The Akron Art Museum Presents Lee Friedlander's Factory Valleys
For Release: February 2009
Akron, Ohio, February 11, 2009 – Lee Friedlander’s Factory Valleys, conceived 30 years ago, has come to be recognized as a benchmark both in the artist’s career and in the history of documentary photography. The Akron Art Museum, which commissioned the work, revisits the project by exhibiting around 60 vintage photographs from the series, all from the museum’s collection, in its Judith Bear Isroff Gallery and Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Gallery.
In 1978, Akron’s Director John Coplans invited Friedlander to photograph America’s industrial belt. Although once a prime source of the nation’s wealth, the industrial Heartland was spiraling into an economic recession in the late 1970s. Already a distinguished photographer, Friedlander 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 and Garry Winogrand, in an attempt to redefine documentary photography. Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans, 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, 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. Steel mills and tire plants were closing, but it was not yet evident that this was a massive, permanent decline in American manufacturing. Not until 1982, the year that Factory Valleys was exhibited, did the terms “Rust Bowl” and “Rust Belt” first appear.
Friedlander photographed the components of an industrialized region: the countryside, towns, steel plants and factories, workers’ houses and the roads and railroads that transported both raw materials and manufactured goods. He captured workers’ symbiotic relationship to their machines, ennobling their labor while stressing its machinelike repetitiveness. Although he photographed in all four seasons, the land does not appear hospitable, lush or fertile. It seems fragile and ravaged, reflecting a new sensitivity to the environment that was awakening in the late 1970s.
Perhaps because Friedlander was commissioned by an art museum instead of a governmental 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 and to take the opportunity to advance radical compositional solutions. The visual chaos of his images of the factory towns echoes the emotional and social disruption he found there. 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.
This exhibition was organized by the Akron Art Museum and made possible by a generous gift from Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz.
Exhibition Related Events
Exhibition at The Cleveland Museum of Art
This exhibition coincides with Friedlander: a major retrospective at The Cleveland Museum of Art, taking place from March 1—May 31, 2009. See the website for further details: http://www.clemusart.com/exhibitions/Friedlander.aspx.
Saturday, March 21, 2:30 pm: Friedlander at the CMA, Tom Hinson, Curator of Photography
Saturday, April 18, 2:30 pm: Lee Friedlander’s Factory Valleys, Barbara Tannenbaum, Director of Curatorial Affairs, Akron Art Museum, talk AT AKRON ART MUSEUM
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