Montana, 2008 (c) Lee Friedlander, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
In the introduction to his 1982 book, Uncommon Places, the photographer Stephen Shore remarks, “Until I was 23 I lived mostly in a few square miles in Manhattan. In 1972 I set out with a friend for Amarillo, Texas. I didn’t drive, so my first view of America was framed by the passenger’s window.”
Shore’s comment alludes to an aspect of the road trip that is often ignored, but one that significantly influences and characterises the experience of encountering the world by car, and interestingly parallels the act of photography itself. In cities such as Paris and New York, which are explored mostly by foot, you are physically immersed within the environment. It is an inclusive space that is immediate, enveloping, responsive and connected to your presence.
And as a pedestrian, it is often difficult to extricate yourself from the surge of information – what Charles Baudelaire referred to as “the ebb and flow of movement… an immense reservoir of electrical energy” – for long enough to gain any real sense of perspective, or secure an opportunity for genuine contemplation.
Yet the photographic medium – with its ability to frame and isolate chosen moments and subjects from their surroundings, capture thousands of intricately subtle details instantaneously, and preserve the thinnest sliver of time precisely for the purposes of extended viewing – offers the potential to extract inklings of insight from the chaos of the city.
Again, as Baudelaire so eloquently described it when defining the pursuit of the forebear of the street photographer, the flaneur, “to distil the eternal from the transitory”.
It is therefore no surprise that as the medium’s technology became more precise and agile within the 20th Century, growing urban centres themselves often served to greatly advance photographic seeing – in Paris, the likes of Brassaï, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson experimented with the notion of “the decisive moment”, and subsequently in New York, photographers such as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Tod Papageorge, Diane Arbus and Joel Meyerowitz trawled up and down Fifth Avenue, expanding and then exploding this notion altogether.
Echoing Baudelaire’s definition, the most celebrated figure among the New York set, Garry Winogrand, once noted, “Putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it. A photograph is not what was photographed, it’s something else…a new world is created”.
In a sense, by pulling the viewfinder to the eye, the photographer on the city street momentarily disengages from the frenzied reality around them, entering the entirely different realm of the image; everything is immediately externalised, and the distinction between the real world and this new, photographic one is intensely heightened.
But as Stephen Shore’s comment insinuates, when you leave the city and take to the road – particularly the American road – you are struck by the vastness, the apparent emptiness, and the seemingly decelerated flow of visual information. Rather than having to rely on the camera to dam an overwhelming rush of stimuli, you find yourself continuously scanning the horizon simply in search for something to look at.
At the same time, the car itself mimics the act of looking through the camera, separating its occupants from the surrounding environment and allowing them to look from a uniquely private and distanced position. Furthermore, it imposes a profusion of Winogrand’s “four edges” onto the passing landscape, with each mirror and window presenting the passenger with a different frame through which to “view find” in every direction, and again transforming reality into “something else”.
To quote Jack Kerouac, “I was alone in my eternity at the wheel” – in the car as in the camera, the transitory is distilled, “a new world is created”; “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”.
Ingenious visual puzzles
Because of the fact that he first gained prominence alongside Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus in John Szarkowski’s exhibition, New Documents, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, Lee Friedlander is often misleadingly placed within New York’s street photography scene of the mid 20th Century.
Yet, as his back catalogue attests, throughout his career Friedlander has in fact been much less reluctant to take to the road than many of his contemporaries, and has not focused so much on the city. (It is interesting to note that when Winogrand was first awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to leave New York and explore the rest of America – a body of work that was posthumously published as 1964 – it was Friedlander who gave him his car; a 1957 Ford Fairlane whose short, elongated windows have been observed to resemble the dimensions of the 35mm frame as seen through both photographers’ favoured wide-angle lens.)
What Friedlander’s work does share with Winogrand’s, and many other members of his generation, is a fascination with the transformative power of the photographic image, especially when it is saturated with more information than the eye itself can evaluate in a passing moment.
In a 2002 interview, Friedlander explained, “When you take a picture you haven’t a clue that it is going to be what it is. Maybe you have a clue, but you don’t really know. There are too many possibilities. Part of the game, at least to me, is how many balls you can juggle. When you are 12, you can juggle two. Maybe when you are 50, you can juggle five. That is an interesting concept to me: how much I can put in and still make it pull together?”
Friedlander is renowned for his ability to create ingenious visual puzzles that compellingly collapse three-dimensional space into two dimensions, simultaneously accomplishing the aesthetic intentions of Cubism and the multi-layered referencing of Pop Art collage, but through the power of photographic observation alone.
Yet, although he has occasionally taken advantage of bustling streets, Friedlander has more often than not applied this strategy to environments that, at first, do not seem to naturally possess the wealth of information required for such pursuits – open highways and rural byways, small-town downtowns, parking lots, sleepy suburban neighbourhoods, peaceful parks and isolated rest-stops, deserts, forests, orchards, mountains and so on.
In order to introduce the “juggling” aspect into his imagery in even the quietest of places, he herds together frames within frames, employing mirrors, windows, reflections, shadows, signs, posters, billboards, tree trunks, telephone poles, civic monuments, television screens and more to kaleidoscopic effect, and thus collecting and cramming together as many spatial planes, as much content, and in effect, as many photographs into one image as possible.
In a sense, Friedlander consciously reverses the challenge that faces the street photographer; instead of finding ways to contain and organise the cacophony of the city within the four edges of a picture, he introduces a multiplicity of edges to an otherwise quiet scene – dividing it, complicating it, questioning it, enlivening it – and within the limits of the viewfinder compiles a multifaceted “American social landscape”, a phrase unsurprisingly first coined by the photographer himself.
In his most recent monograph, America by Car, co-published and released this year by D.A.P. and Fraenkel Gallery, Friedlander – now in his mid-seventies – continues to play his juggling game to mesmerising and masterly effect, adding even more balls to the mix by incorporating, amongst those he has used previously, the many frames that are imposed upon the world from the confines of the automobile.
In one photograph, Mississippi, 2008 (above), the left side of the frame is contained within Friedlander’s driver-side window, where, next to a dilapidated one-storey shack, a sign tries to tempt worshippers into the Reaching the Hurting Ministry by comparing premarital cohabitation to car rental. The right side of the frame, seen through the car’s windshield, presents a white sedan parked beneath leafless, wintery trees; the lower-half of the frame is filled with features from the car’s interior, including the edge of the steering wheel, vents, dials, buttons, handles and so on; and dead-centre in the frame, the car’s wing-mirror reflects the image of a figure (presumably, a photographer friend who came along for the ride) framing up another photograph of the Ministry’s sign from a slightly different angle.
All at once and from every nook and cranny of the image, the viewer is inundated with reflections of America’s religious, moral, commercial, economic, natural and architectural landscape – its “social landscape” – and at the same time is reminded of the role that photography has played in the exploration and definition of this landscape, of American photography’s own obsession with certain vernacular themes (roadside signage, humble buildings, car culture, and so on), and of the simple fact that, even in this instance, there is more than one way to make a picture.
Consisting of over a decade’s worth of images in this vein, America by Car invites us to ride shotgun alongside Friedlander as he takes a road trip through contemporary America. Furthermore, it takes us on a journey through the photographer’s own astounding career, revisiting many of the places, subjects, symbols, strategies and sources (with clever nods to Walker Evans, Robert Frank and others) that he has incorporated into his photography for more than half a century. Throughout the book, there is never any doubt as to who exactly is sitting in the driver’s seat.
Caught in transit
In an interview in 1992, Friedlander stated: “I like making books… I realise that the nature of photography is such that I can’t see everything on first look, because photography has this ability to deal so well with information. There’s so much information in a picture that often I don’t see until the fifth reading or 30 years later. I can pick up Walker’s book American Photographs today and see something I never saw before – and I’ve owned that book for over 30 years. So I think that books are a great medium for photography. They seem to be the best. I can go back and re-read things – ‘Oh shit, I didn’t see that before’.”
Among the 192 images in America by Car, nearly every body of work that Friedlander has published in book form is at some point referenced and re-explored – Self-Portrait, The American Monument, Flowers and Trees, Portraits, Letters from the People, Stick and Stones: Architectural America, Family, The Desert Seen, and even Nudes (see Las Vegas, Nevada, 2007).
As the statement suggests, perhaps Friedlander himself recognises that – like the camera for its photographer, and like the car for its passenger – the photography book provides its reader with an opportunity to distil what might otherwise be a transitory experience. In this case, it’s not the world at large, but instead the “ebb and flow”, the “immense reservoir of electrical energy”, the “something else” of looking at the photograph itself.
Whatever the case, I urge you to get the book; at the least you’ll be able to re-read things, and if you do I guarantee that you will find yourself saying, time and time again, “Oh shit, I didn’t see that before”.
America by Car is published by D.A.P./Fraenkel (ISBN: 978-1935202073), priced £39.95. A larger, limited edition version is available for £265 (ISBN: 978-1935202080). In the UK, call Art Data on 020 8747 1061 for details on your nearest stockist.
An exhibition of the work is on show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from 04 September until 28 November.
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