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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.

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As Mr. Stainback puts it, "The work is never a one-liner." Friedlander's jumbled lines are like solo blasts from individual instruments that meld into a polyphonic ensemble. Often, so many lines crisscross that the picture plane appears chaotic. That's the point. Friedlander's version of roadside reality is diverse, tacky, and sprawling.

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"Lee makes pictures out of a fundamental curiosity about how the world appears," Mr. Jurovics says. "He's presenting the unvarnished reality. This is the face of things, there for you to draw your own conclusions."

Those who know him insist Friedlander has no social agenda or overt message to peddle. "He's a looker," according to Janet Borden, director of Friedlander's New York gallery, Janet Borden, Inc. Even when the images portray trashy roadside signs or ramshackle houses, "It's more an observation," she says, "than a condemnation."

The photographs' apparent artlessness is deceiving. "He captures the wonder and excitement of the way all these elements get juxtaposed together," Mr. Brougher says. "The great photographers are able to simply photograph something right in front of you every day in a way that suddenly draws your attention to it."

Take, for example, a picture of a seafood shack in Fort Myers, Fla. The car door and side window frame a junky-looking restaurant whose facade sports American and Confederate flags, crab traps, and a large sculpture of a shark, its toothy mouth positioned to engulf a sign that says "LUNCH." The side-view mirror reflects another sign that says "CHARTER BOATS." The cluttered image breaks every rule of composition and subverts every cliché of "picturesque" photography.

Like cubist paintings, these photographs are multifaceted. "He's looking in various directions simultaneously, looking at the past and future happening at the same time, and you're caught in between the two, staring out the window," Brougher explains.

"America by Car" reveals much about car culture, the lure of the open road, and America's past and present. For Wade Lawrence, director of The Museum at Bethel Woods, N.Y. (destination of the ultimate road trip, the 1969 Woodstock festival), "the photographs say we're a car-oriented society." Noting that for some people, "tourism is checking off a list of the places they've driven through," he cautions that if drive-by sighting is the only way we experience our culture, "[then] we've lost a lot. Obviously there's no interactivity between people or discovery of indigenous culture." [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the name of The Museum at Bethel Woods.]

Patricia Erens, professor of film studies at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., teaches a course in road movies and the pluses and minuses of road trips. "The road is a place where people change. They may find spirituality, love, and adventure; they mature," she says.

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