October 19, 2010

the car is a kind of shield that deflects empathy

So reads a line in the NYTimes write up of photographer Lee Friedlander's exhibit at the Whitney Museum, and accompanying coffee table book. I've wanted to write about this for a while, but since it's less directly an urban planning topic, and more broadly car-cultural, I hemmed and hawed. No more.

Friedlander's work draws upon photographs taken during roadtrips across the continental US in the past 15 years. Unlike most roadtrippers, he took all of his pictures from inside his car.

This innovation puts Mr. Friedlander in the company of all those who turn the landscape of our automotive consumer culture into art--the article links to Ed Ruscha, but anyone who ever dug Warhol's Campbell Soup cans probably gets Friedlander. They find their are by inverting and questioning the connotations we typically associate with familiar iconography. (This is fine art! This too!)

Friedlander's particular inversion questions the iconography of an American Landscape associated with scenic scenery, majestic vistas, and even the banalities/nostalgia of highway signage and roadside commerce, because these familiar portraits tell narratives that selectively omit the auto. Each image is a story, and the story told when a traveler steps out of a parked car to capture the Grand Canyon is a different story than taking the same picture inside the car. (Exhibit A.)

As the article notes:
[Friedlander] knows that cars are essentially illusion factories — to wit: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”
Illusion factories--I think this gets to the heart of how Friedlander wants to portray the automobile: as a machine that enables much portraiture of things that are America, but simultaneously engineers its own absence from the story the picture tells. The picture, then, is an illusion, fictive, and in Friedlander's vision, courtesy of the automobile. So he unwinds the narrative, exposes the machinery, and leaves the car in the picture.

And this is why Friedlander belongs on a blog about urban planning: because cars create illusions beyond the photographs that chronicle our identities and our tourism. Relying exclusively on cars for our transportation grid creates unrealities where far things are closer (SF --> LA in 6 hours!), and close things are farther (corner store Supermarket behind a quarter mile of parking). Car accidents killed 37,000 people in 2008, yet <<insert demonized phenomena here>>. Cars seal us off from passed-through environments, and detach us from other drivers who become less demonstrably human, and more demonstrably an inconvenience preventing me from going as fast as I'd like to go. Crash weighed in on the phenomena, and I would argue car-centric environments help explain the decline in civic participation noted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Back in August, I posted my own reflections about how the car warps expectations.

But it took until reading the Friedlander article to read the line that bundled and explained these frustrations in one swoop: "the car is a kind of shield that deflects empathy." It's an illusion factory.

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