America By Car & The New Cars 1964
"America is the original version of modernity".
To understand America you have to take to the road. America without the car is unimaginable. The American constitution might enshrine the right to bear arms, but it is the car that is the real symbol of freedom. Movement is fundamentally American. From the time the covered wagons of the Pilgrim Fathers trundled westwards, expanding the frontiers of the New World to establish their utopian communities free from religious persecution, through to the era of the Wild West cowboy, the idea of setting off for pastures new has been quintessential in defining American culture.
As the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, put it: 'All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour. That behaviour tells you much more than you could ever learn from its political ideas. Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together'. Henry Ford made a promise to the nation. 'I will build a car for the great multitude… it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces'. 'Any customer,' he added, 'can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black'.
American literature, cinema and music are peppered with stories of journeys from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, to films such as Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and Chuck Berry's iconic songs Route 66 or There's no particular place to go. These have their roots in the epic ancient journeys of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. They are tales of transformation for modern times, Bildungsroman, where the hero changes and grows through the trials and tribulations of his experience. The unifying thread is always the search for the American Dream. As the tag line of Easy Rider says, 'A man went looking for America…and couldn't find it anywhere!'
Lee Friedlander is a man who has also gone looking for America and, in his iconic photographs, found it in its multifarious forms from the tacky and the weird to the sublime. His America by Car is a vast compendium of the country's eccentricities, obsessions and prejudices, its wackiness and sheer beauty. In Europe the city is traditionally explored on foot. Charles Baudelaire's Parisian flâneur is someone who walks the city in order to savour and experience it. But 'Astral America', according to Baudrillard, is a space of constant flux and flow, of deserts and highways going somewhere and nowhere in particular, of coca-cola signs and parking lots, of gas stations and grain silos, of pizza parlors, oil wells and grand canyons. In this sprawling chaos and emptiness that is America Lee Friedlander has used the car to mimic the act of looking through a camera. The architecture of the car - the windows, the rear-view and wing mirrors – acts as both viewfinder and frame. As the celebrated New York photographer Garry Winograd once said: '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'.
Friedlander has created, with his black-and white, square-format photographs, new worlds, like a series of film stills, images that until he chose to isolate them within the geometry of windscreen, dashboard and mirror would have gone unnoticed: the advertisement for Hot Babes, Girls That Want To Meet You, where a bikinied blonde pouts from the back of a Nevada truck, the ubiquitous little American white clapboard church, the roadside diners and plastic Santa and the vast horizons that are nowhere in particular, are all rescued from obscurity. It is like watching one of those small square 1960s black and white TVs or being a passenger in the back of Friedlander's assorted rental cars where the passing landscape is framed by the side window, each insignificant moment given weight to create a web of discordant images that are the many faces of America. His sense of composition is laconic as well as iconic, modernist and formal as well as subversive, compassionate and witty. The country he presents is at once strange and familiar, God fearing and materialistic, modern yet somehow primitive and elemental.
His shots of shop windows in The New Cars 1964 play with veils of transparency and opacity. The reading of space is confused in these fluid images where the distinctions between reflection and reality invite multiple readings. America, these images seem to suggest, is whatever you want it to be; a dream, a chimera. Friedlander claims that he does not spend much time thinking about the process of taking photographs, that he doesn't have a clue how they are going to turn out as there are too many variables. It is just something that he does all the time. Pictures, he says, make him realize that he is interested in something. If he had been a painter or writer he could go back and fiddle with things that were not right. But with a photograph if you go back the situation has already changed. He compares himself to an old carpenter banging in nails with ease, talking as he works. 'Any kind of craftsman, it seems to me', he says, 'once they have established that they know how to do something, they do it magically'.
Lee Friedlander America By Car & The New Cars 1964 at Timothy Taylor Gallery from 1 September to 1 October 2011
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Lee Friedlander. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco