Published: June 24, 2008
The largest comprehensive retrospective of the photography of Lee Friedlander (American, b 1934) will be on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), June 29 ⁓eptember 14. This impressive overview †including color and black and white portraits of musicians in the 1950s and 1960s, and several hundred prints tracing Friedlander’s inexhaustible visual appetite for subjects ranging from female nudes and contemporary cityscapes to civic monuments and television sets †outlines the scope of one of the most prolific careers in the history of photography. Friedlander’s distinctly American images, inflected with a sharp wit and sense of humor, have captivated the art world for a half-century.
“Friedlander: Photography” presents his prodigious career in roughly chronological fashion, in groups organized by subject. Illuminating five decades, these images track the growth of Friedlander’s work and offer a vivid and far-reaching vision of what he calls the “American social landscape.”
This central theme provides countless jumping-off points for Friedlander’s photography. The broad-ranging quality of his interests are suggested by an alpha-numeric series (“Letters from the People”) and a series of American West landscapes presented for the first time in this exhibition. The exhibition is organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog.
Born in Aberdeen, Wash., Friedlander fell in love with photography as a teenager. He studied at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in 1952, and in 1955 he moved to the New York City area, where he still lives. For the next 15 years he worked steadily as a freelance photographer for various magazines, including Sports Illustrated, Holiday and Seventeen .
His other line of work, portraits of musicians for their album covers, grew out of his lifelong love of jazz and other music. Color portraits of John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and Miles Davis are among the few examples of Friedlander’s commercial work on display in the exhibition.
Friedlander’s professional work had honed his craft and introduced him to a widening circle of friends. Pictures by friends Walker Evans and Robert Frank inspired him to train his eye on everyday American scenes such as streets, cars, storefronts and billboards. Friedlander’s work showed a playfulness and talent for taking advantage of elements considered by most to be obstacles.
In his pictures, a pole often gets in the way; the frame cuts off something important; a plate-glass window confuses inside and out; the photographer’s own shadow or reflection intrudes. Friedlander’s lively, irreverent glimpses of the city streets and his tongue-in-cheek self-portraits of the 1960s upended the earnest humanism of postwar photography.
The Pop-inspired wit and graphic verve that mark Friedlander’s first maturity would never disappear from his work. Beginning in the early 1970s, however, his sensibility and style broadened considerably, yielding a fluid stream of observation, ever more graceful and sensuous.
Affectionate portraits of family and friends became a major aspect of his work and a barometer of his evolving style.
In the early 1990s, Friedlander’s growing desire to photograph the grand natural landscape of the American West prompted him to trade in his Leica camera for a superwide Hasselblad; with its unusually sharp and wide lens, was ideally suited to the Western views he started to make.
These convoluted scenes, at once magisterial and bizarre, testify to the undiminished intensity of Friedlander’s passion for looking and to the capacity of his art to infect others with that passion.
This traveling exhibition will go to the Cleveland Museum of Art, as its final stop, March 1†June 7, 2009.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is at 2400 3rd Avenue South. For information, 612-870-3131 or www.artsmia.org .
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