Currently showing at the Whitney Museum of American Art is a fabulous exhibition of photography by Lee Friedlander. Simply titled “America By Car”, the images use a rental car as a framing device for explorations of the many faces of the American landscape, shot over the past 15 years. The black-and-white shots are crisp, so deliciously crisp, and quintessentially American – Friedlander captures a country on the move, all the romance and kitsch and loneliness and grit of life on the road.
Forget geometrically lined up horizons – there’s a warm candidness to these shots that’s more about telling moments than organised perfection. Which isn’t to say the shots aren’t thoughtfully composed – there’s a wit to both their individual composition and the visual cues that link the collection together.
Densely hung at Friedlander’s request, the snapshots echo the bombardment of options that is life in America. They range from shimmering cityscapes through rain-streaked windshields to bleak desert vistas. There’s something almost iconographic to the attention paid to monuments and burnt out neon signs. Frames packed with gas station signage jostle next to church noticeboards; other images are desolately spare, lacking only the metaphorical tumbleweed.
The elements of the car add another level of personality – you’re aware of the photographer whether via a glimpse of his lens in the side mirror, a cigarette burn in the door upholstery, or bits of paperwork and gallery maps in the side pocket. The car itself is a character in this story. Seen through the windscreen, steam and condensation in vertical rivulets render a few trees into a forest. After so many uninhabited landscapes, when you see people it’s jarring – sighted through windows, reflected in side mirrors.
The exhibition takes you across the length and breadth of America, and concludes with a wall of stop signs from a myriad of states, and Friedlander’s self portrait. It’s a trip.
Friedlander’s images are much better than my efforts! Check out a gallery here.