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Lee Friedlander is a Washington born photographer whose unique compositional vision has consistently won great acclaim over the past five decades. A new exhibition at the West End’s Timothy Taylor Gallery displays two complimentary projects by the influential artist: The New Cars 1964 and America by Car. Both collections are comprised of photos taken of, or inside, cars. Friedlander, however, professed “not to know much about, or care for” the vehicles – yet it is for this reason that the exhibition proves essential viewing.
The New Cars 1964 was the result of a commission by U.S. magazine Harper’s Bazaar, the fashion glossy tasking Friedlander with showcasing the soon-to-be-unveiled Buick and Ford models of that year. The 33 black and white photos in this collection all feature fresh-off-the-line automobiles, but never as the central focus of the composition.
Friedlander was primarily concerned with positioning the cars alongside iconography which he felt captured the romance of the American road, and he paid particular attention to contrasting the vehicle’s gleaming curves against rough textures and obtuse angles (which would become a distinctive trait of his work). He photographed the cars obscured by rusting garden furniture, in the reflection of shop windows, and through the weathered glass of a telephone box.
The images range from the slight and sublime to the ghostly and eerie, courtesy of Friedlander’s inventive use of reflections (a headless mannequin dominates the foreground of one, with a car just visible through a shop window), and don’t particularly capture the sense of glamour and speed the magazine had hoped for (he even places a car lost amongst a heap of worn tyres).
Straying far from the magazine’s favoured bold and clean style, the images were deemed too subversive, and ultimately bizarre rather than Bazaar. It was only very recently that Friedlander rediscovered the negatives, and, as the exhibition proves, what was Harper’s loss was certainly photography’s (eventual) gain.
The second collection, America by Car, documents Friedlander’s recent road trips across all 50 states with his customary 35mm Laika as companion. Every square-cropped image has been taken from inside a rental car, and resultantly each composition is dissected by the sharp angles of the cars’ interior, complete with intruding speedometers and air conditioning vents.
Rather than capturing car-sick blurriness, Friedlander’s photos display a sharp clarity, suggesting the reflection and catharsis that travelling can afford. His use of light and sense of tone are inventive and wholly unique, and the glimpses of sweeping, unbounded landscapes through windscreens are stunning, alive with spontaneity and the romance of the road. The photographer’s sensitive attention to texture and use of reflections are apparent throughout, evident in the glimpses of the man himself caught in the side mirrors, all flecked with dried rainwater, and the contrast between the smooth leather of the interior and the grainy exterior landscapes.
The collection proves that instances of untouched, rural America can still be found, and we’re treated to glances at steaming industrial works, decaying restaurant signs, a smiling county sheriff, the unassuming glare of a herd of cows, and countless surreal, giant roadside animals. However, it seems the Coca-Cola signs, Christian slogans, and adverts promising ‘Hot Girls’ can’t be escaped entirely.
A composition featuring leafless tress piercing the sky, a slight glimpse of the photographer in the side mirror, and a church sign reading ‘LIVE IN RELATIONSHIP ARE LIKE RENTAL CARS NO COMMITMENT JUST RIDE’ (sic), represents perfectly Friedlander’s dryly humorous collection of photos that document, celebrate and immortalise his journeys in rental cars with an astounding commitment. The photographer may not have cared much for the plain aesthetics of cars, but his passion for the open road is communicated wonderfully.
The exhibition continues until 1st October at. More information can be found at timothytaylorgallery.com.
Rob Fred Parker