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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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The road in music, literature, film, and photography connotes freedom, wanderlust, and discovery. Especially in an urbanized world where lives are regimented, travel offers escape and novelty. Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" (1856) promised "forever alive, forever forward" and Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel "On the Road" prophesied a life without limits: "[I]t's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow."

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Repeatedly, Friedlander shows the natural world as fragmented, distant, and decidedly unheroic. His views contradict Ansel Adams' sublime landscapes from the 1940s. "What's more valuable?" the Smithsonian's Jurovics asks. "A fictional or very selective view" or "being more honest and presenting it as it is?"

Not that Friedlander disparages the American scene. "Lee," says Ms. Brandt of the Fraenkel Gallery, "has a deep and abiding love of this country." Nevertheless, the soundtrack to his road trip is not purely a love song. He acknowledges the car ride can be bumpy.

As Brother Gerald Molyneaux, professor of film at Philadelphia's LaSalle University, says, "If things get so bad that the car becomes an instrument of defying the establishment or law and order, then you get the negative connotations." In "Pennsylvania" (2007) Friedlander shows a roadside memorial with a sign: "Loving son, father, friend … killed by a drunk driver."

The car is a very democratic tool. With it, "the common person could all of a sudden move in ways that were never experienced on land before by any society in the past," says John Heitmann, professor of history at the University of Dayton in Ohio and author of "The Automobile and American Life." The automobile, he says, "is the quintessential technology of the 20th century. It influenced where we live, the foods we eat (namely fast food), the air we breathe, the jobs we have – or now don't have – and how we meet the opposite sex."

Friedlander's car took him to nearly 50 states over one decade. He fondly recorded oddball bits of Americana, fast disappearing – rather like the technology of black-and-white film he still uses. Although this old-school medium is fading into history as photographers embrace digital cameras and manipulated color images, Friedlander's eye is as sharp as ever.

As for Friedlander's subject, "As long as we have those vast spaces in the West, it'll still be about Americans and the road," Professor Heitmann says. "We can go find ourselves and explore who we are – the inner self – and learn about others riding with us and the country we live in."