September 19, 2017

Leo Friedman ~ Broadway's Photographer

Leo Friedman - 2009

Leo Friedman was born in Brooklyn in 1919. His father wanted him to go to design school, but Friedman pursued the stage, appearing with Kitty Carlisle in White Horse Inn in 1936. In the late '30s, he got a job with producer Mike Todd. At one point, Todd, who was producing some attractions for the New York World's Fair, shoved a camera in Friedman's hands and told him to take some pictures. During World War II, he served as a photographer in the Army Signal Corps in Europe.    

After the war, he befriended the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and shot her midnight wedding to the actor Alexander Kirkland. He photographed the Broadway debuts of Bette Midler in Fiddler on the Roof , Barbra Streisand in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Liza Minnelli in Flora, the Red Menace and Jane Fonda in There Was a Little Girl, as well as what he called “the first undress rehearsal” of the nude musical Oh! Calcutta! and glimpses of the backstage romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during Hamlet.      

photo by Leo Friedman 

In 1954, Friedman and Joseph Abeles, a portrait photographer, became partners in a studio at 351 West 54th Street. “The way it worked, Abeles would be the portrait photographer, if you wanted studio shots,” recalled Sol Jacobson, 96, a longtime press agent who often hired the two to shoot his shows. “You wanted scene shots, Leo took them.”       

Audrey Hepburn 
photo by Leo Friedman

The two split acrimoniously, dissolving their Friedman-Abeles partnership around 1970, and Mr. Friedman claims that a large portion of his work was misappropriated by Abeles and donated to the New York Public Library’s performing arts collection at Lincoln Center, as Abeles’s own.  

Afterwards, Friedman decided to give his archive to New York Public Library's performing arts as well. The contribution led to an extended disagreement between Friedman and the library. According to Eric Friedman, Friedman's son, the library had failed to credit Mr. Friedman with any of the Friedman photos they send out and collect monies on. Now the photos are in limbo, largely uncataloged, caught in a dispute between the photographer and the Library.    

At stake is an extraordinary theater archive: about 4,580 prints and 2,655 contact sheets representing 168 stage productions from the 1950s and ’60s, the golden age of the Broadway musical.     

Citing library policy, Scher declined to allow a reporter to view the two collections in the stacks. When several sample boxes of photographs in both collections were pulled out and provided for examination, notations on the back of many of the pictures showed that the original credit to the Friedman-Abeles studio had been scratched out and replaced with a label solely crediting “Joseph Abeles Studio.” He defended the library’s practice of charging fees for reproduction rights to the pictures as an arrangement “Mr. Friedman was comfortable with.”   

photo by Leo Friedman
But in an interview on a visit to New York from his home in Las Vegas, Mr. Friedman, then 89 and a cancer survivor, said he was most certainly not comfortable with that, not without being paid, and, in fact, was quite unhappy. “They’re waiting for me to die,” he said. Friedman died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Las Vegas on December 2, 2011. He was 92 years old.   

photo by Leo Friedman

The career of Leo Friedman was spent taking pictures of actors in action. He photographed more than 800 shows, including Bye Bye Birdie, The Music Man, Purlie, West Side Story (link below), Silk Stockings, My Fair Lady, Barefoot in the Park, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Coco and on and on . . . .    

photo by Leo Friedman 

NY Times ~ Leo Friedman: Stuck in a Tangled History        
NY Times obit                   
Playbill obit                               
Styrous® ~ Tuesday, September 19, 2017