1st September 2011 — 1st October 2011
I suspect it is for one's self-interest that one looks at one's surroundings and one's self. This search is personally born and is indeed my reason and motive for making photographs. The camera is not merely a reflecting pool and the photographs are not exactly the mirror, mirror on the wall that speaks with a twisted tongue. Witness is borne and puzzles come together at the photographic moment which is very simple and complete. The mind-finger presses the release on the silly machine and it stops time and holds what its jaws can encompass and what the light will stain. That moment when the landscape speaks to the observer.
That moment, to which the American photographer Lee Friedlander refers, when the landscape speaks to the observer, is well documented on the road, the street, most classically, the expansive roads of North America. These roads are dotted with highly captivating (not necessarily for the right reasons) individuals in a both epic and understated scenery, that has been repeatedly recorded by lens and verse alike. This documentation has in turn created a great nostalgia for the open road, where old routes offer a source of exploration that attracts not only those seeking the quintessential road-trip experience but also contemporary artists, not afraid to step onto a very trodden path.
Lee Friedlander (b. 1934) established the USA as his protagonist early on in his career, having been influenced by the most legendary of open road and street photographers -Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Richard Avedon, Walker Evans to name a few. In the 1960s Friedlander began his ‘social landscapes’, black and white photographs of everyday American phenomena, that were simultaneously depressing and nostalgic records of a detached urban modern society. This season at Timothy Taylor Gallery we see the product of Friedlander’s continued interest in America, the road and his own photographic method, with the gallery presenting us with two new bodies of work: America By Car & The New Cars 1964. The latter is a collection of 33 photographs, originally commissioned by Harper's Bazaar in 1964, where his instructions were to photograph that year’s car models. Friedlander, never a stranger to offering simple contradictions, photographed the new, expensive Cadillacs, Chryslers, Buicks and Pontiacs against a shabby backdrop – a car pound, parking lots, shop windows. The photographs, to Harper’s dismay, did not show off the shiny new cars, but they were presented to us in reflections or obscured by other objects. In a photograph shot in Detroit, we are presented with three visual planes, the inside of the furniture shop with its flowery sofa set, the car reflected in the window, but also the reflection of what is behind the car - ‘Rose Auto Sale’ - a row of similar looking cars, parked up and facing us. Another work (also taken in Detroit) depicts a stationary Chrysler obscured by a pile of tyres, the Pegasus logo just visible over the top. Perhaps not surprisingly, the series never made it into the November issue, or any issue for that matter. Rejected by the magazine, the photos, named after the city where they were taken - not the car - lay dormant, and this exhibition offers their first viewing outside America.
The New Cars offers a great companion in which to view the America By Car series. Originally a body of 192 images, the selection on display charts a multitude of journeys crossing the last decade and a majority of the States of America. While the work is not an ‘on the road’ narrative, it does adhere to the long standing tradition of documenting, or attempting to define America. He is on the open road, in a car - both American icons in their own right - photographing both iconic (such as skyscrapers) to infamous (the suburbs, motels, billboards) American identifiers. However, the work is not simply a homage to that tradition of urban photography, for Friedlander does not leave the car behind, does not step beyond its metal frame, but actively lets the inside of his rental intrude, not only acting as a window to gaze past, but very much the subject of the photograph itself. The frame of the car cuts the view in two or three, adding an element of abstraction and removal from the exterior landscape outside the car. Like the driver, the viewer is trapped within, gagging the world through obscurity, instilling a sense of alienation to a fragmented, boxed exterior created by the metal frame. This act of fragmentation creates a juxtaposition of imagery that is parallel with the collage techniques of pop art; simultaneously this and his use of angles in the photograph creates an effect where the exterior world and interior of the car appear to be on one plane, collapsing the three dimensional into flatness like a cubist painting. Both his interest in collage, and creating a flatness within the image, mirrored by the flatness of the physical object itself, has been a recurrent technique in his work since the 1960s. Another tool Friedlander has used to oscillate between both real and contrived ambiguity is reflection, where in The New Cars he used shop windows, in America By Car, he carefully uses his side and rear-view mirrors to offer a different angle from which to view the outside, but also the photographer himself.
I suspect it is for one's self-interest that one looks at one's surroundings and one's self.
Through the use of reflection in both series, Freidlander is thus both in front of and behind the camera, and in America by Car - inside and outside the car’s frame. It reminds us that the car is both a physical and mental barrier, it’s a shield, not only from the landscape we drive through, but the people that inhabit it. The oscillation between and interest in the interior and exterior is a multi-faceted condition of contemporary American living, not only with the importance of introspection/psychoanalysis, but also in physical comfort and well-being; the home and the car offer a defence, a private sanctuary where one is removed from the exterior world, empathy for the outside collapses - not necessarily with the interest in preserving the interior, but through the default feeling of being a spectator, a viewer, and so, in this series you are viewing the viewer - building yet another degree of separation. Although there is only one proclaimed self-portrait (the last in the series, titled: Lee, New York, New York, 2007), this series contains a constant reminder of the photographer’s presence behind the camera, not only through the use of reflection, but by having the photographs always taken from the car seat repeatedly reminding us that the photographer is in a very particular physical space, a space that is clearly established by the body of the car allowed within the photograph’s frame. His self portraits have never conformed to the genre, his image has always been carefully oblique, in the form of a reflection, a shadow; an imprint onto the thing we are observing but also a reminder that the camera is only one of several layers of removal between us and the photographer.
Adding to Lee Friedlander’s 50+ year career, America By Car & The New Cars 1964 both illustrate the complexities of Friedlander’s often humorous work; taken in Mississippi, he captures another person in the side-view mirror, also taking a photograph, instantly giving the feeling that this photograph is that third party’s self portrait, but, of course it isn’t. Comically and aptly, also caught in the same photograph is sign for the Reaching the Hurting Ministry reading: ‘LIVE IN RELATIONSHIPS ARE LIKE RENTAL CARS NO COMMITMENT’. Signs are clearly a useful tool for Friedlander in playing with our sense of humour; parked outside a Mississippi bar, he snaps the sign ‘HOT WOMEN AND COLD BEER....’
The works here at Timothy Taylor beautifully offer us a fragmented image of contemporary America, glimpses of familiar sights, unassuming markers of an American identity. From the wheel of a Chevy (or is it a Toyota?) he snaps, with his square-format Hasselblad Superwide, ice cream shops, road signs, American flags, abandoned cars, bars, Christmas decorations, factories, the roadside, and although both series were shot 40 years apart they are eerily timeless, differing by only the slightest signifier - as if the road is stuck in time with its deserted motels, advertising billboards and anonymous suburbs.
Timothy Taylor Gallery
15 Carlos Place
London W1K 2EX