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Lee Friedlander: At Work and Sticks and Stones

March 12 - May 14, 2005


The Museum of Contemporary Photography is presenting Lee Friedlander, arguably the most important living American photographer. Lee Friedlander's unique vision underscores the two-dimensionality of the picture plane and the potential for photographs to contain varying levels of reflection, opacity, and transparency. Although usually associated with the late 1960s and early 1970s when he, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus were exhibited widely, Friedlander has continued to into the new century to steadily refine his vision and to experiment with new subjects. A major new retrospective and catalog by Peter Galassi are planned for 2005 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (right: Lee Friedlander, Texas, 1997. Courtesy of the Artist and Fraenkel Gallery, CA)

Lee Friedlander was born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington. He studied photography at the Art Center School in Los Angeles (1953-55) and worked as a freelance photographer. Friedlander has been awarded John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. His work has been widely exhibited and is included in the collections of The Baltimore Museum of Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, among other international collections. He has published six books since his large 1988 retrospective, Like a One-Eyed Cat. MoCP Director, Rod Slemmons wrote the essay for that catalog.

The Museum will present two exhibitions of 147 photographs by Lee Friedlander, running through May 14, 2005.

The first, Lee Friedlander At Work, is a selection of 60 prints from six projects done in a variety of work places in the United States: small factories in Ohio and Pennsylvania, a steel mill in Cleveland, a computer factory in Wisconsin, the Dreyfus Company in New York, telemarketing firms in Omaha, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. This exhibition was curated and produced for the Columbus Museum of Art by Catherine Evans. The face of American Labor seen in these photographs is varied and at times surprising, from pristine computer assembly rooms to grimy small machine shops, to IT workers staring catatonically at their monitors. While there is much discussion of "post industrial" America in the news media, this exhibition reminds us that actual laborers are rarely seen there, and even more rarely seen at work.

The second exhibition is a selection of 50 photographs from Friedlander's very new body of work, published in 2004 as Sticks and Stones: Architectural America (D.A.P and Fraenkel Gallery, essay by James Enyeart). Some of these images date to the mid 1990s, but the majority are from 2002-2004. The central visual premise of Sticks and Stones is that our view of American cities is generally obstructed, usually layered, and seldom anything like the simple clarity of an architectural rendering. Friedlander is probably best known for striving to reclaim the complexity of real sight from the ideal simplicity of media-generated visions of America. This is not an easy game to play with the camera, which is, of course, the main tool of the media he is critiquing. But he has been able to consistently violate and break through the flat field of photographic information, forcing us to look through scrims in the forms of fences and bushes, and to see in several directions at once through reflected transparencies and mirrors. These photographs, which are shown as a body of work exclusively here at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, can been seen as the culmination of 35 years of visual experimentation by Friedlander. (right: Lee Friedlander, Canton, Ohio from Factory Valleys, 1979-80. Courtesy of the Artist and Fraenkel Gallery, CA)


Main text panel for the exhibition Lee Friedlander At Work:

Lee Friedlander was born in the logging mill town of Aberdeen, Washington in 1934. His first paid job was a Christmas card photograph of a dog for a local madam named Peggy Plus. He later attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles to become a professional photographer, but left almost immediately. In 1956 he moved to New York and began freelancing for record companies and magazines. He and Maria DiPaoli were married in 1958 and moved to a small town on the Hudson River where they raised two children and live today. Friedlander eventually met people in New York with whom he would change the course of American photography: Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Louis Faurer, Helen Levitt, Richard Avedon, and, from a previous generation, Walker Evans.
American culture and society changed radically as Friedlander began his career in the 1960s-the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, political assassinations, the Women's Movement. He preferred, however, to try to understand this time by looking to the side of the action or purposefully away from it to ongoing life in the street. Ultimately, and with great honesty, he recorded his own reactions to change. He discovered that photography is better at identifying changes in the self attached to the finger on the shutter than recording transformation of the society at large. His first book, Self Portrait: Photographs by Lee Friedlander, Haywire Press, 1970, is based on this discovery. It contains the seeds of almost all of his later work both formally and in the sense that we never lose sight of Lee Friedlander as the point of view--glimpsing his shadow or reflection in every image. This is what he sees based on his own wry humor and complex sense of order. Since Self Portrait, he has published fifteen books, matching the sequential journey through a book with his own internal ordering of how he sees with the camera.
In June of 2005, the Museum of Modern Art in New York will open a major retrospective of the work of Lee Friedlander. He considers the series Sticks and Stones, recently published in book form by DAP and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, his best work so far. The At Work exhibition, published as a catalog by D.A.P., New York, in 2002, is a compilation of six commissioned projects that required Friedlander to photograph in a variety of workplaces.
Lee Friedlander At Work was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, in partnership with The Photography Collection, SK Cultural Foundation, Cologne, Germany
The exhibitions, presentations, and related programs of the Museum of Contemporary Photography are sponsored in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs/After School Matters; Surdna Foundation; American Airlines, the official airlines of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and our members. The Lee Friedlander exhibitions have been generously sponsored in part by William Blair & Company.


Other selected text panels for the exhibition Lee Friedlander At Work:


When I turned sixty-five I retired from everything but work.
So quipped Lee Friedlander, who, for the past five decades, has been inexhaustibly chronicling the American social and cultural landscape. Friedlander, one of the foremost photographers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is known for his keen depictions of the worlds of jazz, of television, of urban landscapes and deserts, and of family. And throughout his prolific career, Friedlander has acknowledged the largely anonymous worker, making inventive pictures of the familiar, humdrum, yet overriding role of work in America.
Lee Friedlander was born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington, and now lives in New York State. In 1963 George Eastman House mounted his first one-person exhibition, and in 1967 his work was included in the watershed exhibition New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Friedlander's pictures, which have been exhibited ever since, are in key photography collections, both public and private. He has received the MacArthur Foundation Award, three Guggenheim Fellowships, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. A major retrospective, including more than five hundred photographs, opens next spring at the Museum of Modern Art.
Lee Friedlander At Work explores the saga of the American worker through six photographic series that were commissioned by museum curators, magazine editors, foundations, and businesses.
Factory Valleys (1979-80) features images of heavy and light industry located in northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania.
MIT (1985-86) records the dramatic shift in the technological landscape along Route 128, Boston's outer loop.
Cray (1986) is the visual story of this Wisconsin-based maker of super computers
Gund (1995) depicts Cleveland's steel industry.
Dreyfus (1992) is a composite portrait of that corporation's New York City trading floor.
Telemarketing (1995) scrutinizes workers based in Omaha, Nebraska, who help make this recent and explosive sales phenomenon possible.
As Richard Benson, himself an accomplished photographer and master printer as well as Yale University dean, observes:
Factories full of people and gear working together, trucks and trains, roads, restaurants and rooming houses permeate his pictures. Yet---despite the youth of some workers-there is a sense of passing time and fading promise that recurs in the pictures. Here, Friedlander's practiced eye sees glimpses of the future read in patterns of the present, as the old human work of making physical objects becomes obsolete. The new age of service and persuasion, of selling ideas and promises rather than nuts and bolts, is arriving.
Lee Friedlander's At Work not only witnesses the radical change in the American workplace from blue collar to desktop, but also invites us to appreciate Friedlander's profound contribution to photography through one constant thread, the ubiquitous universe of work.
Prior to its presentation here, Lee Friedlander's At Work was on view in three major European venues in Cologne, Amsterdam, and Paris. All works are gelatin silver prints, on loan from the artist courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Ohio/Pennsylvania, 1 970-1980
Over a period of about two years, I photographed in several of the cities in this part of the Industrial North. The subjects are people at work in heavy and light industry, where, with hands and machines, they are making things that we all use. The project was commissioned by the Akron Art Institute whose director at the time was John Coplans. The project was called Factory Valleys.
Lee Friedlander
Boston and vicinity, 1985-1986
The working project was named "Changing Technology." I chose to photograph people working at computers as these ubiquitous machines seemed to be the vehicle for that change. The pictures were made in the environs of Route 128, a loop road around Boston, which at the time was considered a northeastern Silicon Valley. The work was printed in a catalogue called "Three on Technology," and was commissioned and produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum under the administration of Kathy Halbreich, Gary Garrels, and Katy Kline.
Lee Friedlander
Cray, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, 1986
When these pictures were made, the Cray Company was the worlds leading manufacturer of super-computers. I was commissioned to do a book on Cray and its hometown of Chippewa Falls, on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of the company's founding. The book was privately printed as a gift for all Cray employees. The idea and the commission came from John Rollwagon, the company's CEO at the time.
Lee Friedlander
New York City, 1992
I made these pictures on the trading floor and in the offices of the Dreyfus Corporation in New York City. The commission was the idea of Howard Stein, then CEO of the Dreyfus Corporation, and the prints were exhibited at the company's corporate headquarters.
Lee Friedlander
Cleveland, Ohio, 1995
These pictures, made in Cleveland fifteen years after Factory Valleys, are also about people at work. They are using their human skills in traditional ways to make products and to give services that we all depend on. The project was commissioned by Mark Schwartz of Nasnadny-Schwartz for the Gund Foundation annual report.
Lee Friedlander
Omaha, Nebraska, 1995
An assignment for The New York Times Magazine led me to Omaha, Nebraska, to photograph people working at telemarketing in several companies based there. The assignment came from and was directed by Kathy Ryan, the photo editor at the magazine.
Lee Friedlander

About the Museum of Contemporary Photography:

The Museum of Contemporary Photography is located at 600 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60605, on the corner of Harrison Street and Michigan Avenue. For additional information including hours and admission fees please see the Museum's web site.

Click here for an essay concerning Lee Friedlander by Rod Slemmons.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

rev. 3/24/05

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