Book Review: The First Fifty of Lee Friedlander’s Books

Redmond O’Hanlon’s basic writing strategy is to put himself in some remote and dangerous place and to write about how he overcame obstacle after obstacle to his very survival and found his way back. This is a strategy that will be familiar to many artists. Bill Bryson thinks the world of O’Hanlon’s writing–indeed, it is the model for much of his own–and so I thought, since my own daughter was looking for a book to read and had previously enjoyed Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, that she would also enjoy Into the Heart of Borneo, O’Hanlon’s tale of leeches, near drowning, and the fear of beheading as he traveled deeper and deeper into the highlands of Borneo, as far from comfort and safety as most any place on Earth.

But my daughter didn’t like O’Hanlon’s book and she didn’t like it because of the dick joke, which appeared on the first page, coloring her view of all of his writing. She made it through only those few paragraphs and that is probably a good thing, since dicks are a motif in O’Hanlon’s story, from nails driven through one’s member to increase one’s sexual powers (palang) to dreams of leeches and a beautiful young woman:

I fell asleep and dreamed of Leon and his beautiful young girl; of palangs and two-foot leeches; and of Harrison’s leeches who “when they sense the presence of a victim…stand up stiffly on the hinder sucker with the straight rigid body at an angle to the vertical.

Knowing her disdain for dick jokes, I could not resist calling my daughter’s attention to a new candidate as we drifted from photograph to photograph at a museum exhibition. There on the wall was a black and white photograph of a man’s full-length shadow, the shadow falling on the flat expanse of sidewalk in front of him. Rising out of the concrete and exiting the top of the frame, nearly bisecting the picture in half, is the metal pole of some street sign, the origin of the pole placed exactly in the crotch of the shadow. I pointed to the pole, looked at my daughter sideways, and said in my most scholarly voice, “Friedlander is pretending that that is his dick.”

I’m sure I’d seen Friedander’s work before I got off the bus in front of The Peanut Shoppe in downtown Akron, Ohio–I regularly read the two or three photography magazines that were published at the time, occasionally buying my own copy if an issue was particularly interesting, and I’m also sure that I must have seen his work at the downtown library, which had (I now realize) an extraordinary collection of photography monographs. I visited the library often in those days, just going down the entire photography section, carrying a short but heavy stack of volumes to the table and going over each, one by one, page by page, then going back for more the next time I visited.

The library was a destination in its own right, back in the early to mid-1980s when I was first learning about serious photography, but the real destination was the Akron Art Museum, a block or two away from the bus stop. If you wanted to learn all about photography in the art world you could go to New York, of course, but you could also go to Akron, Ohio. If this comes as something of a surprise, I understand.

I saw my first Pepper No. 30 there as well as work by all of the f/64 photographers and their followers. And Harry Callahan, Max Yavno, Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Garry Winogrand, Minor White, Alfred Steiglitz. The Starn Twins, Bill Owens, Jim Goldberg, O. Winston Link. I’m just pulling names out of my memories here and am forgetting so many more. Oh my god, I just remembered Duane Michels, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans…

Cindy Sherman’s first major museum show was organized by the Akron Art Museum, right about the same time. She was a favorite of the museum.

Another favorite was a photographer named Lee Friedlander and he was hard to figure out. His pictures always seemed to look a little chaotic, with too much going on, sometimes framed a bit strangely. There was a big exhibit of his work one year and I’m guessing it was 1983, the same year that Friedlander’s Factory Valleys was published, a project commissioned by the Akron Art Museum. Today I certainly still recognize all of the photographs in the book, which is saying a lot given Friedlander’s superhuman output.

I didn’t know back then that the museum had sponsored the work (just like I didn’t know they had put together the first Sherman museum show and the first O. Winston Link museum show and who knows what else) but there’s Friedlander’s book on page 32 of Friedlander First Fifty, a project put together by Lee’s grandson Giancarlo Roma.

First Fifty devotes a spread (with additional photos between every other spread) to each of Friedlander’s first fifty books–Friedlander’s book publishing is so prodigious that informed readers could have a lively debate on which books are among the first fifty and which are not. In each spread you get the basic facts of the book along with the cover image and a few pictures from inside. You also get the dedication and these are special in the sense that they are all from books that Friedlander read or from song lyrics he favored. For example, the dedication to Factory Valleys is credited to “Gertrude Stein from ‘Scenery and George Washington’ or ‘A History of the United States of America’ and it reads:

He asked me to tell him why he loved me so and the reason was clearly this that the United States of America is a nation. What is the United States of America. It is a country of great size in the center of which there is a great deal of land. Upon this land live those who can do and do whatever they have to do. He asked him to do what they did. Let me tell about the character of the people of the United States of America and what they say. Let me tell you one thing, what they say has a great deal to say with what they do, and what they do they do do, as what they were was part of what they did, as by the time, this time, they are what they are. How do they know what they are. They know it by looking at what they do. That is why the United States of America is important.

Those words could probably serve a window into Friedlander’s own view of himself, a child of a small-town Aberdeen, Washington, raised during his early childhood by family friends on their dairy farm, two months of art school in Pasadena, and a photographer only because at age five he wandered into a photo studio and then and there decided to be a photographer. “They know what they are by looking at what they do,” to paraphrase Stein a bit.

And what Friedlander does–photographs into photo books–is bottled up here in Roma’s book like it was put out by one of those Ohio factories in Lee’s photographs. You think that is an insult?

In a tale whose familiarity will warm the hearts of every self-published photographer (and many with legitimate publishers, as well), Lee Friedlander’s house is stuffed with books. His own books, the unsold ones, going back to the very beginning. Let’s let Giancarlo Roma tell the story (from his introduction to First Fifty):

….I drove up to my grandparents’ house, about an hour north of where I live in Brooklyn, armed with a list I’d made of Lee’s books. After breakfast, he took me on a tour of where they were stored, in various rooms all over the house. Despite the number of times I’d been to their house throughout my life, I’d never realized there were books, Lee’s books, everywhere–in closets I’d never thought to open, on high shelves I’d never glanced up at, and in spare rooms I’d never been in. Unbeknownst to me, the house was lined with books, like insulation.

So Roma and Friedlander formulated a plan. They would resurrect Lee’s self-publishing business, Haywire Press, and sell signed copies of Lee’s books. The books on offer run from less expensive–$125 seems to be the point of entry–to extraordinarily spendy, with prices up to twenty thousand dollars for the three crates with all fifty books, and even more if you want something truly rare. Hard to afford for many but the used prices are right there, too, which makes these mint condition signed versions something of a deal. Some publisher should reissue every one–I’ll sign up for a subscription today.

I mentioned above that each spread lists the basic facts of Friedlander’s books in First Fifty and I mentioned that, of course, there are a few photographs from each of the books, and I mentioned the dedications and offered an example of one. Somehow I forgot to mention the heart and soul of the book, to mention the very thing that makes this book special.

Friedlander is reticent to talk about his photographs directly, probably thinking (quite correctly) that talking about a photograph is like dancing about architecture (a paraphrase of a famous quote usually attributed to Martin Mull). I get it–my strategy with my own work is to achieve the same goal with an opposite tactic–to flood the reader with text that talks about everything around the photograph and sometimes even seems to be talking about the photograph itself but really is just a lot of arm-waving, hoping the effort gives the viewer time to find their own way. Both strategies work.

It’s not that Friedlander makes work that is ambiguous. I see nothing ambiguous–the camouflage for many a weak artist–in his images. There is something specific in each, something that is as hard to articulate as the explanation as to why a joke is funny. You get it or you don’t, and you can better get it if you try a little harder and at the same time relax, and just let the images do their work.

This all comes through, in the way water flows through a sponge, in the many excerpts of conversations that Giancarlo had with Friedlander, his wife Maria, and their daughter Anna (Giancarlo’s mother). By conversations I don’t mean “interviews,” I mean all of them just sitting around, chatting. These excerpts are lovely and taken together are probably the most informative thing about Friedlander’s work I’ve ever read.

Here’s one, from Book 20, At Work, published in 2002. It is an uncanny echo of the Gertrude Stein dedication I exerted above, from Factory Valleys, Book 6, published nearly twenty years before:

> Anna: What made you photograph telemarketers’ heads?

Lee: They didn’t have an office. That had little cubicles, it was like being in a telephone booth. They were on the phone all day, I photographed the work they were doing.

Giancarlo: So it really didn’t matter what they were doing so much as the fact that they were working?

Lee: Well, yes, I photographed them where they were and what they were doing.

The New Cars 1964–probably the least Friedlander-ish book of the bunch, is a favorite of mine, though as I learn on page 117, not Maria’s:

Maria: It’s one of my least favorite of Lee’s books.

Giancarlo: Why is that?

Maria: I don’t know why. It isn’t beautiful. To me they are just a bunch of cars sitting there.

Lee: That’s exactly what they are.

Maria: I don’t care for it.

Anna: There must be another reason because you’ve responded to other pictures of his that are just what they are.

Maria: That’s true. Okay, there must be some other reason. They just seem dull to me.

Lee: That’s what they were to me.

Giancarlo: Maybe that’s what you’re picking up on, Grandma. He didn’t relate to the subject in the same way as other projects.

Maria: I hadn’t thought of that.

Giancarlo: There were other assignments that you liked.

Grandpa, I remember you saying that for Factory Valleys, you loved being there.

Lee: Oh, I loved it.

Giancarlo: You connected with it.

Maria: Yes, very much. So that could be–that with the cars, he wasn’t so interested and I felt it.

Anna: Well, for Factory Valleys, I can certainly feel the affection in the pictures.

Lee: Oh yes. They’re people doing an honest day’s work. They’re doing real work.

They are not kidding about the lack of connection to the assignment. The project was given to Lee by Harper’s Bazaar with the idea that Friedlander would make images to highlight the new model year. Instead, he put the cars in all sorts of unsuitable locations–at empty drive-in movies, parked along some downtown street with only the car’s rear end visible, the car reflected as fragments in a store window, a new 1964 parked incognito at a used car dealership.

The long conversation on the facing page of the book goes into it in more detail–Friedlander is very much not a “car guy” but the car guys who delivered the cars put them anywhere he wanted.

The magazine never ran the photos and, of course, they were unknown to the wider world until they were published in book form by the Fraenkel Gallery, The New Cars 1964–in 2011.

I chose that book (Book 34) randomly from the fifty–let’s pick one on purpose: The Little Screens, Book 18.

Friedlander traveled around the country, seemingly in non-stop motion. He traveled in a camper with his family sometimes but often he stayed in motels, usually cheap motels. There was always a TV in the rooms and Lee photographed the TVs. The results are a little hard to describe. The simple, utilitarian room, dimly lit, and the odd-looking televisions all lend a mood the pictures. But it’s the faces on the screen that will disturb your sleep. A baby’s face, head and chin cropped off. A woman’s face, so close you see nothing of her hair. A similarly cropped man on a motorcycle, probably a police officer, riding in front of a fake background. Some of these, once you see them, will stick in your head forever.

One of the conversation snippets shares that Walker Evans suggested the title for the book, wrote a brief introduction to the images in Harper’s Bazaar, in which he described the images as “deft, witty, spanking little poems of hate.”

Elsewhere in the book, after hearing a long, evocative description of his work written by John Szarkowski, Friedlander responds, “How lucky one is if you had John write something about you.” Who wouldn’t have wanted Szarkowski to write as he did about your own work–but in my case give me Evans’ “little poems of hate.”

Friedlander reminds me of my dad. A whole lot. Watch a video of him talking with Roma at the New York Public Library or read through the hundreds of conversation fragments in First Fifty, and you will find a man that although “uneducated” by modern art standards, where the path to art is charted through an MFA, is nonetheless the most intelligent, well-read person in almost any room. He says only what he wants to say and doesn’t fill the air with decorative words, he doesn’t call attention to himself even when he is the topic and in any event he is always, naturally, the whole point of being there. Friedlander can probably tell a good joke but he’s not a performer, at least not for the auditorium crowd.

Like my dad, the idea of work is central to his personal ethos, not something you do but something you are, and your value to yourself and others is based on your work. I think Friedlander wants to be seen as a worker, his photography as work, real work.

Friedlander’s work, when you take a step back and look at so many of his books, at the first fifty, in fact, makes it as clear as can be. If you didn’t understand his way of working, if you didn’t “get” his images before, I can boil it all down for you now.

Friedlander’s work, his photography, is a joke.

Not just a dick joke but an internal organ joke and a funny face joke, and a crown of grass joke and a tangle of wires joke, and on and on and on and on. His work is not the joke itself–the setup or the punch line–but that moment just as the reaction to the joke hits you, and not necessarily a joke in the sense of being funny. That part can be stripped away, too. Friedlander’s best work is the photographic version of that joke-moment feeling, something reaching deep inside to the caveman that still lives in your brain.

His photos are a series of one-offs, which usually are only gathered together as a group later but which, somewhat counterintuitively, work best in that group, in that book. He doesn’t do Mona Lisas, he doesn’t do work that will make the sociology/art seminar come alive. He does photography, and he has got himself as near to the pure essence of photography as anyone.

Including the conversations in the book wasn’t part of Giancarlo Roma’s original plan for Friedlander First Fifty. The book was initially envisioned as a guide to the big twenty-thousand dollar boxed set which includes one copy of each of the books, something to help the owner feel a little less lost, a kind of card catalog to the Friedlander library. Boring, to be frank. But the snippets of conversation, some just a few lines while others run to a half page of small print, transform the book and, for me, offer insight into Lee’s work that so many other essays and introductions fail to provide.

It’s an easy read and an inexpensive book and I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’ve liked Friedlander’s work for years, ever since I saw those prints at the Akron Art Museum, but I’ve never loved his work. His images hovered at the periphery of my omnivorous consumption of photography, failing to evoke one of the two primary reactions I have to good photographs by others–a desire to avoid that work in my own or a desire to take from it and make it my own. Friedlander’s work was just there, but not quite there enough to really matter to me.

Except for Feet and TV.

It’s hard to remember now but back just a few years ago, and certainly in the early 1980s, you couldn’t just look things up. Photographs that got stuck in your head were often there anonymously, even if you saw them in a proper exhibition with a proper placard identifying artist and title. Feet and TV was an early image of mine, from right about that same time, and in the picture are my legs and bare feet sticking into the frame, a TV in a darkened room showing the MTV logo. This is one of the images–so obviously a direct reference to Friedlander’s images of TVs in hotel rooms–that set me on my way as a photographer.

I’d forgotten about Feet and TV until I was reading through First Fifty and then suddenly it struck me that Friedlander wasn’t at the periphery at all but there at the root, his work was there at the beginning.

[This review first appeared in]

Leave a Reply