Text by Lipi Paladugu, Copyright 2021
Lee Norman Friedlander was born on July 14th, 1934 in Aberdeen, WA. He gained his education at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and then moved to New York where he focused on taking pictures of the American social landscape. Friedlander is primarily a street photographer, and his images are recognized for being candid portraits of urban settings. Many of his photographs capture overlapping light and reflections in windows. Friedlander claims that his photographs aren’t premediated. Rather, he works to spontaneously capture whatever is ahead of him. His images draw out a tension between people and things in a street by making them all feel equal in the image. Friedlander’s images have been curated and published multiple times. Notably, he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Documents exhibition which was curated by John Szarkowski in 1967. His most famous published work includes The American Monument (1976), America by Car (2010) and Self Portrait (2000), which was a series of self-portraits he started in the 1960’s. The image we are looking at was also published in 1978 in Lee Friedlander, Photographs.
The image, titled New York City was created in 1965. It is a black and white gelatin silver print. It measures 17cm by 25cm. While it isn’t a super small print, the dark shadow on the right, and the dark wall at the top half of the print, in some ways makes the image feel smaller. There is a lot going on in these darker areas, but we are still drawn toward the ground, which takes less that 50% of the entire composition. The size effectively accomplishes the goal of placing things within the right proportions.
Gelatin silver prints were extremely popular during this time, especially for artistic projects such as this because of the high level of detail that it revealed. It consists of a layer of paper, a layer of baryta, and a layer of gelatin. The gelatin layer contains the light-sensitive silver compounds. After it is exposed to the negative and developed in a chemical bath, the image is relatively permanent and has a smooth surface. Silver gelatin prints were created and popularized as an alternative to platinum prints. The silver prints were first introduced in the late 1800s and experimented with by Alfred Stieglitz. However, it wasn’t until World War I and later, when platinum papers became harder to obtain, that silver prints became more popular.
The detail in this image is extremely interesting to the viewer- from the stains on the ground and the speckled walls to the clean lines of the stars on the flag in the store window, there is a lot to see, but it isn’t overwhelming either. The use of black and white is also very impactful here. The shadow on the right becomes even more mysterious because it conceals something within it while still staying in frame. Also, the iconography of the flag is emphasized. Even without color, the flag is easily recognizable, and muting the bright red, blue of the flag into grayscale equalizes the power balance of all the subjects in the frame.
Of the five categories that John Szarkowski discusses in his book The Photographers Eye, the frame(s) in this image are most significant in the image’s composition as it tells us what Friedlander wanted us to see in this scene. Frame asks the photographer what they should include and what they should reject. Szarkowski also says that the frame “isolates unexpected juxtapositions… The edge of the photograph dissects familiar forms and shows their unfamiliar fragment” (70). The most striking part of the frame is that the right side of the frame is almost entirely covered by a shadow. Out of the shadow, a single foot sticks out. While the foot is extremely well lit, the rest of the body is hidden in the shadow (an unfamiliar fragment) which draws intrigue to the foot. Within the image, the shadow on the right, the wall in the top half, and the left and bottom edges of the photo frame the well-lit sidewalk. The sidewalk becomes the focus of the image despite being the least “eventful” place in the image. The foot is the only object visible on the sidewalk in this framed area, which further highlights its presence. The framing allows us to deduce that the image is about the foot walking on the sidewalk- not about the store in the back or the owner of the feet. When paired with the title of the image “New York City” and Friedlander’s background, it becomes even more apparent that we are looking at the candid movements of people through the street. Another key framing in this image is the American flag in the store window. Despite not being able to see all sides of the window, there is a framing with the border of the image. As New York City is one of the representative cities on America, this position of the flag alongside the street is very poignant. The flag is above the street, but also not framed within the center of the image. This positioning makes us know we’re in American streets, but also that this is about the people more than it is about the place. In addition, in most representations of the American flag or interactions with it, the flag is hoisted high above everyone else, and people stand still, facing the flag, in some form of patriotic performance. In this image, there is movement parallel to the flag, not toward it. The framing of the image feels purposeful in highlighting this.
On initial glance, I was drawn to this image because the way the objects in the image were placed was not something I had really seen before. The American flag stood out easily but soon after my eyes dropped to the large sidewalk. It wasn’t until after I’d noticed these things that I saw the foot on the right. It could have to do with the way people read in English- from left to right. To me, the image feels like it’s divided into three sections which is a result of the framing. First we have the sidewalk, then the storefront, and lastly the foot and shadow on the right. Friedlander loved to juxtapose people and things in this manner to comment on urban scenes, and I feel the equal importance of all different parts of the image. While I am naturally intrigued by who the foot belongs too, I also feel like it doesn’t actually matter- it’s just representative of any dweller in the city. In addition, the (mostly) empty sidewalk shows its wear and tear, and how constantly it is used by people in the city. This is a striking contrast to the flag in the storefront that is shielded from the outside air and doesn’t appear to be used- it’s just meant to be looked at.
In many ways, this image feels timeless to me. The icons in place are easily recognizable. Most images of the city are busy and overwhelming, but this image doesn’t feel like that to me. There is mystery and it calls for intrigue, and the viewer wants to see more.
“Lee Friedlander.” Artnet, www.artnet.com/artists/lee-friedlander/.
“Lee Friedlander.” Fraenkel Gallery, 29 Apr. 2021, fraenkelgallery.com/artists/lee-friedlander.
Szarkowski, John. The Photographer’s Eye. Museum of Modern Art, 2007.
Wagner, Sarah S. Gelatin Silver Prints, National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov/research/online-editions/alfred-stieglitz-key-set/practices-and-processes/gelatin-silver-prints.html.
About The Author: Lipi Paladugu is a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College, Class of 2021. Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science. To access additional articles by Lipi Paladugu, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/lipi-paladugu-light-reflected/