The ‘Social Landscapes’ of Lee Friedlander
15 mins read

The ‘Social Landscapes’ of Lee Friedlander

In the photography world, some of the great creators—Walker Evans, for instance, and Henry Cartier-Bresson—are known for perfect composition. What appears in the picture is exactly what belongs in it; nothing that might detract from the photo’s essence is allowed to intrude. 

But there’s another path, the one frequently taken by Lee Friedlander, the 89-year-old photographer who has shot an enormous number of arresting pictures over six decades and published them in dozens of books. A scene by Friedlander often offers multiple, and confounding, sights. In the exhibition “Lee Friedlander Framed by Joel Coen,” which I saw at New York’s Luhring Augustine Gallery last spring, I was captivated by Friedlander’s photos, and especially by a view he captured inside a modestly furnished old house in Waddy, Kentucky. 

In the corner of the living room stood a 1960s television with actor Alan Ladd, in a cowboy hat, staring warily from the screen. On top of the TV a potted lily was in blossom. A graduation picture of a smiling young man hung on the wall, behind an old-fashioned floor lamp. Out a daintily curtained window, a worker tended a piece of agricultural or construction equipment in the yard. A mundane scene, you might think, but because of the disparate things pulling the eye back and forth, up and down, I slowed down and examined the photo more closely. 

What I deduced was that Friedlander was providing a series of hints about the habits, tastes, and domestic arrangements of the person who inhabited that room—from all the evidence, an older woman who led a careful, orderly, and economical existence. Friedlander had laid out tantalizing elements of a domestic mystery and left it to the viewer to sort things out.

In the months since Coen’s Friedlander show ended, a new collection of Friedlander photos—the latest of dozens of books of his work—has been released by the Eakins Press Foundation. Tersely titled Real Estate, it’s a large-format hardcover filled with handsomely produced black-and-white prints. The title bothers me. Real estate has to do with property—with buying, selling, and developing land or buildings and making money at it. Friedlander, as many followers of photography know, is a documenter of the “social landscape”: towns, cities, buildings, roads, open spaces, and the ways people use them or are frustrated by them. He does, however, have a sly sense of humor that may explain the ill-fitting title. 

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, and based for much of his life in New York City, Friedlander started earning pocket money with a camera at the age of 14. Though now hobbled by arthritis, for decades he traveled the country, focusing on signs, fences, houses, stores, factories, roads, cars and trucks, and other elements of American life. A major preoccupation has been motor vehicles and their place in the cityscape. 

One of the 155 black-and-white prints in Real Estate shows two white pickup trucks side by side, with a 12-hour parking meter in the narrow slot of space between them. One truck’s tailgate proclaims “CHEVROLET” and the other’s shouts “FORD,” though the two look so much alike, you could imagine both trucks rolling off the same assembly line. Beyond the pair of trucks, Friedlander shows downtown Dallas rising in the distance. It’s a sparse tableau, devoid of people and of human comfort, which tells us something about Texas development. 

Dallas, Texas, 1976


In the leadup to the auto industry’s introduction of its 1964 models, Harper’s Bazaar commissioned Friedlander to shoot an assortment of new cars. But rather than portray the industry’s products as glamorous, Friedlander, being Friedlander, photographed them parked at burger joints, budget furniture stores, downscale beauty parlors, and, most unforgivably, a used-car lot. Bazaar’s editor-in-chief wasn’t pleased and declined to publish the pictures, though Friedlander did collect his fee. 

Was Friedlander lampooning materialism and overconsumption? This was the era in which social critic Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers (1959), The Waste Makers (1960), and The Pyramid Climbers (1962) struck a chord with socially concerned readers. Friedlander has rarely given interviews, so we can only speculate on his motives. Not until 2010 were those auto photos publicly presented, by Fraenkel Gallery and D.A.P. in a book called America by Car.

Among Friedlander’s odder books is In the Picture: Self-Portraits, 1958–2011. Its 383 pages encompass 53 years of the photographer’s life, showing him on his own or with his family—wife Maria, daughter Anna, son Erik—or friends and collaborators, some of them famous. In 376 photos, Friedlander progresses, if that’s the right word, from bare-chested young manhood to a battered elder who has survived bypass surgery and has a long scar down his chest to prove it. In picture after picture, Friedlander stares at the camera, stone-faced. He’s there, but unforthcoming. Not until more than a third of the way through the book do readers see him smile. 

In many photos over his long career, rather than seeing Friedlander’s face, we see his shadow. In In the Picture’s afterword, the photographer and printer Richard Benson explains that when a photographer uses a wide-angle camera and a lens of short focal length, there’s a risk that the shadow made by his head will land in the scene. Friedlander knew that, of course. So he did what a quirky guy with a camera would do: He played with shadow-making. To his credit, he came up with comical results—not always, but enough to justify the experiment. A 2020 book of Friedlander photos is titled The Shadow Knows.

In Real Estate, Friedlander says little about what’s in the photos or why he shot them. He provides only the year of the photo and the town or city it was shot in—and sometimes the location is as vague as “Western United States.” Nonetheless, the photos pull the viewer in. A favorite of mine depicts a block of urban row houses on an overcast day in 1964. (Real Estate incorrectly identifies it as from New York State. New Haven architect Aaron Helfand and I did considerable sleuthing on Google Maps and determined that in fact it was a Philadelphia scene: the 2200 block of South Hicks Street at Jackson Street in South Philadelphia.) 

At first glance, the picture looks as if it might have been meant mockingly. We see a block of brick rowhouses, dating to about 1880, with Santa Claus masks attached to the facades and with a banner stretched across the street announcing “HAPPY NEW YEAR.” But there’s no festiveness in the air. No one is on the street. The stoops are all empty. There are no customers entering or leaving the corner shops. An oily sheen on Jackson Street’s pavement reinforces the atmosphere’s grayness. Contrary to the happy banner and the Santa masks, a quick look at the photo suggests there’s no jubilation on this street.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1964


If you keep looking, though, you observe that the houses are intact and well cared for—something positive and encouraging amid the troubles that gripped big cities in the 1960s. The middle class was exiting many sections of Eastern and Midwestern cities. Friedlander clicked his shutter in South Philly during a period of urban disintegration, but South Hicks Street looked remarkably stable. The cars were shiny and not dinged up; the ’64 Chevy at the corner looked fine. The houses exuded a certain dignity, their 19th century cornices making a pleasing transition from building to sky. Lines of lights had been strung from one side of the street to the other, all the way down the block. When turned on, they would have generated a sense of an illuminated ceiling, further defining the public space. The rows of two-story dwellings were bookended, at each end of the block, by taller buildings with carved-out corner entrances supported by cast-iron columns.

Rather than being melancholy or mocking, as a rushed viewing would suggest, the photo offers an appreciative look at a neighborhood that was holding together. Friedland gave us a complex document. We can interpret it in as many ways as we choose, but the point is, this view, like quite a few of his best photos, requires some time to absorb. It is the antithesis of a one-note picture.

Unexpected juxtapositions are a Friedlander specialty. In a 1961 photo, somewhere in California, a man steers his ’59 Ford from a street of modest bungalows and brawny, towering oil derricks. The derricks look as though at any moment they could march out to the street and turn the neighborhood into a noisy pumping ground. The viewer wonders: What must it be like to live here? What does it sound like? In a picture like this, the everyday meets the freakish. That’s the Friedman touch.

California, 1961


For sheer exuberance, it’s hard to surpass the “Jesus Loves Ya” house that Friedlander found decked out for Christmas in San Angelo, Texas. “In a Friedlander picture, the houses have personalities,” writes Peter Kafayas, director of the Eakins Press Foundation, in the afterword to Real Estate. “The buildings look like they’ve been caught in the act of doing something embarrassing (Friedlander calls them ‘dumb’), and the empty spaces somehow embody an unlikely combination of irony and optimism.”

San Antonio, Texas, 1997


Nature has played a vital role in Friedlander’s output. Massive trees climb skyward from tight city lots. Brambles proliferate. Buildings become obscured by oversized shrubs. Vegetation brandishes an amazing life force. Nature is in constant battle against roads, industrialism, and exploitative development. Yet it perseveres.

Friedlander loves reflections, and the book contains numerous double views that are clever or perplexing—or both. I doubt there’s another photographer who has shot so many pictures through the windshields and the mirrors of cars and trucks. In store windows he captures reflections that overlap with views of what’s inside the store. Still more close-up views show buses, cars, trucks, pedestrians, and signs, brashly competing for primacy in frenetic city centers. 

Much of Real Estate captures a cluttered, distracted world, but Friedlander has also produced excellent photos that are quieter and calmer. In 1982, Callaway Editions published Factory Valleys, a book of photos he shot in industrial sections of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. I love two elements of this book: First, Friedlander’s sympathetic photos of individuals doing physically demanding industrial jobs, the kind of work that used to be plentiful in places like Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, and Canton. Second, his vistas of steel mills, working-class neighborhoods, edges of towns, and the road and rail networks that industrial areas depended upon.

A Factory Valleys photo that’s reproduced in Real Estate suggests what Pittsburgh was like at the end of the 1970s. A bristly steel mill and a broad expressway dominate the upper right corner of the picture. If you focus there, you’ll probably think about intrusions on the landscape. In the lower left, however, is a scene of a very different sort: a frame house with a skift of snow on its roof, which sits down the slope from a twisted tree. The gnarled tree juts robustly through the picture’s center. The time appears to be early spring, judging by the blossoms on a scrappy cluster of saplings in the foreground. 

In what was once the “Smoky City,” nature perseveres, sending up new growth before the last of winter’s snow has melted away. This small section of Pittsburgh is, by the visible evidence, an unassuming district, yet the house and its grounds offer a refuge from the traffic and the industry across the way. Indeed, the vegetative growth appears profuse and unstoppable, forming what will, by summer, transform the immediate area into a mass of greenery. 

Like Friedlander’s photo of the row houses in South Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh picture offers a mix of meanings; the viewer decides what to take away from it. My sense is that Friedlander, either purposely or subconsciously, has underlined nature’s ability to rebound and restore battered human spirits. This is no small achievement.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1979


My favorite Friedlander pictures are from the 1960s, probably because they document what is now a lost world. In 1961, Friedlander photographed a neighborhood business district in Pittsburgh. Was it pretty? Not really. The street scene was punctuated by clunky objects: a fire escape hanging down the side of a building, an emergency box for calling the fire department, a hooded lamp hanging awkwardly above the pavement. 

Aesthetically, the old business district left a lot to be desired. As “social landscape,” though, it had a lot going for it. There was movement and purpose and human scale. A man in a long coat strides past an awninged storefront, as natural as can be, while a pickup truck turns the corner. Up and up, the business corridor extends, its route lined by a billboard, a five and dime store, a pool hall, a restaurant offering “home style cooked meals,” and other facets of a not overly expensive neighborhood center. It brings to mind Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s declaration that “Main Street is almost all right.” The photo is crisp and filled with solid detail. It shows a business district capably handling the needs of a society that possessed much less disposable income than we have today. I’m glad Lee Friedlander happened by, and that he had the awareness and the skill to create such an affecting picture.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1961

All photographs © Lee Friedlander/Fraenkel Gallery, courtesy of Eakins Press Foundation. Featured photo: Waddy, Kentucky, 1969.