Art Gallery nets famed photo archive

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No caption. Photo by Chantal Fernandez.

The darkroom decisions and creative process of famous American photographer Lee Friedlander, known for his photographs of everything American, will soon be accessible to Yale students through his personal archive .

The Yale University Art Gallery and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manscript Library will announce today their joint acquisition of Friedlander’s archive for an undisclosed amount. The acquisition — which consists of 2,000 master prints as well as books, negatives, contact sheets (pages of negatives), working prints and letters — will make the gallery the largest repository of the photographer’s work.

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Friedlander, now 76 years old, reached out to the gallery two years ago through Richard Benson, former dean of the School of Art, and asked about the possibility of finding a home for his archive at Yale.

“We [at the gallery] immediately thought of partnering with another institution on campus to help us,” said Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of photographs at the gallery. “How best will this material live on campus? The core aspect of Yale’s institution is access. We tend to deal with single objects and I knew that we couldn’t do it without the Beinecke’s help.”

Friedlander’s work “distinguishes itself from that of his contemporaries with its full embrace of American vernacular culture, which he depicted with an irreverent wit,” the gallery said in a statement. His documentation of the American social landscape allows the acquisition to fit well in the Western Americana collection at the Beinecke, which includes books, manuscripts and photographs documenting the development of the Trans-Mississippi West.

The master prints, 1,800 of which will be housed in the gallery, are selected from the photographer’s last 20 years of work and are mostly taken with a Hasselblad Superwide camera, which allows the photographer to approach closer to the subject and still retain a deep three-dimensionality in the images.

“At the core of the 2,000 master prints are the images included in the books he has published since 1996, ‘The Desert Seen,’ ‘Stems, Sticks & Stones,’ and ‘America by Car’ (not yet released) among them,” gallery director Jock Reynolds said in an e-mail. “We filled out the rest of the selection with images that might potentially be the basis for future book or exhibition projects, and images that dialogue with the other strengths in our collection, specifically pictures that examine the American landscape and American culture at large.”

The archive will be particularly helpful for use in the classroom, Chuang said. Students will be able to examine Friedlander’s contact sheets to see how long he photographed different subjects and what photographs he chose to print instead of others.

School of Art photography lecturer Lisa Kereszi said she dedicates an entire class in her Introduction to Photography section to Friedlander — a rare attention only given to a handful of photographers.

“I’m really excited because [now] students won’t only be looking at JPEGs projected,” she said. “Yale gives its students this really special opportunity to have an intimate relationship with the work and how the person sees the world.”

Kereszi is particulary interested in seeing Friedlander’s unique system of filing his negatives. He re-photographs his best prints onto one roll of film, essentially grouping his best work together on one page. But the images he chooses not to print are just as interesting.

“You get to know about how somebody really thinks when you see these edited out pictures,” Kereszi said.

The master prints and a substantial part of his books, letters, and ephemera arrived at the gallery yesterday from Friedlander’s home outside New York City.

The acquisition of the Friedlander archives is the third of its kind; the Yale University Art Gallery has acquired the archives of conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and photographer Robert Adams’ complete work.

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