Diamonds through the windshield

Lee Friedlander's witty road trip takes in America

Lee Friedlander’s “Alaska’’ underscores that the weirdness of kitsch suits the weirdness of the driving experience. Lee Friedlander’s “Alaska’’ underscores that the weirdness of kitsch suits the weirdness of the driving experience. (© Lee Friedlander, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 17, 2010

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NEW YORK — The automobile almost ranks with the camera as a necessary piece of photographic equipment. Lens-bearing road trippers have included Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, Stephen Shore, and, first among many other equals, Robert Frank.

Almost always the car has served simply as vehicular means to artistic end. Lee Friedlander, another photographer who’s racked up a lot of mileage over the years, puts the automobile to additional artistic use in “Lee Friedlander: America by Car.’’ It becomes venue as well as vehicle.

The show consists of 192 black-and-white photographs, all 15 inches square, which Friedlander took from the driver or (less often) passenger seat of his car in very nearly all of the 50 states over the past dozen years. It runs through Nov. 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The view through the windshield and side windows is one everybody knows. It’s so familiar, who even takes it in, anymore? Friedlander does, and in doing so makes us see it anew. A windshield serves two purposes, after all. It’s protection from the elements. It’s also a window.

Have you ever noticed how visually busy an automobile dashboard is? You sure do when you look at these pictures. They’re a collision between industrial design and the landscape of the imagination. With deadpan profligacy, Friedlander presents a dizzying array of planes and angles, circles and curves. The fractured geometry of sort-of-rectangular mirrors, round steering wheel, and circular and oval dashboard instrument dials could make Euclid a NASCAR fan.

Then there’s the exterior landscape. So much of the fascination of these marvelous pictures is the interplay they offer between out there and in here. Friedlander roams near and far: the New York skyline, Confederate war monuments, various national parks, the Las Vegas strip, churches, gas stations, grain elevators, stop signs.

One of the stop signs, in Montana, is so exactingly centered you almost laugh with pleasure at the preposterous (and highly uncharacteristic) fussiness of the placement. Friedlander offers numerous other examples of visual wit. A few times we catch glimpses of him, reflected in various mirrors. There’s an even clearer sense of Friedlander in his jokes. A trick of perspective makes a tiny Burger Boy sign seem to rest on top of a much larger God Bless America sign in New Mexico, from 2001. The sight of an auto carrier in Texas is the vehicular equivalent of visiting a maternity ward. The wittiest touch of all is how the pictures are hung, in a pair of parallel rows, like a kind of two-lane highway.

Friedlander is a famous lover of jazz, and he exploits the capacity of windshield and side windows to provide such fine framing devices the way a great bop soloist might run the changes on “I Got Rhythm’’ or “All the Things You Are’’ (“All the Things Your Car’’?). Somehow Friedlander manages the rather slick trick of simultaneously giving a feeling of arrested motion and zipping right along. The general sense of variation he manages to convey is quite something, and the least of it is the number of makes of car he drives (Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Chevrolet, Subaru — and those are just the ones with steering wheels where the marque is visible).

There are many specimens of roadside kitsch (those plastic ice cream cones in Alaska!), except that Friedlander’s deadpan, casual approach underscores that the weirdness of kitsch perfectly suits the weirdness of the driving experience. There are also specimens of art — or, more accurately, art awareness. The photographs themselves are specimens of art. An auto junkyard in Arizona bows to Walker Evans’s famous photograph of a similar site in Pennsylvania. Art-world luminaries pop up: the artist Maya Lin and her husband, the photography dealer Daniel Wolf; printer/photographer Richard Benson; the late curator/photographer John Szarkowski (Friedlander has dedicated the accompanying book to “my pal’’ Szarkowski).

In one of the pictures, Wolf’s arms and hands rest in the car interior. The sense of spatial violation — however friendly the physical proximity might be in social terms — is almost as shocking as a squeal of brakes. To see another presence in what has come to seem the sacred volume of Friedlander’s interior is quite unnerving. What we’ve been seeing has been a succession of small spaces, but they’re his small spaces. Better than that, they’re small spaces through which we’ve gotten to see a very big country.

Mark Feeney can be reached at


At the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York, through Nov. 28. 212-570-3600,