Purchased directly from the artist
1997 - 1998: "75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/8/97 - 2/15/98, Akron Art Museum, objects shown: 81.11.20, 34
1997 - 1998: "Pittsburgh Revealed : Photographs since 1850" Organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, objects shown: 81.11,2,4,7,9,13,16,18,19,25,32,38,41,44,52
11/8/97 - 1/25/98: Carnegie Museum of Art
1995: "Feeling and Fact" Organized by the Akron Art Museum, objects shown: 31, 39 , 80
6/15/95 - 8/29/95: Akron Art Museum 2nd floor gallery
1991 - 1992 "Focus on the Collection: A 70 th Anniversary Celebration" Organized by the Akron Art Museum, objects shown: 81.11, 6, 17, 29, 34, 38, 55, 77, 80
11/3/91 - 1/5/92, Akron Art Museum 2nd floor gallery
1982 - 1984: "Lee Friedlander: Factory Valleys" Organized by the Akron Art Museum, objects shown: 81.11.1-80
3/27/82 - 5/22/82, Akron Art Museum
1/31/83 - 3/14/83, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California
6/27/83 - 8/7/83, Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan
9/5/83 - 10/16/83, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland
4/7/84 - 5/20/84, Madison Art Center, Madison, Wisconsin
Stamped with the artist's stamp on the back;Negative number in pencil on back
Pittsburgh, 1979, from the Factory Valleys series, 1979-80
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
The “American Ruhr”—the industrial cities from Detroit eastward—was the original subject of Lee Friedlander's 1979 commission from the Akron Art Institute.1 Already a distinguished photographer, he had won two Guggenheim fellowships, had been given two solo exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and had seen six books of his photographs published. Friedlander's career began in the mid-1950s, when he joined other young New York photographers, including Robert Frank (see pp. 134–35) and Garry Winogrand (see pp. 166–67), in the attempt to redefine documentary photography. Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans (see pp. 86–87), these artists considered documentary photography not as a socially oriented genre but as a personal vehicle, one allied more closely with the experimental freedom of fine art than the objectivity of reportage.
Friedlander's approach to the Akron commission, which eventually became known as the Factory Valleys series, included responding to social and personal concerns. Narrowing his focus to Ohio and Pennsylvania, he visited the two states for a total of thirteen weeks throughout 1979–80. He arrived in a region that was suffering a serious economic depression, one symptomatic of a nationwide decline in American industry. Friedlander ignored the region's natural beauty (which was later documented in a second museum commission documented by Robert Glenn Ketchum [see pp. 206–7]) and chose not to depict the social and cultural benefits resulting from industry-based wealth. Instead, he focused on harsher aspects of the situation: the machinelike repetitiveness of factory workers' daily lives, the environmental cost of strip mining and heavy manufacturing, and the ugliness of the industrial environment.
Pittsburgh, one of eighty-two photographs by Friedlander in the Akron Art Museum's collection, evokes the bleakness of the region. The photographer's concentration on gray middle tones rather than stark contrasts between black and white contributes to a sad, wintry mood. Workers' houses tilt uncertainly on the hillsides. Across the highway is an idle steel mill, the cause of the workers' plight.
The composition is rebellious and disorderly, an affront to traditional notions of what makes a good photograph. The human-made structures are screened by a row of branches and stalks. The dark tree at the center is the first element to draw the eye, but buildings and the highway soon demand equal attention because they, too, are in sharp focus. The visual chaos may echo the emotional and social disruption that Friedlander found in the factory towns. The placement of major elements away from the viewer, in the middle ground, suggests the emotional and intellectual distancing of residents not yet ready to accept the transition from industrial heartland to “rust belt.”
Friedlander's interest in visual chaos was not determined purely by expressive needs; it was a device he employed many times in his career. The denial of symmetry and the layering of images may belong, at least in part, to a shared sensibility of the period, for his "closest ally in art is not a photographer; it is the painter Robert Rauschenberg . . . . Friedlander views his photography as a synthesizing activity: the photograph is an environment constructed like a collage . . . . [It is] fragmented, discontinuous parts . . . in a single, coherent moment."2
Perhaps because Friedlander was commissioned by an art museum, not a corporation or social service agency, he was free to use his time to explore not only the region and its emotional tenor but also the medium of photography itself. The resulting body of work unites formal experimentation, documentation, and personal expression in a single, though not seamless, whole. Because of that combination, Factory Valleys has come to be recognized as a milestone both in the artist's career and in the history of documentary photography.
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. The project was conceived by John Coplans, then director of the Akron Art Institute. It was instigated by a request from John McCarter, chairman of Centran Bank (later Key Bank) and a member of the institute's board of trustees. He was searching for art to decorate the Akron branches of the bank and wanted work that was “pertinent to an industrial area—factory workers, American industry, the market in the community that this bank was serving.” A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and support from Centran Bank provided support for the project; in-kind services were donated by the Akron Art Museum. Dorothy Shinn, "A Photographer's Disturbing Vision of Our Backyard," Akron Beacon Journal, May 9, 1982, 8–11. For additional information about the circumstances surrounding the commission, see introductory essay, p. 36.
2. Jonathan Green, American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984), 107.
Friedlander, Lee. Factory Valleys: Ohio & Pennsylvania. New York: Callaway Editions, 1982.
Kao, Deborah Martin. "Lee Friedlander's Factory Valleys: Structure, Artifice, Culture." Views (summer/fall 1989): 10–13, 23–24.
Slemmons, Rod. Like a One-Eyed Cat: Photographs by Lee Friedlander 1956–1987. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.