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Photographic Exhibit by Lee Friedlander to Open at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Lee Friedlander. Nude, 1982. Gelatin silver print. 8-1/16 x 12-1/16" MoMA accession #588.2000.

MINNEAPOLIS.- The largest comprehensive retrospective of the photography of Lee Friedlander (American, b. 1934) will be on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). 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. The exhibition will be on view at the MIA June 29 to September 14.

“Friedlander: Photography” presents this prodigious career in rough 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, which has also found excellent source material in Japan, Italy, and Great Britain. The broad-ranging quality of Friedlander’s 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 catalogue.

The Early Years Born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington, 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 fifteen 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.

The 1960s 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 1970s and 1980s 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. His pictures became richly descriptive and alert to subtle variations of texture and light. Another factor was his growing affection for tradition, notably for the work of Eugène Atget.

Affectionate portraits of family and friends became a major aspect of his work and a barometer of his evolving style. In contrast, his studies of workers in the factories of Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1970s are admiring and intimate without pretending to be portraits. Instead, they are tributes to the skill and steady concentration of people “making things we all use,” as Friedlander later put it. Over the next two decades, five further commissions would enable him to extend the theme, from office workers at their computers to telemarketers on the phone.

The 1990s 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. The 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.

George Slade, adjunct assistant curator in the Department of Photographs at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, curates the exhibition for the MIA. Slade is the artistic director of the Minnesota Center for Photography, and was awarded a grant from The Creative Capital/Warhol Arts Grant Writer Program in 2007 for his book Looking Homeward: Notes on a Photographic Minnesota.

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