I used to think I hated Lee Friedlander's photography, but the more time I spend with his pictures, the more I think they're beautiful. Maybe it's the fact that his wife Maria is so obviously his favorite subject. Or that I think he forces himself to take self-portraits, despite hating his own reflection. There is no vanity in them. There is no imago, no hubris: the trajectory of the imagined self is decidedly downward, into the grit of city gutters, the chipped and peeling paint of airless motel rooms, the uneven tread of nameless roadside stopovers belonging to no one.
He navigates his imperfect world like Kerouac, all earnest exuberancec, but with the desperate melancholy of a man unconvinced of his own existence. Like Sylvia Plath’s doomed literary surrogate, he seems to chant as he wanders: I am, I am, I am. The images become the record of a search which has no resolution.
Friedlander gets thrown together with Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand a lot, probably because they were featured together in the 1967 "New Documents" exhibition. I don't think they're anything alike though.
Friedlander's work is governed by his feelings of being an intruder in his own world. In his self-portraits, he's slipping away- it's unclear whether the Lee on the page or the Lee behind the camera lens is the more authentic self. Roland Barthes called it a "micro-version of death."
I think it's hard to connect to Friedlander's pictures--especially his self-portraits--because we cannot fully inhabit them. A splintered reflection, a murky shadow; it cannot serve as proxy. We were not there, we did not capture, and we were not captured.
He's checking with every snapshot: "Am I real? Was I there? Do I exist?" It's a question that's never answered.