vrijdag 18 oktober 2013
“LIVE IN RELATIONSHIP ARE LIKE RENTAL CARS NO COMMITMENT” Lessons Learned America by Car Lee Friedlander Street Photography
If you were a serious photographer in the 1960s, a Robert Frank or a Garry Winogrand crisscrossing the country on a Guggenheim grant, you needed a car as much as your Leica. But what if Mr. Frank, or Winogrand, had never left the wheel? That perverse thought seems to have inspired a recent series by another photography great, Lee Friedlander. Mr. Friedlander’s “America by Car” has just been published in book form and, starting on Saturday, will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Don’t expect the photographs — 192 in all, packed into the Whitney’s fifth-floor mezzanine in Mr. Friedlander’s characteristically dense style — to cohere into an “On the Road”-style narrative. Mr. Friedlander groups images by subject, not geography: monuments, churches, houses, factories, ice cream shops, plastic Santas, roadside memorials.
So “America by Car,” organized by Elisabeth Sussman, the Whitney’s photography curator, is more of an exercise in typology, along the lines of Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.” But there’s nothing deadpan or straightforward about the way Mr. Friedlander composes his pictures. He knows that cars are essentially illusion factories — to wit: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”
Some of the illusions on view here exploit the technology of the camera Mr. Friedlander has been using since the 1990s, the square-format Hasselblad Superwide (so named for its extra-wide-angle lens). The Superwide produces crisp and detail-packed images that are slightly exaggerated in perspective, giving the foreground — the car — a heightened immediacy.
As Peter Galassi, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief photography curator, wrote in the catalog for Mr. Friedlander’s 2005 retrospective, “It was the maw of the Superwide that suggested to Friedlander that he add to his already overstuffed inventory the bulbous plastic landscape of the contemporary automobile interior.” The aggressive foreshortening in many of the pictures is amplified by compositional sleights of hand. In many cases Mr. Friedlander photographs a building head-on and aligns its bottom edge with the windshield or window, effectively eliminating the picture’s middle ground. (Think of Old Hollywood road scenes, with moving projections and stationary cars.)
Meanwhile the rear-view and side-view mirrors intrude on the main image as televisions do in his 1960s photographs. They might show a house or a patch of sky or, in a few cases, the photographer and his camera.
Other parts of the car — the steering wheel, the door, the radio — frequently cut across the picture. Sometimes they bring a comforting structure to a chaotic intersection or industrial scene; at other times they obstruct a picturesque view (of a New England church, or a Rocky Mountain landscape).
Some of the photographs are dizzyingly complex, like one taken in Pennsylvania in 2007. The camera looks out through the passenger-side window, at a man whose feet appear to be perched on the door frame. He is standing in front of a trompe l’oeil mural of a train, which seems to be heading right at the car. In the side-view mirror you can see a woman approaching. It’s a bizarre pileup of early cinematic trickery (as in the Lumière Brothers), amateur photography and surveillance technology.
Cars distance people from one another, this series reminds us over and over. When Mr. Friedlander photographs people he knows — the photographer Richard Benson, or the legendaryMoMA curator John Szarkowski (to whom the book is dedicated) — he remains in his seat, shooting through an open window. In just a few instances the subjects poke their heads inside, a gesture that seems transgressive in its intimacy.
There’s distance too between Mr. Friedlander and the social and political subject matter that captivated Mr. Frank. His camera lingers on Civil War monuments but generally shies away from contemporary battles, except for the odd American flag or “Obama-Biden” bumper sticker. And his itinerary apparently didn’t include New Orleans, or Detroit.
He did drive through the Rust Belt, passing factories in Akron, Ohio, and houses in Cleveland that look very much like the ones in Depression-era paintings by Charles Burchfield (on view elsewhere in the museum). But in almost every case the car is a kind of shield that deflects empathy.
Did he ever get out of the vehicle? Just once in this series, for a self-portrait. It’s the last picture, and it shows him leaning into the driver’s-side window, elbow propped on the door, left hand reaching for the steering wheel.
Maybe he was thinking of the last image in “The Americans” — a shot of Mr. Frank’s used Ford taken from the roadside, showing his wife and son huddled in the back seat. In Mr. Frank’s photograph the car is a protective cocoon. Mr. Friedlander seems to see it that way too, but from the inside out.“Lee Friedlander: America by Car” continues through Nov. 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; (212) 570-3600, whitney.org.