Riding shotgun: Lee Friedlander photographs from the car

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

The Whitney Museum
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.

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."

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."

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.

"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.

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."

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."

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