SIXTY Reads: Lee Friedlander’s “The Little Screens”

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With the entire proverbial world available on our smartphones, libraries of books housed within thin slabs of metal and LED, it’s easy to forget the era when the television reigned as the dominant medium through which information was handed to us—not conveniently a la carte like today, of course, but in measured, limited, unchangeable doses. And while we talk about social media and the chaotic information saturation that dominates our lives today, it’s interesting to recall that, in one way or another, some form of technology has always held power over us; we’ve just been able to pack it up and put it in our pocket. The television, with its (ever-waning) size and stature, still remains one of the most physically prominent in most of our lifetimes, despite decreasing relevance.

Serving as a midcentury reminder of where we have come, both socially and culturally, in our relationship with the darling idiot box, are the cinematic images from Lee Friedlander’s “The Little Screens” series. Taken in the early ‘60s, these black and white photographs featured the television as character—something that consumed space, anchored a room into place. It was a hearth without heat, spilling worlds—wanted and unwanted—into our homes. It was, at the time, a luxury, and in Friedlander’s opinion, a rather invasive one.

Viewed from a dull, safe distance of passed time, the photographs take on a merely nostalgic tone, one in which we forget the old grievances of the era. Each image appears less social commentary and more a proposed set design for Mad Men. But every generation has its own gripes with the ever-evolving onslaught of technology. Even approached from a critical, intellectual standpoint, it’s hard to deny the intoxicating allure of perfectly coiffed hair, manicured brows, the smile of a dashing man in a pomade ad.

But make no mistake, Friedlander refused to be charmed, and while it might be easy to just graze the surface of these frames, admiring with humor the size of each set or the length of its antennae, they were, as writer Walker Evans once described, “deft, witty, spanking little poems of hate.”

Can’t imagine what he’d think of this whole Internet thing.

SIXTY Hotels Fun Fact: Lee Friedlander’s tree images are featured in rare lightbox format atop every bed at SIXTY LES.

“Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens” is available on Amazon

Jenny Bahn

Jenny Bahn

Jenny Bahn is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, specializing in music, fashion, the arts, and culture, both high and low. Her work has been featured in Cereal, Lenny Letter, and more.