Lee Friedlander Takes ‘America by Car’

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The view from a moving car framed by a window is a snapshot many travelers have locked in their memories. Lee Friedlander, well known for his idiosyncratic style of photography, has applied his old tricks to incorporate alternative visuals of those hourslong adventures traversing back roads and highways.

Friedlander hit the road on a yearslong trek across 50 states capturing snippets of Americana as seen through a thin layer of tinted cover glass. The resulting multidimensional photographs are the subject of his recently released book ‘America by Car.’ In it is a revealing portrait of America as a beautiful, kitschy, gritty and diverse landscape.

Nearly 200 photos were taken over the last 15 years in urban, suburban and roadside settings. Photographing from an assortment of rental cars, Friedlander used the interior components of the car, such as the steering wheel, dashboard and door handle, to contrast the exterior settings. His intentional method of including reflections in the vehicles’ side-view and rear mirrors creates another perspective for digesting the scenery. The result is a distorted effect of dimensionality as elements of the car appear to be bumping up against landmarks, churches, bridges and roadside follies, including a familiar Paul Bunyan statue in Pennsylvania.

‘He creates a complicated web of elements that interact in a certain way that is at times jarring to the viewer,’ said Todd Bradway, the director of title acquisitions at Distributed Art Publishers, who was closely involved in the book’s production. ‘It’s part of his uniqueness.’


The profile of the car’s frame is depicted in varying degrees within the square crop format. In the simplistic weather and nature shots, the interior of the car is barely visible, as in one photo of a restored Thunderbird driving through a desolate intersection in Connecticut. Other photos are cluttered, creating sensory overload often encountered on the road. ‘The way he frames the shots puts you in a space that could be any year,’ Bradway said. ‘It’s dynamic and a contrast to what’s going on to the world outside.’

Friedlander revisits structures and themes from other bodies of work. The architectural motif of a white clapboard church in Alabama and a bronze monument of Confederate soldier Samuel A. Holmes in Vicksburg, Miss., are a few examples.

Born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Wash., Friedlander studied photography at the Art College of Design in Pasadena before moving to New York, where he photographed jazz musicians. He gained notoriety in 1985 for his nude photos of a pre-Material Girl Madonna. He resides near New York. His work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

All 192 of the images included in the book are on display in the ‘Lee Friedlander: America by Car,’ exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through Nov. 28th.

-- Liesl Bradner

Images: Top, desert tree, California 2008; right, cattle, Nebraska, 1999; bottom, Charleston, South Carolina, 2008. .