THE QUESTIONS POSED by Lee Friedlander's American Musicians are many: What does music look like? Does a great photographer need an interest in his subjects beyond "taking" their picture or "capturing" their image? And if the answer to that question is yes, then does that greater interest necessarily show up in the final image? When you look at a photograph, what words does your head put together to deal with the image at hand? Do you hear music?
Friedlander's massive project--more than 500 photographs of American musicians, many in glorious period color that would make a Gap catalog look pallid--answers all of those questions decisively. This, it becomes apparent on page after page, is what music looks like, and the result is a book as huge and affirmative as the music whose creators crowd its pages.
Friedlander is today widely regarded as one of America's most accomplished photographic artists, but the majority of the portraits in American Musicians were taken during his long stint as house photographer at Atlantic records during that label's storied reign as the class of American record companies. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Atlantic's brain trust of Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and studio rat nonpareil Tom Dowd assembled and recorded a roster of artists that remains unrivaled: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Charles Mingus, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner. The Friedlander photographs that graced Atlantic's album covers--if hardly the only selling point--were evidence of the attention to detail that distinguished the label.
When one looks at Friedlander's photographs, it is impossible not to recognize how broad and vital the tradition of American music is, a music that has room for Marion Williams and Wade Ward, Lefty Frizzell and Ornette Coleman, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mel Tormé, Charles Mingus and the Carter Family. Friedlander traveled widely in search of his subjects, and his love for the music transcended his commercial obligations: There are photos in churches, dirt yards, humble living rooms, juke joints, and recording studios. Alongside the giants are unknown New Orleans brass bands, street-corner blues men, and bluegrass musicians. Most of these photos predate rock 'n' roll, but all the strands that ultimately went into its creation are here: gospel, bluegrass, country and western, blues, soul, and jazz.
The highlights are too many to mention; every excursion into American Musicians turns up new wonders and favorites. There's Velma Middleton wigging out to a Louis Armstrong solo. Wilson Pickett possessed and sweating in a god-awful tuxedo. Mississippi Fred McDowell in overalls, plucking his guitar in a bleached-out field (see above). A menacing Ornette Coleman, shot like a prizefighter from a shoe-tip angle. Coleman Hawkins, shirtless, cradling his saxophone.
In virtually every one of these photographs there is an utter lack of self-consciousness, nothing hyped or stagy, no props nor goofy effects. Where is the photographer? you wonder. And that transparency is Friedlander's great accomplishment. His images capture these musicians in their element, poised in their moments of grace, and every one of these photographs is like a glowing button on the greatest jukebox in the greatest bar you've never found, its impossible selections representing one of the widest and most astounding compilations of American music ever assembled.