Nude Madonna by Lee Friedlander
#PHOTOCOLLECTION Lee Friedlander photographs Madonna in 1979, when the 20-year-old pop icon worked as a model for artists. Friedlander is an undeniable figure in photography and, by refusing to respect pre-established standards, he played a major role in renewing this art in the 1970s. Since the beginning, he has applied his very personal style to a wide variety of subjects, including American society, which he immortalizes with great accuracy. The striking truth of these photographs, which he refers to as the “social landscape”, is also evident in his nudes.
The Nudes series, in which these photographs of Madonna are part of, took root in 1977. Lee Friedlander had learned about nude through his photographer friend George Krause in Houston. Back in New York, he continued this project and used new models. Madonna responds to an ad he places in a newspaper. He will say about her that she was very professional and confident. She was then just a young dancer looking to make a name for herself in New York, still far from the fame she would later become famous. According to legend, she was only paid $25 for this pose session, but the result is about ten black and white prints that are truly emblematic of Lee Friedlander’s work.
The series ended in 1991 with an exhibition at MoMA and the publication of a book. Madonna’s nudes were nevertheless published a few years earlier. Playboy magazine, in view of the singer’s growing fame, paid $500,000 to obtain the rights to these photographs and published them in its September 1985 issue as an illustration of an article entitled “Madonna, a look at our material world’s most ethereal girl – before she was a superstar”.
These photographs are a rare testimony to this period in Madonna’s life, but they are also representative of Friedlander’s work, whose innovative dimension lies in his new approach to classical subjects. Indeed, he photographs the latter by turning away from commonly accepted visual conventions and his work on the nude is particularly revealing of this approach. Many photographers have turned to painting to imitate the postures and shapes of the naked body as it was represented by the painters. Lee Friedlander, alongside photographers such as Bill Brandt and Edward Weston, is an exception and reinvents this genre with brio.
The models of the Nudes series are often photographed in their homes. This intimate and ordinary environment contrasts with the often surprising poses in which the photographer immortalizes these naked bodies. It is in these bold positions of the models that the specificity of Lee Friedlander’s photographs lies. Our eye, used to seeing passive and static women in the artistic nude, can only be disconcerted by these models with extravagant poses whose presence becomes truly tangible. Its interest lies in the real and the concrete. He seeks to produce an image of the naked body as real and palpable as possible using all the means offered by the model and the photographic medium.
This naturalistic aspect also involves a form of acceptance. Lee Friedlander is not offended by the hairiness of his models, a blue or an unsightly mole. On the contrary, it uses these elements as a tool for individualization. The visibility given to these details, usually hidden in a search for aesthetic ideals, attracted criticism. Bob Guccione, for example, the publisher of Penthouse magazine, said that he would never have published these photographs of Madonna, referring to the singer’s hairiness, which he found disturbing.
Despite this down-to-earth, even pragmatic dimension of Lee Friedlander’s nudes, they are not without lyricism. In this photograph, Madonna’s naked body is reflected on the television screen as a distorted silhouette that is reminiscent of André Kertész’s Distortion. This echo between the figure and its reflection could also bring back to our good memory Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph entitled Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare. On the latter, the poster of a dancer placed in the background responds with a certain poetry to the position of the man in the foreground.
Many museums around the world preserve and exhibit Lee Friedlander’s work, including the MET and MoMA in New York, as well as the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This institutional recognition also extends to the art market, as demonstrated by the Parisian sale of Sotheby’s on 10 November 2017, during which a batch of five prints of Madonna’s nudes was acquired for €33,750.
LEE FRIEDLANDER: MADONNA, 1979
Press print, Gelatin silver print, printed no later than 1985.
Image size: 16 x 25 cm
Paper size: 20 x 26 cm
Publishing annotations in pencil on verso, inscribed ‘Madonna US 9.85′ in red felt tip pen and’USED’ red stamp. Printed to be published in the Italian Playboy issue of September 1985.
Playboy Archive, Italy.
Consistent with a press print having been manipulated in the publishing process, this glossy surface print shows some handling marks under raking light only.
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