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December 2005

Picture Perfect

The Haus der Kunst’s latest photography exhibition from New York is not to be missed

"Lee Friedlander - 1956-2004," the celebrated retrospective fresh from the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), has arrived at the Haus der Kunst in Munich - its debut stop on a European tour. With its extensive collection of nearly 500 photographs, organized by MoMA photography curator Peter Galassi, the traveling exhibition charts nearly half a century of this inventive and influential American artist and is the most comprehensive survey of Friedlander's work to date.

Known for his witty style, Friedlander challenges his viewer to reconsider what a classic photograph "should" be. His subject has always been the exploration of "the social landscape of America" - a broad term interpreted by the artist in every way possible simply by the diversity of his subjects alone.

Born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington, Lee Friedlander became enamored with photography in his early teens. After a short stint at the Art Center in Los Angeles, he made his way to New York City in 1955, where he resides to this day. The first 15 years of his career can be described as "the commercial period," - time Friedlander spent freelancing for magazines. Half "discovered" by Atlantic Records, half led by his passion for music, most notably jazz, Friedlander then began taking pictures of musicians for album covers. Among his commercial works on display are color portraits of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. In these early years, Friedlander came to know fellow photographers Walker Evans and Robert Frank, both of whom greatly influenced his eventual decision to step away from the commercial world. Through their work they introduced Friedlander to a growing artistic tradition that proved that, instead of merely being used in publications, photography can be used to create fiercely independent works of art.

In the 1960s, Friedlander's own artistic work took shape. Like Evans and Frank, he, too, sought to depict "the American social landscape" - beginning with storefronts, automobiles, televisions, advertisements and the whole array of life on the city street. But what became special about Friedlander's work was his ability to be playful and to transform the average photographic error into something to laugh at or reconsider. For example, you’ll find subjects are out of frame, a lamppost will cut the picture in half or the photographer's own shadow lurks like an intruder on the scene.

In 1967, alongside photographers Gerry Winogrand and Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander was officially presented at MoMA, in an exhibition called "New Documents." The three were described as being "leaders of a new generation" that had "outgrown the earnest humanism of mainstream photography in the heyday of the magazines." At the time, curator John Szarkowski wrote: "Their aim has not been to reform life, but to know it."

Friedlander's pop-culture-inspired wit continued to be a predominant feature in his works until the 1970s, when he fine-tuned his sense of observation into a more graceful style. His once hard-nosed, "urban" approach softened further through the 1980s. During this period, he discovered a growing affection for tradition, reminiscent of the work of another strong influence, French photographer Eugene Atget. Series of photographs also became part of Friedlander's method, bringing quantity to his quality. The American Monument, his second book, is an ambitious collection of 1000 photographs that almost pokes fun at America's public monuments while, at the same time, portraying their earnestness.

The artist's photographs of people - whether they be affectionate portraits of family and friends or his shots of factory and office workers, which are intended to capture Americans being industrious—reveal Friedlander to be a keen observer of individuals. In the 1990s, Friedlander's insatiable appetite for subjects and variety took a turn once again to focus on everything from a series of nudes to further self-portraits and, eventually, to the American West, a series on public display in this exhibition for the first time. The latest chapter in this diverse exploration of contemporary America is perhaps best exampled in his latest book Sticks and Stones: Architectural America.

An exhibition carefully crafted to cover the widest range of subjects and nurture a passion for discovery, the MoMA presentation comprises six early color portraits, 477 black and white gelatin silver prints and 25 examples of Friedlander's books, special editions and portfolios. While the sheer quantity of Friedlander's work could be seen as overwhelming, the photographs have been grouped to allow the visitor to follow the ideas and importance of his work. Friedlander's vast, human-studded portfolio gives entirely new meaning to the phrase "body of work." It is an excellent exhibition that should not be missed by M¨¹nchner or visiting Christmas guests alike.

"Lee Friedlander - 1956-2004," November 16-February 12
Haus der Kunst, Prinzregentenstrasse 1
Tel. 21 12 71,
Open daily 10 am - 8 pm, and 10 am - 10 pm on Thurs.

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