistic, but his photos are seated much more firmly in their social context; even his captions are more informative: Coal Dock Worker, 1932 and Birmingham Steel Mill and Workers’ Houses, 1936 are more than the bare bones of place and year. Evans, too, used collage, including in a photo both “positive” and “negative” cultural elements: heroic statues and clean streets meeting up with prosaic power lines, icons denoting beauty or sleek commercial messages embedded in degraded human environments, people in rags lying in front of stores. Like Evans’s collages, Friedlander’s may preserve the impression of simple recording and mass-produced iconography at the same time as exquisite awareness of both formal niceties and telling juxtapositions. But Friedlander’s collages, hung on chance and ephemera, are not consciously invested with social meaning and may or may not aspire to universal import. What for Evans occurs in the world occurs for Friedlander in the mind and in the camera. The emerging cultural icons in Evans’s photos that represent the directed message of the haves imposed on the have nots are solidified and naturalized in Friedlander’s. The have nots have disappeared.

In Friedlander’s books Friedlander comes across as a have not himself—significantly, though, one psychosocially rather than socioeconomically defined—a solitary guy who slipped around with a camera in a crazy-clockwork world, fantasizing with mock voyeurism about sleazily sexual targets while never forgetting the meaning of a photo. More recently, as in the latest exhibition at the Modern, selected by Szarkowski, Friedlander has shown us a sanitized if unglamorous but uniformly middle-class world. His human presence has been submerged under his professionalism, and nothing is serious but the photographic surface — he is approaching the status of classic in his genre. Minute detail in these photos does not add up to a definitive grasp of a situation or event; it would be an ironically false presumption to suppose we can infer from the photo something important about the part of the world depicted in it. Yet making connections is an ineradicable human habit, and the metamessage of framing is that a significant incident is portrayed within. Looking at his photos, we are in the same situation as Little Red Riding Hood when she saw dear old Grandma but noticed some wolflike features and became confused. Our pleasant little visit has some suggestion of a more significant encounter, but we don’t have enough information to check. The level of import of Friedlander’s work is open to question and can be read anywhere from photo funnies to metaphysical dismay.

Martha Rosler



1. Bellocq was a local New Orleans commercial photographer working around 1912, a primitive in a sense, whose work was basically unknown until Friedlander came across it after his death. Bellocq seems to have photographed the women as friends, with aspirations neither to art nor to profit. A book of the photos, reprinted by Friedlander in a style he tried to match as closely as he could to Bellocq’s own, was published as Storyville Portraits in 1970 by The Museum of Modern Art. Most of the remarks quoted here were drawn from the book’s introduction, a peculiar jigsaw puzzle of conversational remarks ascribed to various persons and recorded at various times and places, all finally selected, edited, and arranged by John Szarkowski into an imaginary “conversation.”

2. Storyville Portraits, Introduction, p. 11.

3. Ibid.

4. The Snapshot, Jonathan Green, ed., special issue of Aperture magazine, Vol. 19, No. 1119741, p. 113. This collection, mostly of photographers’ work with short accompanying remarks, has almost nothing to do with snapshots and represents another step in the attempt by Minor White and others to assimilate all photographs to their particular techno-mystified version of photographic history.