Lee Friedlander, born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington, began photographing the American social landscape in 1948. His photographs bring to the surface the juxtapositions of everyday life that comprise our modern world. The awkward, offhanded “snapshot” quality of his work disguises its considerable sophistication. Beyond the vigorous outward eye he turns to the world around him, Friedlander is also recognized for an investigation of self he began in the 1960’s, reproduced in Lee Friedlander: Self Portrait. Many additional monographs on Friedlander’s work exist, among them, Like a One-Eyed Cat, Nudes, Lee Friedlander Photographs, Letter From the People, and The Desert Seen. Friedlander was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowships in 1960 and 1962 and an NEA individual fellowship in 1972. His work can be found in most of the major photographic collections internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitain Museum of Art, and the George Eastman House.
Learn more about the history of photography including individual artist's histories at www.luminous-lint.com.
This conversation was first seen in the Aug/Sep. 2002, issue of Camera Arts magazine. Find out more about the magazine at www.cameraarts.com.
JPC What was it about photography that interested you enough to devote a lifetime to it?
JPC Confirmation? Immediacy? Directness?
LF Directness. The fact that anything that has light on it can be exposed and becomes information. Unlike any other medium, you get the tree or the forest all at once. That is pretty amazing.
JPC It is! I like it because it’s a ticket to go out into the world and look, to look a little more closely than I ordinarily would, every waking minute.
LF You can’t make a picture in New York or Los Angeles without being there. You have to be there.
JPC This can be a very interesting idea. I think the truth value that we ascribe to the photographic document rests with the witness rather than the medium. Now, with new technologies, we are able to make photographs that don’t involve human witness—footage shot remotely off of robots, satellites, or missles.
LF Yeah, but it was still witnessed by the camera.
JPC Can a camera be a witness?
LF Why not?
JPC Well, I wonder if the camera can give us anything more than raw data as opposed to processed information. No meaning has been drawn out of a situation, consciously, without a witness. Rather than using the camera to confirm our experience, we might then be forced to go out and verify the camera’s experience. In our legal system a great deal of emphasis is placed on witnesses in addition to data. The type of document that a photojournalist or straight photographer includes implicit statements. I have seen this. Or at the very least, I have been there.
LF Photographs also show the way that the camera sees. It’s not just me or you or anybody else. The camera does something that is different from our own setting. I don’t know about you, but whenever I get a new camera, it might take years before it and I are really in tune.
JPC That’s a great point. It may be one of the reasons many photographers like to strip their equipment down to a single lens and camera. They learn to see the way it sees and use that to better portray the way they see.
LF If I am used to the camera and I know a scene, I know where to stop and look, because I am used to what it shows.
JPC And if you put another camera in your hands you would find a different place?
LF Yes. I never understood carrying four lenses and changing them all the time. That would drive me crazy.
JPC I like zoom lenses, they offer the versatility of more than one lens in a lens.
LF That would be even worse.
JPC You think?
LF For me it would be.
JPC I like the arrangement. If I’m standing on the edge of a cliff or with my back up against a wall, I don’t have to move to frame an image. But keeping it simple works best for you right now?
JPC Always has?
JPC You once wrote, “The camera is not merely a reflecting pool and the photographs are not exactly the mirror, mirror on the wall that speaks with a twisted tongue.”
LF It does sound right doesn’t it?
JPC It does. Do you think we get a reflection of what is our there, in here, or both?
LF I try to forget that one. It is part of learning how to jump over a hoop I suppose. I find that I don’t think much about photographing.
JPC Before, during or afterwards?
LF When I am making photographs. It’s just a physical reaction.
JPC I can appreciate that this might help side-step conventional ways of thinking and the concerns of ego.
LF Richard Benson said that if an idea bit me in the ass I still wouldn’t be able to recognize what it was.
JPC Until after the fact?
LF Not even that.
JPC You’ve had plenty of ideas spread out over a long career.
LF Anything that looks like an idea is probably just something that has accumulated, like dust. It looks like I have ideas because I do books that are all on the same subject. That is just because the pictures have piled up on that subject. Finally I realize that I am really interested in it. The pictures make me realize that I am interested in something.
JPC I like to let the work tell me what it is about and vicariously what I am about. It’s important to do the work spontaneously first, isn’t it?
LF As I say, I hardly ever think about doing work. I think about going somewhere that might interest me.
JPC I wanted to talk about self-portraiture. You’ve done some very interesting work in this vein. While photography can represent the way we see, it can also show us how we look. The photograph can be a mirror. What do you find particularly interesting about self-portraiture?
LF I was curious what I looked like in certain situations. I’m also curious what the photographs are going to look like, because you are not standing behind the viewfinder. One of the things that is curious is, are you able to do it? Are you going to hit the bull’s eye? It’s quite strange that it works. I once read about a Zen archer that looked at a rabbit running, turned his back, fired an arrow, and hit the rabbit. I suspect a little of that is true with photography.
JPC I think you’re right. That gets right back to the not thinking about the process while you engage in it. You just get in the way of yourself after all that practice. There may be a lot of thinking before and afterwards, but thinking about while you are doing it may produce problems.
LF I am not a big thinker. It keeps me out of mischief. Or it is the only mischief that I have.
JPC The self-portrait is very telling about both the photographer and photography itself. Give two people the same equipment and perhaps the same vantage point and it’s likely that they will come back with two different pictures.
JPC By turning the lens back on us, we highlight the subjective nature of photography. We can point the lens inward at the same time that we point it outward. Do you think that is true?
LF You can probably make me believe it.
JPC Many of your self-portraits turn the camera not just toward your body but also toward the residues that your body has on the surrounding environment – all manner of traces and residues, particularly shadows and reflections.
LF That is part of the game.
JPC The photograph itself is a residue.
JPC Edward Weston said, “Anything that excites me for any reason, I will photograph. Not searching for any usual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual.”
LF Or vice versa. It doesn’t have to be exotic. Let the commonplace be commonplace. That works too.
JPC In certain kinds of photographs, I think there is a deadpan quality, for lack of a better word. They’re very direct. Like the dry humor of a yankee or a cowboy, there is a minimal, bottom-line quality to them as they are presented without embellishment, unpolished.
LF Sometimes just the facts of the matter make it interesting. Do you know Jimmy and Jessie McReynolds? They’re bluegrass singers. They have a song. “I’m in love with a girl wearing nothing but a towel and a smile on a billboard in the field by the old highway.” That is pretty deadpan, the way it is said and what is said about is a complete picture. The same thing is true of photography I suppose. That is the kind of same material that we use.
JPC The particulars can tell the whole story.
LF Look how beautiful Walker Evan’s pictures are. If you will, they are deadpan. I don’t find them deadpan because they are so beautiful.
JPC Right. That gets me to the follow-up question. Often there is an impulse to make pretty pictures. I think beautiful might be different than pretty. There is a difference between photographs where the image itself is beautiful for aesthetic reasons (light and form) and images that are beautiful for other reasons (the more ephemeral qualities they contain).
LF You are over my head. I never think about things like that.
JPC What do you think about?
LF Not much.
JPC You try not to.
LF It is not a matter of trying. It’s indigenous.
JPC You and Harry Callahan have a lot in common.
LF I take more to the subject than to my ideas about it. I am not interested in any idea I have had, the subject is so demanding and so important.
JPC So you let it tell it’s story?
LF I don’t know what I do. I know I am more interested in the subject than my idea about it.
JPC True of photography too?
LF I don’t spend as much time thinking about it. I just do it all the time. I think when you do something for a long time it shows. Have you ever seen an old carpenter who you have asked to do something and you go to talk to him and he is nailing nails and he is looking at you and he doesn’t bang up the wood? Any kind of craftsman, it seems to me, once they have established that they know how to do something, they do it so magically.
JPC Barishnikov reminds us that the audience doesn’t come to see an artist sweat. The great ones make it look easy—deceptively easy. After an accumulation of hours and hours of effort, one makes it seem effortless. And possibly, in the moment, it is.
LF That is the ideal—to be invisible. It’s not to be prince of a medium.
JPC I think that is a particularly photographic interest.
LF I don’t know. If you are a painter or a writer, you can go back and redo something. With photography, you can go back and try but it is probably going to be different because you only get that one shot, that hundreth of a second.
JPC There are only so many decisive moments.
LF I don’t even mean it’s as powerful as a decisive moment. It is impossible to go back, in the exact sense. A fraction of a second makes it work. Perhaps a second later, it is something different.
JPC What do you think is the great value of getting out of the way?
LF It is just the perfect way to be a photographer—invisible. There are lots of scenes that you see in which you would like to be invisible. Come back with the picture.
JPC To better understand it, the least amount of influence. It’s scientific in its own way. Yet what was it Siskind said, “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there.”
LF I think that is good. Garry Winogrand said a lot of good things like that too.
JPC Photography is tied to memory.
LF Except it’s not your memory. It’s the camera’s memory.
JPC How much does that differ?
LF I think a lot.
JPC Do you think that the camera’s “memory” ever becomes a substitute for our memory? I think at one time or another we have all turned to a photograph to verify something we had previously experienced. Often we revise our understanding of the moment based on what we find there. There’s so much information in a photograph, more than we can process in the same 125th of a second.
LF That is because photographs are so loaded with information. They’re remarkable. As I said, you get both the tree and the forest. I don’t think photography had anything to do with memory. I don’t think it has to do with personal memory. It is just what it is. It stops time.
JPC It has a lot to do with history, or the memory of a culture, don’t you think?
LF I think it does.
JPC Yet, history, even personal history, is constantly revised. We see the past from the present. We constantly revise based on our present point of view, which is constantly changing.
JPC Would you edit the body of work that you have done differently now?
LF I think so. Not from that point of view though. I’d do it merely by whim. I do my editing. Life is just my whim. It is the one thing that I have that nobody else has. I can choose to do that. It’s a luxury.
JPC You have different whims today than yesterday?
JPC What’s on your current list?
LF I have nothing on my list. My list is blank.
JPC That sounds pretty good actually. It leaves you clean, unencumbered, ready for the next moment. What is the advantage of that? And had photography helped you get there or have you always approached things that way and photographing just seemed appropriate?
LF Photography is so entwined in my life. I would be happy to say yes—a big yes. It’s like anything else. You have got all that stuff our there and you only allow so much into your frame. It’s the same thing. Every word in the world is out there and somebody puts 15 of them together and makes something that somebody else wouldn’t make.
JPC So every picture, every shape in the world is out there, and you have to put it together in your own way. If you have a blank sheet, blank canvas, blank piece of film, with no preconceptions you might be able to get it a little quicker?
JPC I like the sense of maybe.
LF When you take a picture you haven’t a clue that it is going to be what it is. Maybe you have a clue but you don’t really know. There are too many possibilities. Part of the game is how many balls you can juggle. It is to me. When you are 12 you can juggle two. Maybe when you are 50 you can juggle five. That is an interesting concept to me: how much I can put in and still make it pull together?
I don’t even know if it is artful. If he is able to do what he wants to do and make it look like it is a simple possibility, then he solves his problem. Art is too big a word for me. It has too many letters in it.
JPC What joys would be particular to a life of photography?
LF I think it’s the same answer to what joys would be particular to a life. And that is personally I suppose. My particulars might not meet yours. I have had a lucky life, a good life, it seems to me. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe that’s my fantasy, but it seems to me that I have been able to have a lot of fun passing the years.
JPC It seems that in the kind of photography you do the focus is placed on the particulars of your immediate environment—self-portraits, portraits of your wife, portraits of your environment. George Tice has spent the greater portion of his life photographing his home, New Jersey, and is now rephotographing his New Jersey. Photography then becomes one piece in the fabric of our lives, perhaps the thread that binds it all together.
LF I’m also interested in what cities look like. For the last ten years I have been interested in landscape. I photograph the same stuff that I did 40 years ago. It just comes our differently. I know something different about it or it looks different now. It has aged. Or there’s a new version of it. I don’t think there is much new to do. The only thing you have is your own circa.
JPC We have an active hand in creating our environment. The work we do create is the environment that we find ourselves in. If one decides one is going to photograph sacred sites, then one starts traveling the world. If one decides one is going to photograph one’s family, then one stays home.
LF I do both. I like hands that work, so to speak. I need to keep busy. So if I am home, I work. If one really knew what one was doing, why do it? It seems to me if you had the answer why ask the question? The thing is there are so many questions. I wonder what it is going to look like if I stand here or if I stand there. I don’t know. If 50 years of doing it meant that every time you picked up the camera you made a good one you wouldn’t have to take many. I make a lot of stupid pictures. Most of them are stupid because I’m trying to figure where to be or where to focus. I don’t think the problems area any different now. I grow wiser as time passes only because I know a little bit more about what is possible, only because I’ve done it for so long. I am used to being a craftsman. But maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s infatuation. Age has no patent on infatuation.
JPC And then, there are times when too much passion or too much control can be a liability.
LF I can be fooled as anybody else by what I believe is wonderful.
JPC I’m curious about your book The Desert Seen. I find a very unusual sense of composition and light at work there.
LF It’s the place. The place is different. It’s in Arizona—the Sonora desert. It’s the desert with the giant saguaro cactus. It is the only place in the world they grow. I kept going back there for about 11 years. I think the desert is an elegant looking place. It is an amazing place. It is the place.
JPC I was interested in tangled, almost Giacommeti-like compositions. They defy the classic standards of composition. A bit like Pollock’s work, they emphasize the field more than clear figure ground relationships as opposed to a vision like Mapplethorpe’s, who often stripped things down to a solitary object in a very simple space. I go to the desert to find the vastness of space and bring back minimalist compositions. You go to the desert and you find these marvelously intricate and unconventional compositions.
LF No. You are wrong. The desert looks like that. It’s a tangle. You could isolate elements. Take portraits of cactus. The place to me looks like that. I mean not just to me. I think it looks like that and that is what I simply tried to make photographs of—what it looks like.
JPC Clearly there are many deserts and many ways of seeing the same desert, so there must in turn be many photographers, perhaps even many photographies.
Is there anything else on your mind?