Lee Friedlander’s house portraits
Lee Friedlander coined a term for the subject of his work: the “social landscape.”
The great American documentary photographer, now 89, gives each row house and strip mall and mass-produced car a living and breathing personality. He frames places so as to imbue them with strangeness, movement, intrigue. He often makes what would normally be the background of a photograph the subject of a photograph. He does not treat American cityscapes as another photographer might treat a static mountain or an ancient river. He treats them like main characters—confused, chaotic, tragicomic, all-American characters.
More than 150 such images, captured from 1961 to 2022, are collected in the epic new retrospective Real Estate, published this month by the Eakins Press Foundation. The book ends with a play on a rider-on-the-trail image: a whole house being towed on a western highway, off to its next adventure. It begins with a play on a classic American beauty-queen photograph: A girl in a crown, sash, and white stole beams and waves at the camera. But she’s out of focus. Friedlander has us looking at the asphalt-shingle one-story home behind her.
Many of the images in this book contain such layering and texturing, characteristic of Friedlander’s photography: a child or an errant bit of debris in the foreground, a procession or an animal or a poster in the middle ground, a building under construction or a skyline or a grove of trees in the background, framed by a highway, riven by a telephone pole, hugged by a statue, seen most clearly in a mirror or through a window. Some of the images are stark: Places that are home to millions of people seem empty. Many are awkward. I am not sure how he manages to make a home look as if it’s posing awkwardly, but he does it again and again. This has the effect of making the houses look alive.
While soaking in the book’s images, I kept noting how often the only clue to when Friedlander might have taken the photo was the cut of a person’s pants or the style of their hat. (The boxy, low cars were a dead giveaway too.) Looking at the buildings, I was never quite sure. They have a timeless quality. That’s a credit to Friedlander, who makes every image feel jarring, fresh. But it was also a reminder of how many of those buildings are still among us today. This decades- and continent-spanning documentary of change reveals an American stasis. Our current housing crisis is due to our unwillingness to build, grow, and allow new life to come into our cities. Friedlander made the built environment look dynamic and alive; we cast it in amber. If only we saw those neighborhoods like he did.