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photo from driver's seat in car
photo from driver's seat in car

Mississippi, 2008 by Lee Friedlander, from his America By Car series.

Photograph: Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In 2005, I spent an afternoon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York wandering though a vast retrospective of Lee Friedlander's work. It was a rewarding, if sometimes disorienting, experience, not just because of the number of images (around 500), but in the range of subject matter and the avid restlessness of his visual imagination.

Friedlander has photographed everyday America in all its quiet strangeness for 50-odd years now, turning his camera on streets, cars, passing strangers, buildings, gardens, trees, highways, shop windows, signs, parking lots, canyons and cows. He has made great formal portraits of jazz musicians and busy, brilliantly composed, street photographs. He has photographed Miles Davis at his most brooding and the young, yet-to-be-famous Madonna nude in her untidy New York apartment. He has even chased – and caught – his own shadow in a series of often eerily brilliant self portraits in which his silhouette looms over pavements or passers-by and is reflected back at us in a windowpane.

Now 77, and still working, Friedlander first came to public attention when the great American curator, John Swarkowski, included his work in the groundbreaking New Documents exhibition at MoMA New York in 1967, alongside equally iconoclastic photographs by Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. Friedlander called his photographs "social documents", but they were also challenging and often playful investigations of what photography could be; a slap in the face of the high seriousness of the American landscape tradition.

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