Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear

A review of Lee Friedlander’s America by Car, 2010

Lee Friedlander has been photographing across the USA for the best part of 50 years and America by Car is the latest publication in a prolific career. He started freelancing for magazines in the late 1950s, spending much of this time photographing the jazz scene in New York and New Orleans. By the early 1960s he had shifted direction to pursue more personal projects and this new work was informed both by a real interest in American life and an understanding of the shifting terrain of American documentary photography. He embraced the concept of the snapshot while focusing on the everyday realities of the American Social Landscape.

Friedlander’s photographs may be initially defined by his snapshot-ist approach but most importantly they are marked by a close relationship between subject matter and compositional complexity. Juxtapositions between foreground and background lead to shifts in the picture plane and never really delineate content from organisational instability. Friedlander has described photography as a ‘generous medium’ by which he means that everything within the frame is the subject and demands equal attention from the viewer. His interest in the American everyday resonates through all of his work but there is another factor that helps to make his observational juxtapositions work so successfully. This is his finely tuned streetwise sense of humour. He never sneers at the world that he photographs but recognises himself as very much part of it.

Friedlander published his second book, American Monument in 1976, an extended view of the many statues, monuments and memorials erected throughout the cities and small towns of America. From this point on Friedlander’s interests were defined visually within the everyday but also by necessity they were ‘on the road’.

Lee Friedlander, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2002

The device of taking photographs through the windshield of a car appeared in his work from an early stage. However he was by no means the only photographer taking such images. Just as Friedlander had absorbed the wider discussions that centred on the social landscape, he also drew upon a technique that had been used by many photojournalists and documentarians. Indeed, it wasn’t just photographers that were interested in exploring this particular way of seeing the world. There was a much wider currency to the technique, having also been adopted by architects and planners in their own thinking about the urban condition. The view ‘from the road’ for instance, formed a central tenet to Kevin Lynch’s cognitive mapping, popularised in publications such as The Image of the City (1960). Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown were also working on very similar terrain to Friedlander with their excursions and research into the commercial vernacular of the ‘strip’ which was rooted in a view from behind the wheel.

The view from the car has featured in most of Friedlander’s subsequent work but what makes his images so engaging is the way that he combines the view of the everyday with a multifocal division of the image. By giving the ubiquitous automobile interior equal space within the frame and setting up a view that moves between what is seen out of the windscreen, the side window and rear view mirror Friedlander has mastered the ability to lock those moments that only come into sight through a combination of peripheral vision and a state of mind induced by movement.

Lee Friedlander, Nebraska, 1999

All of the photographs featured in America by Car are not only shot ‘on the road’ but from within the multitude of Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas that he has hired in his ongoing documentation of the American everyday. The book features photographs of trucks and trucks stacked on the trailers of other trucks, roadside Santa Claus’s, oversize fibreglass sharks and ice cream cones, Pepsi signs, STOP signs, Hot Women and Cold Beer signs and faded cowboy signs as well as railways, telegraph poles and vapour trails and the very fabric of urban life; houses, office blocks, town halls and churches.

Although Friedlander has included photographs from cars in books before, this doesn’t make America by Car simply a book about the back-story. The photographs underline the ubiquity of the automobile as a reality – not as a moral comment but as a unique document of contemporary American life.

Lee Friedlander, Texas, 2006

For Friedlander the view of the world from the interior of the car doesn’t just last for the blink of an eye but points to a way of seeing that embraces all that is real about America with all of its contradictions. His photographs don’t allow the eye, or the mind, to rest and it is only with multiple visual takes and perspectival jolts that the full meaning is created.

America by Car is published by Fraenkel Gallery / D.A.P

An edited version of this review was published in the November 2010 issue of Blueprint magazine

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