Lee Friedlander took his first photograph when he was fourteen and he built a darkroom soon thereafter. Following high school he enrolled in the Los Angeles Art Center School, attending only briefly in 1953. Instead he continued his education independently, working with one of the school's instructors, Edward Kaminski.
Friedlander began photographing jazz musicians when he was in Los Angeles. His passion for their music led him to meet Nesuhi Ertegun, a founder of Atlantic Records. Soon after moving to New York in 1956, Friedlander was hired by Atlantic to photograph recording artists such as John Coltrane and Ray Charles for album covers. During the 1950s and early 1960s he also freelanced for Columbia and RCA and for popular periodicals including Esquire and Sports Illustrated. About this time Friedlander purchased his first Leica camera, the brand he uses still.
Friedlander had also been doing some noncommercial work, and in 1963 he had his first one-man show at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. His inclusion in New York's Museum of Modern Art exhibition, New Documents (1967); firmly established his reputation. In the early 1960s Friedlander discovered the work of E. J. Bellocq, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans photographer whose place in the history of photography he helped to establish by printing his glass-plate negatives.
In 1959 Friedlander moved out of New York City to one of its northern suburbs. In 1969 Petersburg Press published Photographs by Lee Friedlander and Etchings by Jim Dine, which included sixteen works by each artist. The following year Friedlander produced Self Portrait, his first book of photographs, issued by his own publishing company, Haywire Press, which has since published many of his books and portfolios, including Lee Friedlander: Photographs (1979), Flowers and Trees (1981), and Cherry Blossom Time in Japan (1986). Other Friedlander portfolios that have also been published as books are The American Monument (Eakins Press, 1976), Factory Valleys (Callaway Editions, 1982), and Like A One-Eyed Cat (Harry Abrams, Inc., 1989).
Friedlander was the first photographer to receive the MacDowell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts (1986), and in 1990 he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award. His numerous one-man exhibitions have included those held at the Museum of Modern Art (1972, 1974), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1976), Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1977), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (1977, 1981), Hudson River Museum, Yonkers (1978), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1978), Musée d'art contemporaine, Montreal (1979), Akron Art Institute (1982), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1982), Baltimore Museum of Art (1983), Tel Aviv Museum (1985), and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1986). A retrospective
entitled Like A One-Eyed Cat was organized by the Seattle Art Museum (1989) to travel in the United States and abroad. (Fine/Corlett 1991, 168-169)