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Riding shotgun: Lee Friedlander photographs from the car

Distinctive Lee Friedlander photos open a window on America's deep car culture.

By Carol StricklandCorrespondent / November 3, 2010

Friedlander’s scenes of roadside Americana, such as this image shot in California in 2008, are often jumbled compositions that evoke the spontaneous chaos of jazz.

The Whitney Museum


New York

Dinah Shore had it right when she sang, "See the USA in your Chevrolet!" In a project called "America by Car," photographer Lee Friedlander parks the car in the literal foreground. An exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art until Nov. 28 features 192 images of exterior vistas viewed through the car interior. "They're sort of crazy," says Elisabeth Sussman, the Whitney's curator of photography. "He uses the inside of the car and its windows and mirrors as a framing device. The images are infinitely interesting on a lot of different levels."

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Friedlander, born in 1934, came to New York in 1956 to photograph jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane for record covers. In the 1960s he was hailed as a prominent "street photographer" for his seemingly casual, snapshot aesthetic. "He was part of the jazz scene, the clubs. There was a sensibility in the air that shaped artists and a way of thinking," says Charles Stainback, curator of photography at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Like a bebop tune, Friedlander's photographs virtually vibrate with energy and spontaneity. "If you take jazz and apply it to two dimensions, you end up with pictures that look pretty much like Lee Friedlander's," says Frish Brandt, director of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco.

Kerry Brougher, chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., explains: "In jazz you improvise, and Lee Friedlander is one of the great street photographers, shooting from the hip." He adds, "When you're out on the street, you have to have your instincts right at hand and make snap judgments. It's similar to a jazz musician who knows the chord structure and then improvises over the top of it, not knowing what he's going to do before he gets there."

"His photographs have a miraculous complexity to them," says Toby Jurovics, curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. "There's something in every corner of every image you need to pay attention to. The more time you spend, the more you discover."