Lee Friedlander’s Social Landscape Photography

Lesson Plan by Amanda E. Gross
National Visual Art Standards:
Cognitive, affective, & psychomotor skills
5 Sessions

[Please note: This lesson takes for granted that students will have prior photography experience. Lesson may be executed with Photoshop substituted for traditional photography.]

Unit Title: Photography
Lesson Title: Lee Friedlander’s Social Landscapes

Lesson Objectives:  As a result of instruction, students will be able to:

  • Analyze the photographic methods used in making a photograph, and make insightful guesses about the thoughts and sentiments of a photographer.
  • Translate the idea of “social landscape” into a series of their own photographs.
  • Show a deliberate choice in depicting how landscape and people interact.
  • Make meaningful use of layering and overlapping in photographs.
  • Make meaningful decisions about using shadow or reflection to show oneself in a photograph.

Visual References:
Lee Friedlander photographs.  Additional resources: Like a One-Eyed Cat; Photographs 1956-1987 (text by Rod Slemmons, photographs by Lee Friedlander) and Page 120 of Of People and Places; The Floyd and Josephine Segel Collection of Photographypublished by The Milwaukee Art Museum.

Assignment: 

  • Make at least 7 photographs that show people in a landscape, a “social landscape.” Have each photograph contain layers, and show your self either through reflection or shadow. Think about how you are setting up your composition – consider how you are showing “controlled chaos.”
  • Choose just one photograph to present at the critique. Apart from the aesthetic features of the photograph (light/dark/composition), consider How you are showing how your culture (American? More local?) interacts with the landscape? How and why did you choose to show your self in the photograph? Why did you choose this one photograph? Does it stand by itself or would it look better in a series?

Backstory: 

  • Lee Friedlander was born in 1934. He began taking photographs at age 14 and studied with master photographers before becoming a freelance photographer. He photographed nearly every day for thirty years. He has won fellowships, taught at colleges, and has had international solo exhibitions.
  • His social landscapes “adopt the tradition of the snapshot to reflect American culture.” They are documentary (record the scene, “fresh renderings of ordinary surroundings, magnification of the ordinary.)
  • Multiple layers of “visual chaos” are orderly controlled and contained within the geometric frame of the photograph. Layers and overlap include mirrors, framed photographs on walls, television screens, windows. In his self-portraits of the 1960s, shadows and reflections often show Friedlander’s place in the scene.

Class Progression: 
Day 1:
Motivation: Present Lee Friedlander’s work in a PowerPoint. Have a class discussion about documentary photography and “social landscapes.” Introduce assignment. Essential Questions when looking at Lee Friedlander’s work, which students should also take into consideration when taking their own photographs:

  • What can you tell about American culture from these photographs? Do you get an “emotional truth”?
  • Does the body language of the people depicted juxtapose with the environment or do they complement each other?
  • Do the scenes seem ordinary, strange, funny, or ironic?  Why?  Do they reveal Friedlander’s curiosity?
  • How do you think Freidlander fit into the element of society depicted? (skeptical, comfortable?)
  • What role do the people have in the photograph? What is the role of the built environment? How do they interact and what point do you think Friedlander was trying to make, if any?
  • Do you feel intimate or distanced to the scene depicted?
  • Is the composition balanced with light and dark? Can you see both very white and very black tones, or is the photo mostly grays?
  • Friedlander was intrigued by transparency and reflection – do you see evidence of this?  How are light, shadow, texture, and layering used?
  • Why would Friedlander show himself as a shadow or reflection?

Day 2:
Students shoot photographs until they fill up a camera roll.

Days 3 and 4
Students develop photographs using a dark room, or work to create their final images in Photoshop.

Day 5:
Class critique.

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