“It fascinates me that there is a variety of feeling about what I do. I’m not a premeditative photographer. I see a picture and I make it. If I had a chance, I’d be out shooting all the time. You don’t have to go looking for pictures. The material is generous. You go out and the pictures are staring at you.” – Lee Friedlander
While other photographers avoided posts, streetlamps and traffic signs to gain an unhindered view of buildings, streets and passersby, Friedlander purposely let "street furniture" intervene. For him, advertising, billboards and signs were an integral part of the urban texture that made all modern cities look the same. People hurrying by—no longer the idle strollers of a bygone era—appear fragmented, part of the jumble of urban symbols. Mirrors and mirroring, reflections in display windows, maximize the visual complexity, and when a poster appears, our gaze seems to bounce back from it.
Friedlander photographed images of images, making obsolete the question of where reality stops and media reproduction begins. He fed his impressions of big cities into revolving glass doors, creating an equivalent to Robert Rauschenberg's "combine paintings." A chapter in his series Architectural America reduces Los Angeles, Phoenix, and New York to obscuring fences, and in another place most of what we see of "Nebraska," "Portland" and "Las Vegas" are the door handles and upholstery of his sedan.
Friedlander's 1993 book Letters from the People is an updating of the random urban visual texts of the kind seen in Brassai's 1930s graffiti. His early portraits, no longer serving the illusion of great individuality, show people in their personal ambience or outdoors, often evidently tired and sometimes purposely unphotogenic.
Usually in the worst mood of all is Friedlander himself—in unassuming, private self-portraits he grimaces because the camera is too close, or because taking his own Picture perhaps wasn't such a good idea after all. A tendency to sabotage pathos was already evident in Friedlander's 1970s series The American Monument. It showed American heroes in self-aggrandizing Poses, mounted, imperially enthroned, fulfilling the country's Manifest Destiny in bronze and marble. In every case, vantage point and composition were used to unmask pretense.
Mount Rushmore was bearable as a reflection in a window at best. Anyone who still doubted that Friedlander's oeuvre was laced with humor and cynicism learned differently here. Nor was he able to face the gravestones at Stagliano cemetery in Genoa, Italy, with anything but irony, using careful cropping to spoof the sentimental poses of mourning on the marble reliefs.
Again and again, Friedlander sought out gardens, parks, and open countryside, though admittedly "great American landscapes" å la Ansel Adams could hardly be expected of him. His favourite motifs were dead or leafless trees, and he was especially fascinated by the graphic textures of dense branches and undergrowth. In the 1990s, the Sonora Desert in Arizona became his ideal landscape. Friedlander also photographed flowerbeds, gardens, and flowers—the last blossomless, reduced to stems in water-filled glass vases.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan