Lee Friedlander, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Detail from Lee Friedlander: America By Car at Timothy Taylor Gallery

In 1964, two young art directors at Harpers’ Bazaar commissioned Lee Friedlander to photograph the Pontiacs, Chryslers, Buicks and Cadillacs that were the year’s new car models. Back then, the automobile was the embodiment of the American dream. “Fuel was not a concern. Big was good . . . The new cars meant optimism and elegance and the best of what America had to offer,” recalls Ansel Fieter, who was one of Friedlander’s commissioners.

Fieter hoped that Friedlander would follow in the footsteps of Andy Warhol. Assigned a similar shoot the previous year, the pop artist had juxtaposed the automobiles with silk-screened Coke bottles to create images that simultaneously ironised and celebrated the car as a symbol of transient, yet glamorous, power.

But Friedlander was no Warhol. The latter championed mass culture even as he critiqued it, whereas the photographer – until then known chiefly for his images of jazz musicians – perceived his world with the laconic froideur of an outsider. Born in 1934, he was heir to a tradition of documentary photography invented by Walker Evans and enshrined by Robert Frank, whose 1958 book The Americans captured the tense social reality of the US in images of bleak, fugitive beauty.

Friedlander cared nothing for cars (“I wouldn’t know a new car if it bit me,” he said). Rather than photograph his models against backdrops – the Metropolitan Opera House, say, or the Seagram Building – that highlighted their status as objects of desire, he downgraded them to little more than props in scenes of urban life at its most downbeat and quotidian. “I just put the cars out into the world, instead of on a pedestal,” he observed.

Wary of the fury of their car advertisers, Harpers rejected the results of his labours. For more than 40 years, the photographs languished in storage. Stumbling upon them by accident, Friedlander recognised them as valuable early examples of the oeuvre that had seen him become one of the most highly respected photographers in the world. Now, following on from an exhibition at the Thomas Zander gallery in Cologne, Harpers’ cast-offs are on show in a sequence entitled The New Cars 1964 at the Timothy Taylor gallery in London. They are accompanied, as they were at Thomas Zander, by a selection from America by Car. Shown in its entirety at the Whitney Museum in New York last year, this series has been taken by Friedlander over the past two decades as he performed his own mischievous variation on Frank’s seminal road trip.

The result is a lyrical yet unsentimental journey through modern America in which the motor car acts as both prism and protagonist. There is little doubt as to why the glossy mainstream magazine could not countenance the publication of Friedlander’s images. Gone is the shiny dream machine that Henry Ford had promised would bring “the great multitude . . . the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces”. Instead, Friedlander treats the cars as bit players in anti-spectacular dramas.

Rather than the wide skies and open roads of Ford’s fantasy, he seeks out locations – a rib shack, a sign-cluttered garage forecourt – that smack of tacky, small-time commerce then ramps up their suffocating atmosphere with tight crops and crooked angles. Drizzly, overcast skies deliver cold, unflattering light. Frequently, he parks the car on the sidewalk and shoots it through the window of a nearby shop or office building. Were the setting more glamorous, this technique might suggest the vehicle was an unobtainable luxury; instead, it becomes a spectre of alienation.

Friedlander claims not to spend much time planning the composition of his photographs. If this is true, then he has an enormously efficient unconscious. Few images could trash the American dream more competently than that of a Chrysler Imperial parked in a litter-strewn, rain-washed Detroit street lined with discounted bridalwear shops.

By the 1990s, his visual chronicles of America’s urban spaces, as well as his self-portraits and nudes, had made Friedlander one of the world’s most prominent photographers. Now, in the wake of Frank and his many followers, he started to make trips across the US in rental cars. Yet unlike his predecessors, he chose to frame his shots within the interior of the car itself, so the landscape is captured within the smooth, manufactured surfaces of dashboard, windows and mirrors. The device exaggerates the flair for finding quirky,unexpected geometries, which has been a hallmark of Friedlander’s style since the 1960s. (The delicate, structural complexity of the images in The New Car series owes much to the play of horizontals and verticals – rooflines, windowframes, lampposts and street signs.)

Framed by the architecture of the vehicle, many of the America by Car landscapes have the quality of surreal collages. Wing mirrors introduce absence into presence by reflecting objects – trees, buildings, scraps of waste ground – that are out of shot. Sliced by the moulded edge of a car door and the curve of the steering-wheel, New York buildings are reduced to a hermetic puzzle of angles and reflections.

Yet Friedlander – unlike, say, Ansel Adams – has no particular desire to reduce the world to a semi-abstraction of shape and line. What makes his vision extraordinary is its heterogeneity. At times, his eye alights on a poignant, human story, such as the Christmas lights and plastic Santa decorating the porch of an Alabama house. At other times – a sign advertising Hot Babes, another inviting God to Bless America – wit and irony are motivators. Often, his photographs are less about what we see than how: a building reflected in the gleaming flank of a black van; a row of cows sandwiched within an open window; a plastic horse whose rearing hooves echo the diagonal border of the windscreen, for example. Thus the car becomes less a symbol of the American dream than a way to reveal a dreamlike America. With the vehicle as viewfinder. Friedlander has transformed his country’s most commonplace landscapes into images that are uncanny, compelling and entirely new.

From September 1 to October 1, Timothy Taylor Gallery

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