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REVIEW: LEE FRIEDLANDER AT THE WHITNEY

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 5 NOVEMBER 2010 — There is a distant quality to much of the work of Lee Friedlander (b. 1934), one of the most important American photographers working in the documentary tradition to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. You see it in his nudes of young women, including Madonna before she was famous; they lounge recumbent, twisted, turned away, seemingly unaware there is a man with a camera in the room. You even find it in his undated Self portrait — an image of the photographer, bare-chested and seated in a lonely corner, staring at the camera as if it were playing a bad television show.

Keeping your distance is the Leitmotiv of Lee Friedlander: America by Car, showing at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through 28 November 2010). The exhibition consists of 192 square-format black-and-white photographs. They are hung in double rows in the museum’s most intimate space, its mezzanine, giving the show a deliberately pressed-together look. Every photograph was taken from inside an automobile, and when you consider that they are recent works, made all around the country by a man in his seventies, you have to commend Friedlander for both his energy and willingness to continue to take artistic risks. The project brought him all the way to Alaska, where we see a portly ranger in Denali National Park standing at attention, grinning back at the camera.


Lee Friedlander, Denali Park, 2007
From the series America by Car, 1995 - 2009 
Gelatin silver print
© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Friedlander’s technique is to make parts of the car — steering wheel, windshield, dashboard and, most notably, rear-view mirror—into key elements that both frame individual images and unify the series. A car preserves distance by armoring the driver behind steel; that is one reason why many Americans find Manhattan — where you move around protected only by your own clothes and your wits — so intimidating. Although Friedlander drove various makes and models of rental cars, autos tend to look alike from the inside out. In most of the images, the vehicle’s utilitarian features fill the near distance of the frame, leaving the scenery and the people literally just a small window through which to peek and tell the story.


Lee Friedlander: Las Vegas, Nevada, 2007
From the series America by Car, 1995 - 2009 
Gelatin silver print
© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

If it is true that Americans have a romance with the road, it is also true that you always hurt the one you love. The American roadside is littered with the detritus of American life, and Friedlander, who throughout much of his long career has used the camera for social criticism, is more than willing to showcase country churches with cheesy marquees calling for worship; garish roadside eateries that you know, without asking, aren’t any good; piles of industrial debris; and the nearly forgotten rail system that had once helped build the nation. Prominent in several images are the cheery faces of the good-natured people who populate the American heartland, including a photographer, one camera on a tripod, the other hanging from his neck like a brick on a rope, greeting Friedlander. Conversely, there are the views of American grandeur, from Grand Teton National Park to one of the stately homes of Charleston, in which even those points of majesty appear as the wallpaper-like background the world becomes whenever you see it from the window of a passing car.


Lee Friedlander: New Mexico, 2001
From the series America by Car, 1995 - 2009 
Gelatin silver print
© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

At times it feels as if the photographer’s technique is a gimmick — the mechanical equivalent of what would happen if a cowboy were to ride through town, snapping photos from his saddle, always sure to have his horse’s head in view. Another way to look at it is that something similar probably would have happened to Robert Frank, as he drove around to create the photographs for his book The Americans, if he hadn’t bothered to get out of the car. The landscapes call to mind the images of Ansel Adams (surely that was intentional), but they also make you grateful that Adams parked, lugged out his wooden view camera, tripod, filters and film, and stomped through mud and snow to immortalize what he saw and loved.

Good documentary photography is not about capturing reality; it is about helping the viewer see reality in a new way. It doesn’t matter whether Friedlander chose his technique primarily for aesthetic reasons or because, when you get on in life, sometimes, you just want to stay seated. The point is that he went out and brought back something new and well worth seeing. As Friedlander showed in his big 2005 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, he has always accepted that being erratic as a price you may pay for being unique. As for his new series: whatever its faults, you may never look at America through a windscreen in quite the same way again.

Lee Friedlander: America By Car
until 28 November 2010

Whitney Museum of Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
Tel: (1) 800 WHITNEY 

A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Alan Behr last wrote on  the exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A show of his own documentary photography, Naked at the Ball, will be on view at Leica Gallery, New York in March 2011. 

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