By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; E10
At 76, Lee Friedlander is still one of the greatest American photographers. His latest project is "America by Car," presented in a new book published by D.A.P./Fraenkel and in an exhibition of its 192 images at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Shot over the past decade, it captures one of the most quintessentially American experiences: The view of our land from inside our cars.
Friedlander shows us the built canyons of New York, as framed by his windshield. He shoots out his side window at the forests of Montana. He gives us the palms of Death Valley glimpsed in rear-view.
This is such a common way to see our world that we have to work even to notice that we're seeing it that way. Looking at Friedlander's photos (especially on the wall, as prints) there's a constant tendency to focus on the landscape that's the "subject" of a shot, while ignoring the plastic, metal and glass that frame it. You notice the car graveyard out there in a field before you realize that you're looking at it through the windows of a future resident. You notice the classic Western idyll of cattle on a plain before recognizing the machine that is allowing you that view.
With Friedlander, it's important that you do notice his frame, every time, because it changes the meaning of his photos. It's easy to see "America by Car" as one long exercise in ultra-clever composition: One highway shot lets us look forward through the windshield at where we're heading and, through the rearview mirror, at where we've just come from. In others, of cars seen from inside his car, Friedlander achieves a stunning pileup of forms -- windows framed in windows, mirrors glimpsing mirrors. The visual play is tremendous, and it can turn into a shtick.
His best photos are more than that. Views of rusting, heavy industry, in Cleveland, are framed to also show the shiny GPS screen in Friedlander's dashboard. It reminds us that today's high tech is bound for obsolescence, too.
When Friedlander shoots white churches in New England or colonnaded mansions in the South, he also tells us that their romance comes from the gap that separates them from our world -- a world of air bags and door panels rather than clapboard and Spanish moss.
America is never something out there, stable, simply waiting to be taken in. What it is depends on how we're seeing it. Nine times out of 10, that's through the window of a car.
America by Car
runs through Nov. 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York. Call 212-570-3600 or visit http://www.whitney.org.