10 Lessons Lee Friedlander Has Taught Me About Street Photography

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The Little Screens © Lee Friedlander

In my opinion, Lee Friedlander is one of the most under-appreciated (or simply unknown) street photographers when it comes to the internet/social-media sphere. Of course Friedlander is one of the pillars of photography and is known to every student who has gone to photography school. However when I started photography, I had no idea who he was or never even heard of him.

When I first looked at his photographs of the stark urban landscapes, I didn’t really “get” them. However over time, I have began to appreciate his vision and genius when it came to capturing what he first called in 1964, “The American social landscape.”

If you aren’t familiar with Friedlander or simply want to learn more about his work and philosophy – read on.

1. His love of jazz and photography

Jazz Musicians © Lee Friedlander
Jazz Musicians © Lee Friedlander

I have written about this quite a bit in the past, but I think the key to creativity and originality is linking two different fields that are dissimilar (but somewhat related).

Upon doing research for this article in the “Friedlander” book published by MoMA one of the things that struck me fascinating is his life-long interest in both photography and jazz. Friedlander actually says that after photography, jazz is his second largest passion in life.

So how did Friedlander get introduced to jazz? Well let’s start off how he got introduced to photography.

Friedlander first stumbled upon photography when he was around five years old. He went on an errand to pick up portraits of his father at the local photography studio, and randomly stubmled into the darkroom. He was wowed by the experience of seeing an image appear on a blank piece of paper in the darkroom, almost like an apparition.

In high school, he worked in a camera shop, and assisted a local portrait photographer, and picked up tips from Stan Spiegel (a local DJ and freelance photographer). At 16, Friedlander got an Omega D-2 enlarger and all the fixings so he could really focus on his own budding freelance career. He received many odd jobs forwarded by Spiegel that kickstarted his start into freelance photography.

Spiegel loved jazz, and so did Friedlander. I assume that the two would talk a ton about both photography and jazz, deepening Friedlander’s interest in both arts. In Friedlander’s free time, he would often spend a lot of time listening to jazz on the radio and even hung out at the local record shops.

Friedlander shares a story of how he bumped into the famous Louis Armstrong:

“Once, I was listening to the music to start again, daydreaming, and I looked up. Louis Armstrong was sitting right next to me, and I said, ‘Whoa.’ And he said, ‘How are you doing, kid?’”

He also shares his experiences constantly chasing the jazz scene:

Anytime we could smell music, we were there. I had a friend who knew about an afterhours club, where the musicians would go and jam after they’d played. The place didn’t have a liquor license; I guess that’s how we got in. once there was a black group with an albino bass player, called the Cecil Young Quartet. It was quite modern for those times, in fact, very modern.”

Friedlander also shares the deep emotional impact that jazz had on his life. He recalls a moment when he first listened to Charlie Parker and Nat King Cole on the piano in Seattle:

“I was dumbfounded. I somehow knew exactly where he was coming from. He made me understand that anything was possible.

As Friedlander matured over the years and started to shoot freelance photography full-time, he began to photograph jazz musicians–and shot many covers for Atlantic records.

So how did he photograph the jazz musicians? Well, he often visited them at home, to make them feel comfortable. He wanted to capture the behind-the-scenes view of these musicians as people, not just performers on a stage.

Miles Davis © Lee Friedlander
Miles Davis © Lee Friedlander

There is a fascinating story in which Friedlander did a portrait session with Miles Davis (quite possibly one of the most famous jazz musicians of all-time). Funny enough, this “master of cool” was quite nervous. When Friedlander asked why he was nervous, Davis told him it was that he was anxious of how he would turn out in the photograph.

Friedlander, thinking on his toes, brought over a mirror to Davis so he could look at himself. This eased Davis, and is a great example of how Friedlander was able to make his subjects feel comfortable.

Joel Dorn, a producer at Atlantic records, said this about Friedlander’s ability to capture the essence of his subjects: “Lee’s pictures show who these people were when they weren’t being who they were.”

Takeaway point:

I often find that the best and most innovative photographers have multiple interests, not just photography.

I find Friedlander’s interest in jazz fascinating. When you think of jazz, you think of improvisation, soul, and overflowing energy. It isn’t as structured as classical music, and during the time –rebelled against a lot of the fundamentals of music.

I think Friedlander took these aspects of jazz with him when it came to his own photography. Friedlander has been shooting constantly for around 63 years from 1950 to the present (Friedlander is currently 79 years old and still going). And through that 6 decades of work, he has worked on a plethora of projects: ranging from self-portraits, to television sets, to even flowers.

He is a man who doesn’t stick to convention, and has pursued lots of different types of photography. The same can be said about jazz, which borrows its inspirations from the roots of African and European music. Through the mix, it creates something new and fresh.

Don’t just be stuck in the photography ghetto when it comes to inspiration. Look outside of photography for inspiration– to music, art, movies, and more. Visit as many galleries and exhibitions as you can. Purchase anything that interests you creatively. Try to experiment drawing, painting. Play an instrument. Write a novel. Do anything to keep the creative juices flowing, and I can guarantee it will help you tremendously in finding your own photographic vision and voice.

2. Pursue a life-long journey of self-study

Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander
Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander

Many of us have never gone to photography school. I personally haven’t. I was fortunate enough to be born in the era of the internet in which I learned everything through the web. Now I am blessed enough to make enough money through my workshops, I can now purchase more photography books to continue my self-study in the world of photography.

I don’t think you need to go to photography school to learn photography. I do admit photography schools can be great (networking, learning the fundamentals, masters, and feedback from professors on projects), but most of us don’t have access to it (they are damn expensive).

Therefore if you don’t have the cash to go to photography school (or don’t want to take out massive loans), I think a better alternative is to pursue your own self-studies.

So how did Friedlander learn more about photography?

Well to start off, after graduating high school he went to Los Angeles for the Art Center School of Design to pursue his interest in photography. However he quickly got bored with the introduction to photography course, as he learned everything he needed through doing odd assignments while in high school.

What he started to do instead is to visit the advanced painting course by photographer and painter Edward Kaminski.

Understandably, the faculty of the school was upset that Friedlander wasn’t attending his photography courses. Friedlander then decided to drop out of school. Fortunately enough, Kaminski (seeing potential in the young Friedlander) invited him to rent a room above his studio and to live with his family. Through these years, Friedlander got a great source of mentorship and advice from Kaminski on photography, painting, and other forms of art that Friedlander probably found more interesting.

As Friedlander got older, he continued his passion for self-knowledge and education. In the book Friedlander, Peter Galassi chronicles how Friedlander would visit libraries and analyze as many photography books as he could in his free time:

“By the time Szarkowski arrived at MoMA, Friedlander was already well advanced on his own improvised but steady program of self-education. Tracking down the Evans and Atget books was the least of it. Whenever an assignment took him south, for example, he would try to work in a detour to Washington so as to spend a day exploring the massive photographic holdings of the Library of Congress, home to the archive of the farm security administration (FSA), to the great Civil War photographs, and to much else.

Visitors then were free to browse in the stacks, and Friedlander enjoyed the fact that the FSA pictures were classified by subject and geography, so that he never knew what surprise may await him: ‘I’d be going through south Carolina or some other state, ad come across two hundred pictures by Ben Shahn. Wonderful work. Part of what made the americans surprising was Frank’s use of a wide angle lens—35mm—lens. But Shahn had used a 35mm, too, so I was prepared.’”

Takeaway point:

Many of us don’t have the money, time, or resources to pursue a formal education when it comes to photography. However, the beauty of the internet is that almost everything is now at your fingertips.

If you want to learn more about photography, the websites I recommend most are the following:

  • American Suburb X (they have the best online collection of photographic essays and galleries available)
  • Magnum Photos (you can see high-resolution images from all of the photographers, and even images from their books)
  • YouTube (there are tons of great photography documentaries available – just search any photographer’s name and “documentary” or “interview” at the end)

Not only that, but with advances with the iPad and other forms of digital media, you can even access photography books (for very cheap). You also don’t have to mess with shipping charges (which can be expensive for photography books if you live outside of the US):

Some of my personal favorites at the moment (available on iTunes for your iPad or iPhone). Also if you have any other recommendations, please leave a comment at the end of the article.

Education books on photography (electronic)

  • The Education of a Photographer: (only ~7 USD in the Amazon bookstore. It has a superb collection of practical essays on all aspects of photography the philosophical, how to work professionally, and the education part of it).
  • David Hurn: On being a photographer (one of the best practical guides I have read on photography- from Magnum photographer David Hurn). One of my favorite reads. Only ~6 USD for e-book format, and 13 dollars if you want a print version.

Photography books (electronic)

I also highly value paper-based photography books for education. They tend to be much more expensive, but hey– we spend hundreds of dollars on new cameras and lenses. Why not use the money better to actually improve our understanding and knowledge of photography? Some of my personal favorites:

  • Magnum Contact Sheets:
    • If you have ~100 USD to spare and are serious about taking your photography education to the next level, you would be stupid not to buy this book. Hell, I’d even go into debt with my credit card and buy it. It shows the contact sheets of some of the most famous images taken in history by Magnum photographers. Buy it.
  • Magnum Stories:
    • The book is a superb collection of you guessed it, stories behind some of the Magnum photographers most memorable images told by the photographers themselves. It also is a nice introduction to the work of many Magnum photographers. A solid deal at ~55 USD.
  • Bystander: A History of Street Photography:
    • The book is an excellent resource to learn more about the history of street photography. Very in-depth, a little dense at times, but a must-have in your photographic library. You can pick up a used copy on Amazon for ~55 USD. Buy it before all the cheap used copies sell out:

If you want more photo book recommendations, you can see my post here: 75+ Inspirational Street Photography Books You Gota Own.

3. Insert yourself into your own photos

Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander
Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander

One of the first “rules” I learned when starting photography is that you should never have your own reflection or shadow in a photograph.

However one of the things I learned from Friedlander is how he actually used this to his advantage: he added his own self-portraits in many of his photographs. In-fact, he has enough of them that he even published his own book on it: Lee Friedlander: Self Portraits.

In Friedlander, this is what Galassi had to say about Friedlander and his self-portraits:

“Friedlander, though, in a manner that was fast becoming a hallmark of his work, went after the idea like a dog for a bone, encouraging his surrogate self to behave like a charater with a mindlessness of his own. His shadow became the protagonist of mini dramas of the street; or sometimes it was just the dopey bystander, or the nosy jerk who cant resist poking his head into things.

Friedlander’s reflection, too, offered a wealth of opportunities for comic self-deprecation. Many of these picture are like in-jokes at aphotographer’s convention, send-ups of the trials and tribulations of the trade.”

Takeaway point:

Experiment with your photography, and insert yourself into your own photographs. I think the self-portrait is one of the most under-appreciated forms of photography. Not only is it difficult to do it effectively, but it says a lot about you as a photographer. I also find it personally fascinating to see photographers in their own images– it feels more personal, more real.

Take a look at his Friedlander’s self-portrait series to get some inspiration. You can truly see how he adds his own dry, witty sense of humor and self-deprecation to his images. If a photographer is able to show his/her own “true” personality through their photos- it is a huge accomplishment. I think Friedlander did it masterfully.

See more of his self-portraits here.

4. Incorporate more content into your photos

Letters From the People © Lee Friedlander
Letters From the People © Lee Friedlander

One of the things I loved most about Friedlander’s work is how he was able to incorporate lots of content into his photographs without them becoming overly busy. Friedlander was very conscious of how he framed his scenes, and wanted to add more complexity to his shots through adding content of interest.

So how did Friedlander add more content to his shots? Well to start off, whenever possible- he would add foreground elements to his photographs. In an interview, he discusses how he welcomed foreground “obstructions” whereas other photographers would avoid it:

“Somebody else could walk two feet away to get those poles and tress and other stuff out of the way, I almost walk two feet to get into it, because it is a part of the game that I play. It isn’t even conscious; I probably just drift into it… its like a found pleasure. You’ve found something that you like and you play with it for the rest of your life.”

Not only that, but Friedlander has always been a huge fan of wide-angle lenses. Much of Friedlander’s personal work was done with a 35mm lens on his Leica, and some of his later work with an ultra-wide Hasselblad. He explains the importance of the wide-angle lens to add more content into his images:

“The wider the angle is, the more its possible to respond instinctively, because the more everything in the picture reads as if it were in focus, even if it might not be. In that picture we were discussing yesterday, not everything is really sharp; you cant really see what that little tree is. But in terms of the picture’s literature, it says everything it needs to say, and its perfectly fine…

I think that is part of the trick of a wide-angle lens—that it allows you to have more stuff, maybe in the foreground or in the background, whichever way you want to think about it. Even if something is a little but out of focus, it has a tendency to feel as if it was married to the other stuff.”

One reason he also enjoyed shooting with a Hasselblad later in his career is the fact that he was able to utilize the square-format to add more content into his images:

“It seemed to be the same rectangle with more sky on top…I always wanted more sky out of a horizontal picture. All of a sudden, the whole tree is in the picture.”

Takeaway point:

One of the reasons why I think Friedlander’s photos are so interesting is that there is a lot of interesting things to see in his photos.

To add more content to your own photos, it can be quite simple.

To start off, when possible take a step back. Preferably you might want to use a wide-angle lens (about 35mm or wider), but you can probably do with a 50mm or something a bit longer. Just take a step back.

What else you can do is reorient the position of your camera. Certain scenes tend to look better in a horizontal or vertical format. This is because you can add more content (depending on what you find more interesting). For example, if you are shooting portraits of people you might want to use a vertical format to get a full-body shot of them (to see the interesting content of what they are wearing, how they are standing, and the background). However if you are photographing more of an urban landscape, a horizontal format may work better– so you can get more of the road, and the streets.

So if you want your photos to be more visually complex and interesting, add more content to your photographs.

5. Keep re-reading books

1960s © Lee Friedlander
1960s © Lee Friedlander

A certain philosophy I believe in (in certain cases) is the idea of “depth over breadth.”

For example, at times it can be better to be really good in one field rather than being average in lots of different fields. In business, they always talk about finding a niche. When it comes to music, the most successful players are masters of one instrument. The same can be applied to photography, the best photographers tend to focus on one field (you didn’t see Henri Cartier-Bresson pursuing macro photography and taking photos of stars).

Last year I purchased over 50 photography books, and one of the biggest problems I had is that I chose breadth over depth. The problem of this is that I would only spend a few minutes looking through a photography book, without really spending enough time to understand the beauty and nuances of the photographs or the essays included inside.

When I visited Kaushal Parikh, one of the most talented street photographers I know in India, he told me how he probably read each of his photography books at least fifty times. I was quite ashamed to say that for the majority of my photography books, I only read them at a maximum of five times.

Friedlander also believes in this idea of “depth over breadth” when it comes to looking at photography books in an interview he did in 1992:

“I like making books… I realise that the nature of photography is such that I can’t see everything on first look, because photography has this ability to deal so well with information. There’s so much information in a picture that often I don’t see until the fifth reading or 30 years later.

I can pick up Walker’s book American Photographs today and see something I never saw before – and I’ve owned that book for over 30 years. So I think that books are a great medium for photography. They seem to be the best. I can go back and re-read things – ‘Oh shit, I didn’t see that before’.”

Takeaway point:

It is great to invest your money into photography books, but once again don’t do what I did and just go on a shopping spree to only read a certain book once or twice.

Rather, I would recommend buying fewer photography books, and getting to really know them well.

Like Friedlander said, when you re-visit books– you will often see small little details you might have overlooked the first time.

Not only that, but I have discovered one of the best ways to “read” a photography book is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why did the photographer choose to include this photograph in the book? (especially if I don’t find the photograph personally interesting).
  • Why did the photographer choose this image as the first image in the book? (same applies for the last photo in a book).
  • Why did the photographer decide to include two of these photographs side-by-side in a book, whereas the other photographs are just on one page?
  • Why did the photographer sequence the book the way he did?

By being much more of an active reader of photography books, you will better understand the photographer’s intent– and gain a better appreciation of a photographer’s work.

6. Categorize your work

Letters From the People © Lee Friedlander
Letters From the People © Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander has worked on a diverse array of projects throughout his photographic lifetime. But a problem arises: how did he manage to categorize all of these projects, and work on multiple projects at once?

Through this interview with Maria in an edition from the “Smithsonian Series Photographers at Work” we gain a better understanding.

Maria: “Do you work on a series of pictures about a particular subject until you exhaust it, or do you simply photograph and allow each body of work to emerge?”

Friedlander: “I just work and I throw the pictures in a box that says “X” or whatever, and eventually if the box gets full it merits looking at. I often work on two or three or four of those things at once. People tell me that they all look like they’ve been well thought out, and that’s because I’ve worked on them for so long.

To sum up, Friedlander categorizes his photographs, and decides if a project is worth pursuing if he starts collecting a lot of that subject matter. Not only that, but the importance of working on a project for a long time.

The interview continues, and Maria asks Friedlander why he works that way. Friedlander responds:

In a way it gets rid of infatuation– because I don’t think of it as anything except that I’m doing this little bit all the time. And I don’t even know what it’s going to be like until several years later, when I start to look at them. The nudes, for instance, took twelve years or so, and I didn’t really look at them closely during that time. They just went into boxes.”

Takeaway point:

It is difficult to work on multiple projects at once, and to keep everything organized.

I am working on many projects at the moment myself (Suits, stuff on the ground, colorful random stuff, airports, kids with guns, etc) and it can be quite difficult to keep on top of everything.

Some advice:

  • When you discover a project that might be interesting (or if you see common themes appearing in your work), make a folder in your pictures folder with the title of the project. It can be something simple like “animals”, “the color red”, or “bus stops.”
  • I recommend using simple folders on your Mac or PC, because Lightroom catalogs and tagging can get overly complicated.
  • Store full resolution images in each of these folders.
  • Over time, continue to add photos of interest in each folder.
  • Soon you will see certain folders become full. Other folders won’t increase in size. You are probably best off pursuing the projects that you start discovering a lot of.
  • Start to consciously focus on those projects and contribute to that folder.

I shoot with film, and I am sad to admit: my negatives are a mess. They are just all in a box sitting at home.

But to give me a peace of mind, I just made sure that I have high-quality scans of all of my photographs. Therefore I use the above technique even for my film shots, as it is easier to store digital files than film negatives.

7. Realize what you have no control over (and what you have control over)

1960s © Lee Friedlander
1960s © Lee Friedlander

As photographers, one thing we strive to have is more control. More control of the background, more control of our subject’s gestures, more control over our cameras.

However at the end of the day (especially in street photography) we have little to no control over how our photos turn out. We can’t change the light of the sun, you can’t change how people are going to react to you in the streets, and you can’t control random happenings.

The only two things you can really control (as said by David Hurn in “On being a photographer“) is where you stand, and when to click the shutter.

Friedlander expands on the idea that we have little to no control in the outcome of our photographs, and uses some interesting sports analogies:

“If you take somebody like Michael Jordan, and if you said to him, ‘Michael, at a certain point when you are running down the field and the ball comes to you, what are you going to do?” he would loo at you as if you were crazy. Because there are a thousand things he could do: he could move almost anywhere or he could pass off or he could shoot or he could dribble. He wouldn’t even have a clue because he would have to see what was happening.

And I think that’s very similar to photography, which I don’t think is similar to painting or writing in most cases. That tiny little moment is a beginning and an end and it has something to do with the same kind of mentality that an athlete has to use.

I was watching tennis, for example. The tricks that good tennis players use, especially what happens when the ball bounces and does odd things. You couldn’t predict what you’re going to do. Hes going to serve to you; what are you going to do? Try to hit it back. Not only try to hit it back, try to hit it back in a weird way. Or in some articulate way.

And I think photography is stuck with those same kinds of moments, especially if you’re not a studio photographer. You don’t have much control.”

So how do we gain some more control when it comes to street photography–if possible? Well, one of the most important things is to always keep your eyes open, and be ready. After all, some of the most unpredictable things happen on the streets that is even beyond our wildest dreams:

“Sometimes working with a camera, somebody does something that’s just beyond belief. Garry Winogrand takes pictures of things that in your wildest dreams you wouldn’t think could exist in the world. Theres a picture of a cow’s tongue in a cowboy’s hat that becomes a beautiful thing; it looks like a piece of architecture. In your wildest dreams you couldn’t come up with that and that’s just because he was aware that it might be possible. He was there when it happened and his head worked that way. Or look at that couple on fifth avenue with the monkey that looks like a family. Nutty pictures, but the most imaginative person in the world would not come up with that set of things.”

Friedlander also expands on the importance of controlling where we stand to get a better photograph of a scene:

“The question of where to stand is interesting. What we’re really talking about is a vantage point. If you look at amateurs or people taking pictures, they do funny things. Most people obviously don’t know where to stand. They’re standing too close, they’re contorted.

You don’t have to be a fancy photographer to learn where to stand. Basically you’re stuck with the frame and just like the person taking a picture of his family, who needs to go half a foot back – well, he doesn’t step half a foot back—but on the other hand, he knows where to be if he hits it right.

Now when you watch tennis you not only have the commentators, you also have the best of the old pros. You know how they repeatedly say, “Look at the way his back was formed when he took that shot.” It really is important to them. They see that as a possibility of where the thing went. Probably the same thing is true of all of us.

Takeaway point:

Know that in street photography we have little to no control of how a photograph turns out.

However there are a few things we can control: where to stand and when to click the shutter.

So be very conscious of where you stand when photographing a scene. Sometimes you want to take a step back, sometimes you want to take a step forward. Sometimes you want to crouch, other times you might want to find a higher vantage point of a scene.

Also being prepared when to click the shutter is absolutely crucial. What I recommend is to always have your camera with you– and even more importantly, in your hand and turned on when shooting in the streets.

8. Shoot with others to discover a new perspective

1970s © Lee Friedlander
1970s © Lee Friedlander

I love to shoot with my friends when out on the streets. However at the same time, I know a lot of people who hate it.

People who hate shooting with others are sometimes concerned that others may “steal their shot.”

However in my experience, regardless of the situation or a subject on the streets– every photographer tends to see a certain scene a bit differently (and photograph it a bit differently).

For example when out shooting with my friends, we might all take a photograph of the same guy but all of our photos are often vastly different. One of us might have focused on the man’s hat, the other might have focused on his hands, and the other might have focused more on integrating the background.

Even Friedlander enjoys shooting with others, for both fun and finding a new perspective:

“I don’t think anyone is capable of doing the definitive Central Park. In some ways we all – Bob and Geoffery and myself—probably felt a relief, thinking, if I didn’t get it somebody else did. Going out with those guys was fun because the ironies were jut so hilarious. I could go out with them and you could almost have tied us so we were back to back, and one of us could be totally interested in one area and the other one of the complete opposite. It was really funny that could happen.

I don’t think any of us who went out there together were ever interested in the same thing. Very rare. Maybe a monument or some major object: I know there was a monument [the Maryland Monument] in Prospect think we all photographed. That explains why I don’t need to read about Olmsted too.

Takeaway point:

I do believe in many merits of shooting alone (being able to focus, not get distracted, and to just wander without being restrained by others).

However, I still do believe in the importance of shooting with others at times– to get a fresh new perspective. I am always shocked to see what my friends see which I don’t see. This helps me to better expand my own vision and develop as a photographer.

9. On being familiar with your equipment

Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander
Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander

Not only is Lee Friedlander a very talented photographer, but he is also very knowledgeable about cameras and his equipment.

From the 1950’s-1970’s in NYC, he worked as a professional freelance photographer and he shot everything in hundreds of different jobs. He photographed rodeos, celebrities, parties, academics, and even children. He enjoyed the work, as it often gave him the chance to try unfamiliar types of equipment and even the most boring assignments tested his skills. When asked about it, he said: “At least you were using your chops.”

This allowed him to become very technically competent with many types of equipment, but at the end of the day devoted the majority of his projects to his 35mm Leica. Galassi describes:

“In Aberdeen and Los Angeles Friedlander had mastered the full range of standard professional gear: Large format (4×5), medium format (2×1/4 square TLR Mamiyaflex), and small format (a 35mm SLR Pentax). In New York he continued to use a medium format camera for his album-cover portraits but otherwise settled exclusively on a 35mm Leica. At first in Europe, then in the United States, the handheld 35mm camera had become the common platform of professional and personal work. “

Due to the fact that he was technically proficient with all the cameras he used, it allowed him to worry less about technical settings and more on the art of photography.

Not only that, but the majority of his career’s work was done on one camera: his 35mm Leica. Friedlander explains the importance of being familiar with just one piece of equipment, and the importance of using it for a very long time:

“Theyr’e humorous to watch, people who photograph, especially people who aren’t in tune with their equipment, because they don’t know when they pick it up what it will do. If you work with the same equipment for a very long time, you will get more in tune to what is possible. But within that there are still surprises. But using a camera day after day after day, within a framework, ill do the same thing. I’ll back up and ill go forward with my body.”

Takeaway point:

I think it is important to be technically proficient in photography. But at the same time, I think at the end of the day it isn’t about how technically proficient you are– but how well you know your own camera. You don’t need to master 100 different cameras, as long as you master one camera you will be fine.

I know many photographers (myself included) who have a problem sticking with one camera for a very long time. We always see a new model of a camera come out, and have the false impression that it will help us become more creative. This is rarely the case.

When I was constantly trying out different cameras, formats, and focal lengths my photography never got any better. I was focused more on the equipment, and less on developing my own personal vision.

Therefore I still recommend the idea of “one camera and one lens.” The camera I use for the majority of my work is my film Leica MP and the only lens I own on it is a 35mm. Therefore I know the camera inside and out, in terms of how much I need to rotate my left finger to focus, how much to turn my right finger to change the shutter speeds, and the framing of my 35mm lens.

So if you are the type of person to always switch up the camera or lens you use: try the “one camera and one lens” challenge written by Christian Nilson.  You can also read another article I wrote on the subject here on the benefits of shooting one camera and one lens.

10. Realize you don’t always have to photograph people

The Little Screens © Lee Friedlander
The Little Screens © Lee Friedlander

Friedlander was interested in capturing “The American social landscape.” This included photographs that included people and also photographs that didn’t include people.

I think one of the biggest cruxes in my street photography career so far is the idea that all of my shots had to include people.

If you look at some of Friedlander’s best work, many of them don’t include people. Rather, he focuses on signage, interesting sculptures, numbers, words, letters, cars, and other intimate objects.

I think this is actually what makes Friedlander’s work stand out from all of the street photographers from history; the fact that his photos that don’t include people still have so much humanity– and tell a lot about American society.

Takeaway point:

Realize that street photography doesn’t have to include people. I still think the most interesting street photographs tend to have people in it (because we can connect more emotionally with a photograph that has a person in it). However this is not always the case.

I suggest studying more of Friedlander’s work (you can see a great portfolio of his work here) to take a look at his urban landscapes of America, and get a good sense of what an effective image is without a person.

1970s © Lee Friedlander
1970s © Lee Friedlander

For example, a lot of us complain about living in a place that doesn’t have a lot of people walking around (suburbs, rural places, etc). But look at this photograph that Friedlander took in a boring neighborhood of three clouds sitting on top of a yield sign that looks like an ice cream cone.

1970s © Lee Friedlander
1970s © Lee Friedlander

Or take a look at this photograph he took of a barren landscape with a sign that says “Entrance.” But what is it an entrance to? It looks like a whole lot of nothing at the other side which raises interesting questions to the viewer.

The New Cars © Lee Friedlander
The New Cars © Lee Friedlander

One of my favorites of Friedlander: look at this photograph he took for his “Cars” project in which he is just looking out of an office building. Analyze the frame: how the car sits perfectly in the top right, the folder on the left, phone in the center bottom, and the even larger stack of papers on the bottom right. Not only that, but it all appears to be on the same plane in terms of perspective.

America by Car © Lee Friedlander

Or take a look at this photograph Friedlander shot for his “America by car” series of a car suspended above the ground (while the framing is inside his car). Brilliant.

Experiment taking street photos without people in them, and see if you can inject a sense of humor, humanity, or surrealism to it– which will be interesting to the viewer (and yourself).


Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander
Self Portrait © Lee Friedlander

Friedlander is a photographer’s photographer. He has photographed nearly everyday for over 60 years, and continues to innovate and work on other interesting projects. He has mastered all camera formats, yet he still knows the value of staying true to one camera and really understanding its ell. Not only that, but is a photographer who has a vast array of interests and has gotten inspiration from jazz, painting, and even sports.

He is also a photographer who knows how to have fun, enjoys his photography whole-heartedly, and even enjoys shooting with others. He values the importance of self-study, and never stops learning. I think it isn’t just photography we can learn from Friedlander, but his philosophy of life.

Books by Friedlander

Below are some books I recommend to purchase on Friedlander:

Friedlander: Musuem of Modern Art


This is a behemoth of a book, at close to 500 pages– and very affordable (I can’t believe it only costs ~37 USD). It includes a diverse array of his photography projects over the years, and has an in-depth essay about his life and work which I incorporated into this post. The only one Friedlander book you should need.

Lee Friedlander: The New Cars 1964


I love classic cars, and this book is a superb collection of cars that Friedlander shot in Detroit and other places in the states. It is very “American” in that sense, and the print quality is absolutely outstanding. The book is a bit small and costs ~36 dollars, but I highly recommend the book especially if you want to see great examples of composition, framing, and badass cars.

Lee Friedlander: Self Portrait


One of Friedlander’s most creative books on his self-portraits. Fun, wacky, and well-thought out. Includes a nice intro by John Szarkowski and costs only ~24 USD.

Of course Friedlander has a ton of other books available, but the above are my personal favorites.

To see more photos by Lee Friedlander, check out his portfolio page on the Fraenkel Gallery

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