For anyone who has embarked on a road trip across America, camera in hand, the images collected in “America By Car,” an exhibition of Lee Friedlander’s photography on now through November 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, will seem familiar.
There’s the shrine to the teen killed by a drunk driver, the “ME RY RISTMAS” billboard, the churches and pastures and flags of the American landscape. But Friedlander concentrates on shots that other travelers may disregard: pictures bisected and framed by the windows, mirrors and doors of half a dozen rental cars. Taken together, the images form a kind of travelogue: the pictorial musings of an idiosyncratic and keen-eyed wanderer.
Born in Aberdeen, Wash. in 1934, Friedlander moved to New York in 1956; several years later, he was photographing the urban landscape alongside his stylistic peers, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. Since then, Friedlander has produced thousands of images of American life, chronicling storefronts and jazz musicians and even a nude Madonna circa 1979, who was then a student looking to earn some cash.
The 192 pieces in “America By Car,” most of which come from the past decade, are packed into two low-ceilinged galleries at the Whitney — a curatorial tactic Friedlander uses to mimic the “sensory overload” of the modern driving experience. The 15-square-inch black-and-whites, jammed together on the gallery wall, evoke none of the movement one might expect from such a series. But the density highlights the nuances of Friedlander’s deceptively amateurish works.
Friedlander has a painter’s touch. He dwells on the smooth gleam of the dashboard, the soft bend of the steering wheel, the curving lines of door handles, window buttons and speedometers. In one piece, an explosion of prickly cactus outside the window mimics the rental car’s upholstery. In another, steel girders contrast with the mounds and valleys of the car’s leatherette. In yet another, a Charleston plantation shares a frame with heating vents and a rearview mirror.
The effect reinforces the feeling of seclusion that accompanies getting behind the wheel. Like a camera, a car is a barrier between an individual and his surroundings. In Friedlander’s case, the car is a frame within a frame.
Friedlander barely appears in the pictures, and his absence feels like a presence, elusive and silent (much like the early “self-portraits” of his shadow). Who is this voyeur, and what is his fascination with the ad that promises “Hot Babes,” or the line of cows that seems to march along the edge of a half-open window, or the woman in her Sunday hat peering out from a stretch of Death Valley? Who is this nomad, and where is he going?