Lee Friedlander's self portraits began by accident,
not done as a specific preoccupation, but rather, they happened as a peripheral extension of my work. ... soon I was finding myself at times in the landscape of my photographer. I might call myself an intruder. At any rate, they came about slowly and not with plan but more as another discovery each time. I would see myself as a character or an element that would shift presence as my work would change in direction. At first, my presence in my photos was fascinating and disturbing. But as time passed and I was more a part of other ideas in my photos, I was able to add a giggle to those feelings.Of these pictures, he's perhaps best known for the pictures in which his shadow intrudes on the frame. New York City, 1966 (first below) and Louisiana, 1968 (second below) are two of the best examples of this.
In the first, his head looms against the woman's back. He is almost a stalker, he must be within a couple feet of her. In the second, he's just a parade observer, one of the few. At first glance, the looming head shape just seems an amateurish mistake, which is exactly the prejudice or preconception he's playing against. But look how carefully composed these photos are: There's no sign of camera in the frame. He's not looking through the viewfinder, he knows the angles of his lens and camera well enough to guess what he's capturing. In an interview, he said "If I am used to the camera and I know a scene, I know where to stop and look, because I am used to what it shows."
Although these self portraits are the more well known, and the ones I knew about before reading this book, the ones I found more intriguing are where he's directly in the image, sometimes quite uncompromising, and always self-deprecating.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1965 he's just in a hotel room. He looks tired, unkempt. Given the wide range of locations and short time span of this book, he was probably on the road constantly. He's said he finds photography to be a great deal of fun, but even that can be tiring.
In Haverstaw, New York, 1966, the camera shadow on the hood indicates it's either very early or very late in the day. I thought of it as early in the day the first few times I looked at it. Early in the day, a full day's driving ahead of him, and already road weary.
But there are lighter moments, as in New York City, 1966. Here he is with friends. He isn't bragging, just showing us that it's not all lonely hotel rooms eternal windshields. Sometimes you can just relax and be with friends. (In the book, you can see the amused expression of the man on the right of the frame easier.)
What he's doing is taking the piss out of the standards of the self-portrait. There's no attempt to make himself more noble, or present himself better than he is. Here he is.