Letters from the People: Lee Friedlander

Edited by Mark Holborn (1993), Letters from the People: Lee Friedlander. Johnathon Cape Ltd

04th January 2020

This book is an oversized square hardback and consists of tritone images of the alphabet, numerals, words and sentences. The photographs are from the streets, walls and the windows of America, some have been commercially printed and others are hand inscribed graffiti.

I was quite interested to see how the images within this book are described as tritone which means they are printed from three inks. One simple definition that I found is: Photomechanical printing process using three inks to increase tonal range. * Used in high-quality print reproduction of photographs for books, posters etc. often with third colour being a metallic ink.

The images that Friedlander has taken, reflect the sights of everyday urban society, images that could have been taken anywhere in the world, however the odd dollar and cent symbols within some the photographs, for example, give the location away.

The book begins with a two paragraph introduction on the protective outer covering about the book itself, and then contains a dedication – FOR GIANCARLO with three quotes beneath and then the images begin. It hasn’t the usual introduction about the artist and his works or an essay by a critic, it simply is a record of the photographs taken over a period of ten years which show found language.

The three quotes from the book are below:

I can’t sleep, so I count the windows; it is not such a bad occupation at times. I take an exquisite pleasure in satiating my vision with squares and rectangles, with pure lines. Of course, you cannot understand such things.

Knut Hamsun, Shallow Soil

Oh the dreams with which the bottom of the sea is littered not always sodden like the old letters they will stand up in coral columns in whole cupolas and archways and long sculptural perspectives to confront entice you in where the daylight is solid and the expression in his eyes at that time perhaps the first clue I ever had to what is transcendent.

Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm

Auntie made me believe we live in a discoverable world, but that most of what we discover is an unfathomable mystery that we can name – even defend against – but never understood.

Harry Crews, A Childhood

Each page is not numbered but the individual photographs are. I have presented the images above in number format in order that they are within the book. At the back of the book there is an index in which we can find the allocated numbers and then find where the image had been taken.

The images may have one page dedicated to them, appear in twos or more and many are in irregular grid format.

I was relieved to find out that the images show a cross reference of places in which Friedlander had shot them. Within my street photography work I also have many different images from around the UK which makes the body of work universal, as it shows the similarities in society. If I was to photograph just in Lowestoft I would be mostly disappointed as the images would be basically commercial texts because graffiti is not that widely produced here, good for the town but not for me who loves the urban scrawl (sorry). However, Norwich which is a city has graffiti on metal posts and sticker art in plenty of places so I can search around that area more.

It was interesting to discover that at the time of the publishing of this book, Friedlander had an exhibition of his 200 photographs at MoMA – Museum of Modern Art, New York, Inited States of America. This exhibition was held in June 16–September 11, 1994, a year after the book was first published.

This link will take you to MoMA.org and a page about the works and exhibition, Letters from the People, Lee Friedlander.

Installation view of Lee Friedlander: Letters from the People at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo Mali Olatunji

I particularly like how the works are presented in a book format, all together as a collection. My own work which also takes on this theme, is just sitting on the hard drive of numerous dying laptops, CDs that I burned yesteryear or floating around in the atmosphere somewhere in hidden clouds.

This book has stimulated me in to gathering old works and making new and actually bringing the work together in an exhibition and having them displayed in book format. Whether I make the book by hand or have it printed off as I have with other works is to ponder in the future.

For me this work has recorded text in different formats which has been presented in different ways, it has documented a time and place which is now an historical record of mans creation and development of letters and words.

I also like the way that the collection of images do not always just show the text but they show its context and environment. In one of the images above we have Friedlander’s shadow which shows him with camera taking the shot. A brilliant series of images and I am off now to make notes for my next excursion out.

I am so happy that my daughter bought me this book, so a big shout out for Rose – Thank you, it is very much appreciated! I absolutely love it, yes I know I say that quite a lot when it comes to my books, but if a book is open more than once a month just for pure joy then I know it has influenced and inspired my thinking and creativeness.


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