Pilgrimage on Press with Lee Friedlander

Peter Kayafas

Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Photographs by Lee Friedlander

I left the house at 3:45am in order to get to Lee at 4:30 as planned. No traffic, eerie quiet roads. Lee and Maria had a cup of coffee waiting for me—good and strong. Lee said, “I stopped drinking coffee 57 years ago. That’s when I married Maria. I was getting the heebeegeebees and thought it was just because I was getting married—someone had told me that getting married can give you the heebeegeebees. Turned out it was just Maria’s coffee! I drink tea now.”

Sunrise on I95. Lots of trucks, but they all kept to the right. As we passed Old Lyme, Lee talked about his road trip with Walker Evans and Leslie Katz in the early 1970s.

We picked Walker up and spent three days on the road. I think we made it 30 miles! Ended up in Newport where we saw Chip Benson’s brother walking down the street with a giant fish he’d just caught. He invited us all to his mother’s house for dinner—the fish. Walker and Leslie always had a hard time saying yes—"oh, we don’t want to inconvenience you," etc., but I said "thank you very much, of course we’ll be there." Chip and Fud and the whole family showed up. We still hadn’t worked out a place to stay and Mrs. Benson said, "I’ve got three beds, you can stay here." Again Katz and Walker with the "I don’t know, we wouldn’t want to put you out." I interrupted and said, ‘thank you Mrs. Benson, we’d love to stay." It was a great trip.

We arrived at The Beacon Diner in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and Lee ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu: two eggs, homemade hash, home-fries, beans and toast, and we took our time having made the trip in near-record time.

At Meridian at 8am, where Thomas Palmer and Danny Frank met us at the door. We waited just fifteen minutes for the first sheet to be ready for our approval. Danny and Thomas brought it to us in the conference room—Lee likes to look at sheets under the tungsten lights with the combination of daylight from the large picture-window. We then followed everyone back into the press room where Kevin and Bill, the pressmen, are waiting at the end of the Komori Press surrounded by its computer screens showing density, sheet map and ink distribution across the units of the six-color press. This sheet required no adjustment and I signed it with the pleasure of knowing that we were off to a good start. The duotones were looking great, which is a testament to the importance of Palmer’s experience with Lee’s pictures. Lee has printed dozens of books with this team—many of them on this very press—and the familiarity with the variables of the manufacturing process makes them less variable. Barring anything unforeseen this is going to be a very efficient process. The book has 58 pictures, a few pages of text, and another 11 pages of ephemera from the May 17, 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage itself—for a total of 88 pages. Given the small trim size of the book, we can run 12 pages up, which means a total of 8 forms: four for the first day, and four to be backed-up on the second day.

Forty minutes later the second form arrives. This one has a few pages of the ephemera, as well as three pages of the typescript of the MLK speech. It looks better than I could have imagined. Printed duotone with a slightly yellow varnish as the second color, it really has the character of the original and reinforces some of the excitement of knowing that these pages were probably typed by King on his own manual typewriter. The charisma of King’s delivery, as much as the words themselves, gets into the soul. Without the delivery, the cadence, the image of his typed words has an urgency that is a worthy surrogate and gives life that simply typeset prose would not deliver.

The third sheet arrives with a visit from Richard Benson who wants to see his old friends on press—obviously he derives a similarly deep satisfaction from building a book for posterity, an appreciation of the perfect simplicity of ink on the page. “Ink has always been a better medium [for photography] than silver.”

This sheet requires a slight move—the first of the day—that comes in the form of backing off on the black plate a few percent. The result is the perfection we’ve been achieving consistently so far. There is a unique satisfaction to the process of making a book that is akin to making photographs: fine-tuned sensitivity mixed with a sense of surprise and pleasure is embodied in the result. These are just one-sided flat sheets right now, but soon they will be backed-up, folded, gathered and sewn, then shipped to the bindery where they will be cased, shrink-wrapped and boxed for shipping. We’re still some weeks off from having books, but we’re well on our way.

The fourth and final sheet has the title page on it, and reminds us all of that basic fact that the designer, Katy Homans, is ultimately the ever-present hand that bridges all the gaps between looking at the world in a private way and presenting the way it has been seen back to that world. Benson remarks, more than once, with this sheet before us: “God she’s good, isn’t she?!”

We finish early since the four forms we’ve printed need to dry before we can back them up, and Lee and I head to the great Matunuk Oyster Restaurant. We share a variety of local oysters on the half shell and Lee has the fried oyster entrée, I have the fried clam bellies. The food’s good; that’s two meals that fit the day.

We take our time getting to the hotel to check in. It’s early afternoon. The sun’s trying to beat the clouds, winning half the time. In a couple hours we’ll meet for dinner.

At Loie Fuller’s Restaurant in Providence we have another great meal. On the drive back though the neighborhoods of south Providence and Cranston, the end-of-the-day light is beautiful and I introduce Lee to Sharon Jones. We talk about Ray Charles and his famous backup singers. “Do you know what you had to do to become a Raylette?” Lee says. “You had to let Ray!”

In the morning we are back at The Beacon for breakfast with Palmer and Benson.

The second day goes as smoothly as the first as we approve one sheet after the next with very few changes—a slight move here or there, but Palmer’s separations are really on the mark. The pictures are looking amazingly good, especially considering the thin negatives and tricky prints. It’s going to be a beautiful book. It’s remarkable to think that Lee was 22 years-old when he made these photographs.

Around noon, after we approve the last sheet and the tip-on of the picture of Mahalia and MLK, we call it a day and head back to Lee’s place. We stop on the way at the Pie Lady & Son in Nyack for a Very Berry pie. A few minutes later at Lee’s house we have pie with Maria Friedlander and talk about how good it was to be on press.

Lee has said on many occasions, that the book is more his medium than the wall, which may explain why he has 46 monographs, and counting.

“I really can’t imagine what it would be like to make books if I didn’t have such a good team,” Lee says. “One reason that the book is my medium is because of how great Thomas and Katy and Danny are.”