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My family and I  spent last weekend in our battered ’84 Chevy Camper Van, out on the Alaskan road, looking for pictures.  When I came home last night, a package was waiting for me, from Amazon, with a copy of “America by Car”, the new book by Lee Friedlander.  I started thumbing through it, amused by the usual visual cacophony that Friedlander seems to always  find in the American landscape, until I was stopped short by an unexpected, familiar Alaskan image—the Igloo Hotel on the Parks Highway—a place I’d just visited on Saturday.

Lee Friedlander, American by Car, Plate 38, Alaska 2007

The Igloo Hotel is a unique structure, built in the shape of every child’s image of an Eskimo igloo, but much larger, and covered in white foam that gives the structure the feeling of snow, even in the heat of summer.  Whoever built it certainly understood the iconography of the north, the pull of familiar objects.  Unfortunately, they had a much less developed sense of fire codes—the windows they installed in what were to be the hotel rooms did not meet egress standards, and it became clear during construction that the hotel would never get an occupancy permit.  The building was never finished, and stands as a monument to the Alaskan impulse to just do it and ask for forgiveness later—behavior sometimes justly seen as a form of stupidity.

Once I found the first Alaskan picture, I knew he’d been here, and I started looking for others.  They were very hard to pick out based on the images—thankfully there was  a caption list in the back of the book—and once the labels were connected to the pictures, I could identify most of the places and even some of the trucks in the images.  It appears from the pictures that Friedlander’s destination was Denali Park (at least I can’t identify any places north of there—and I’m sure if he’d made it to North Pole he would have found something wonderfully absurd there).   I’d like to think that he was chasing his own twisted vision of the Ansel Adams Wonder Lake image.  Maybe he was and he got the picture, but that isn’t what he gives us in this project.

Lee Friedlander, America by Car, Plate 151, Denali Park, 2007

What he presents us with instead is a image of a Park Ranger with a perfectly peaked hat, a somewhat forced grin, and the overall demeanor of a gopher that just popped out of his hole.  In his rear view mirror is the taillight of a school bus.  The landscape is familiar to anyone who has spent time in Denali—it is at the ranger booth at Savage River, the limit to which  unpermitted vehicles are allowed to travel into the park before being told to go back to the front of the park, get out of their car, stand in line for several hours, and get a ticket to get on a bus (a school bus with bad suspension) three days later so that they can endure a five and a half hour grueling ride to Wonder Lake and spend a few minutes before they need to get back on the bus for the equally long but even more uncomfortable and exhausting return.

In Friedlander’s landscape work (hopefully still in progress), he often takes a familiar scene and partially obscures the familiar landmark in the distance with some obstruction in the foreground.  Here, of course, the obstruction between the photographer and his subject is that silly grinning Park Ranger, telling him that he can’t take his car back into the park just to frame his picture.  So he perfectly frames the Ranger, and creates a photograph worth considering next to  Ansel’s—the black car door instead of the darkness surrounding Wonder Lake, the crisp crease in the hat instead of the white glow of the mountain.  As much as Ansel’s image, this, too, is a perfect picture of Denali…


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