Lee Friedlander 28.02.12

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In the early 1960s, the future had wheels and a sleek chrome exterior. "She's real fine my 409. Well, I saved my pennies and I saved my dimes," swooned Brian Wilson. In 1963, the year that the Beach Boys released their automobile-ode album Little Deuce Coupe, a little-known artist named Andy Warhol was commissioned by Harper's Bazaar to illustrate the phenomenon that was the American motorcar. It may have been the same year that Warhol silk-screened a tabloid shot of a car crash, but his repeated views of a Cadillac for Harper's were nothing short of celebratory.

A year later, Harper's gave the same brief and access to that year's dream machines to an emerging photographer named Lee Friedlander. Friedlander, however, had little interest in automobiles, and much to the horror of the magazine's editors, it showed: in his series The New Cars there were no drivers, no beautiful women in passenger seats, no open roads. Instead, Chryslers, Pontiacs and Cadillacs were abandoned by kerbs, obscured by adverts and garden ornaments, or lost in reflections. Friedlander's covert mission – "to put the cars out in the world, instead of on a pedestal" – proved too much for Harper's and for 40 years his unpublished photographs remained in a box in the archives.

At the Timothy Taylor gallery, these charming, playful experiments have been excavated and are shown alongside Friedlander's more recent series, America by Car – the product of numerous road trips in rental cars that the photographer has made over the past 15 years. Both bodies of work scrutinise the American landscape, both have the same nonchalant air about them, both delight in disorientation and fragmentation. But when it comes to their perspective, they are opposites. In his 1964 series, a pavement-bound Friedlander hunted down the most obtuse way of photographing a car without really photographing it, against a backdrop of anonymous suburban hinterlands. 
In comparison, American by Car offers the full nationwide panorama – city skylines, roadside nowheres, desert and mountain expanses – but this time from the driver's seat. In these, Friedlander makes a feature out of the interior, with pristine dashboards and doors looming large in the foreground, and the car's hulking metal structure fashioned into an imposing sculptural form that dominates almost every photograph. If it wasn't for the fact that most of the exterior landscapes seem as if they're stuck in the 60s (a few Obama placards can be spied, but largely the roadside signs that catch Friedlander's eye are of the run-down Walker Evans kind), these images could almost be mistaken for contemporary car ads. But, just as Friedlander upended the idea of the street photographer as a mythic hero with his 1970s self-portraits of shadows and reflections, here he takes a cheeky swipe at the concept of the legendary road trip (many of the photos in Robert Frank's infamous 1958 state of the nation book The Americans possess a similar casual, drive-by feel to them, but never does Frank's car protrude into the frame).

The best images in America by Car are the most claustrophobic ones – those where Friedlander takes full advantage of the conflicting framing opportunities and unusual angles offered by windscreens, wing-mirrors and windows. In these, buildings, signs and horizons collide and are warped by the square format and the cram-everything-in lens of his Hasselblad Super Wide, a camera he only began using in the 1990s. In contrast, the simpler compositions of The New Cars may not be as visually zingy, but Friedlander's quieter shots of cars positioned haphazardly by bland grass verges or piles of used tyres are just as powerful and irreverent as his complex layerings of street and interior spaces.

In America by Car, there's the sense that the automobile is a cocoon, utterly divorced from the outside world, but with such a multitude of different locations on view through the windscreen, any sense of social commentary is diluted. The New Cars, meanwhile, offers an abundance of formal charms, but also a much more concentrated critique of the bland suburban landscape that the car has perpetuated. Here, the promise of freedom on four wheels is nowhere to be found.

Lee Friedlander: America By Car & The New Cars 1964. Timothy Taylor Gallery, 1 September - 1 October 2011

 

Image

Lee Frielander

 

Words

Isabel Stevens

quotes story

In his series, The New Cars, Chryslers, Pontiacs and Cadillacs were abandoned by kerbs, obscured by adverts and garden ornaments, or lost in reflections

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