Of all the great modern photographers, MacArthur "genius grant" winner Lee Friedlander is probably the hippest to music. Inspired by a Charlie Parker record at 16, he left Aberdeen, Washington, and launched his career alongside ambitious friends like Diane Arbus
. Arbus had a cold eye, but as this book of photos he took for Atlantic Records from the 1950s to the '70s proves, Friedlander's eye was warmly empathetic, at one with his subjects' emotions. (He has compared himself to the guy in the Joe Turner song who's "like a one-eyed cat peekin' at a seafood store.")
A first-rate visual extravaganza, American Musicians captures the country's virtuosos in some of their most candid moments: Aretha Franklin getting respect in 1968, Mahalia Jackson wailing on her knees, Ella in her heyday, on the road with Count Basie, Miles Davis actually looking the viewer right in the eye the year of Bitches Brew. Friedlander was a great discoverer--he found the discarded 1917 photos of New Orleans' Bellocq (immortalized in the film Pretty Baby), and one of his own early nude models was the unknown Madonna Ciccone. He helps people bare their souls to the camera, and the souls in this book are of historic importance. American Musicians also includes Friedlander's interviews with Ruth Brown and Steve Lacy.
The design, by Katy Homans, puts as many as 10 pictures on the page and forgoes the conventional and pretentious coffee-table look in favor of a practical, lap-size square format. The result conveys a new and exciting understanding of Friedlander, one of our most important contemporary photographers. -- The New York Times Book Review, Andy Grundberg