How Lee Friedlander Edits His Photo Books

Posted by on Wednesday July 5, 2017 | Events

Lee Friedlander's Self Portraits, published in 1970.

Lee Friedlander's Self Portraits, published in 1970.

Lee Friedlander has published 50 books in his career to date. And he’s not stopping. The legendary photographer (born 1933) and his grandson, Giancarlo T. Roma, recently revived Haywire Press, the self-publishing company Friedlander established in the 1970s. Roma interviewed his grandfather on stage at the New York Public Library on June 20. The talk, Friedlander’s first in 30 years, drew a sold-out crowd of photographers, photo editors and photography lovers. Roma’s efforts to elicit any tips about photographic technique were repeatedly thwarted by the legendary photographer’s modesty: “It’s luck,” he said, in response to several questions about how he makes his pictures. He did, however, offer one insight into his method of sequencing images for photo books.

Friedlander said he typically Xeroxes his photos, then uses a hole-punch to put three holes on the left and right side of the images. That way, he said, when he puts them into a three-ring binder to see how they work in sequence, he can also easily switch the order, moving them from the left side to the right and back again as he wishes. When he thinks a book is done, he said, he’ll take a second look and almost always decide that two images facing each other have to be swapped.

At a time when few commercial galleries were showing photos, Friedlander felt books were the ideal medium for showing photographic bodies of work. He noted that he often didn’t know he was working on a book until he looked through his images and realized that he had made many photos of the same subject. He’ll soon publish a book of all the photos he’s made of chain link fences, for example.

Friedlander self-published his first book, Self Portrait, in 1970. To create a cover, he typed the title at the top of an image. He showed a dummy to his friend, designer Marvin Israel, and asked him about the design. Israel said the cover looked just fine the way Friedlander had designed it.

Friedlander says he created his own imprint, Haywire, because he never thought any book publisher would want to publish his self-portraits. Friedlander, who grew up on a farm in Washington, came up with the name “haywire” because whenever a farmer wanted to fix a broken-down fence or piece of equipment, he’d do it with the wire used to tie up hay bales. Eventually, Friedlander’s success and notoriety inspired other publishers to take on his books—most recently, Yale University Press. But the books he self-published remain both influential and highly collectible. For Friedlander, Haywire Press was a handy solution that served him well for over 30 years.

At the end of their talk, Roma said he had asked Friedlander to bring something along. Friedlander stood and pulled a small, gray packet from his back pocket. Friedlander explained that he always carries a book with him, but sometimes he has to cut it down so it fits in his pocket. He held up his copy of Anna Karenina, which he had decided to reread. He showed that he had sliced it in half to make it thinner, trimmed the margins to make it narrower, and then wrapped it in a piece of gray cardboard—made from one of the folders that his gallery, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, sends him each month. Roma noted, “You just can’t stop making books, Grandpa.”

You can see a video of the talk here.

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