Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lee Friedlander's "America by Car" at the Whitney Museum is a Disappointment

Please don't get me wrong: Lee Friedlander is one of our greatest photographers, and his work often amazes and delights me. But his latest dispatch, "America by Car", on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through November 28, is a huge disappointment. Friedlander is still an acute observer of quirky American culture, but the newly added gimmick of photographing through the interior of a car using a Hasselblad Super Wide camera creates a formal distraction and a mitigating factor to accessing the pleasure and meaning of these pictures. The interiors are not that visually interesting in the first place, and become monotonous when repeated ad nauseam. I felt like yelling, "You've come this far, just get out of the car, Lee!" The most engaging parts of the pictures are out there, reduced to mere incidental details which would be better explored on foot. As John Szarkowski once observed, the secret to photography is standing in the right place, and sitting inside the automobile isn't it. Even Friedlander's other recent pictures taken with the Super Wide seem like a retread of his prior work, a deliberate reprise of the same subject matter through a lens that caricatures his previous accomplishments. Is the photographer getting lazy, or making a nod to Postmodernism? I am reminded of how much more successful were André Kertész's later Polaroid SX-70 photographs in their construction and pathos. Even though the photographer was limited by his age in his ability to move about, he managed to turn this apparent disadvantage around in order to create images that built upon his past achievements. I believe that this work ingeniously becomes an allegory for his earlier period. Every artist has his or her hits and misses, but what really surprises me is the widespread acclaim that has accompanied "America by Car". What has happened to critical judgement in photography writing? Is there an acceptance that the anointed can do no wrong, or is there too much at stake in the art game to risk tainting the reputation of an investment, if not an artist? I'm sorry to have to be the one to say it, but the emperor has no clothes.

Top left of page: Alaska 2007 © Lee Friedlander
Top right: Montana 2008 © Lee Friedlander                                                                            
Bottom left: January 1979 © Estate of André Kertész