by Max Cea
I flew to Amsterdam anticipating the unusual. In a city where half-naked women offer their services in storefront windows and where caffeine is not the primary drug served at coffee shops, I was ready for anything. Or, at least, I thought I was.
After enjoying some ‘fun’ treats with four fellow University of Nottingham exchange students, we meandered around the city and ended up at FOAM, an acclaimed Amsterdam photography museum. (The torture museum seemed like it might be a bit too intense.) On exhibit was America by Car, a series of photographs by Lee Friedlander. As the title indicates, the images captured American people and places from the driver’s seat of Friedlander’s car. Amidst observing the images, just as I was beginning to appreciate the way Friedlander imaginatively complemented the American landscapes before him with objects in the rear-view mirror, my friends walked over and asked me to remind them where in New York I was from. “Nyack?” I replied, inquisitively. With that, they led me past “Nebraska 1999,” “Montana 2008” and a collection of photos from other states in other years, to “Nyack, New York, 2001.”
It was not a hallucination. To the top left of “Haverstraw, New York, 2008” and across from two photos of New City, was a photo of my hometown. In an Amsterdam museum! Perhaps, I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as I later learned that Friedlander is a notable New City resident. But in Amsterdam you expect to see the depths of your mind before you see the streets of your hometown.
About half of the image portrayed the interior of the automobile, so it was difficult to determine whereabouts in Nyack the picture was taken. Nevertheless, the visible homes looked unmistakably familiar; like a place that I might have passed on a run or on my way home from school. Despite the area’s familiarity, I couldn’t help questioning why Friedlander would choose to capture this part of Nyack. After all, Nyack is a town with awe-inspiring views of the Hudson River, a charming downtown, and beautiful Broadway abodes, in which movies have been filmed and movie stars have lived. The answer, though, should have been obvious.
Draped over one of the homes’ garage was a supersized American flag. Judging from the barren trees, the photo was taken in the fall of that year. Nyack, like so many other northeastern towns was mourning the loss of some of its most beloved and respected residents. There was nothing unusual or spectacular about that small segment of Nyack’s residential streets. That was the point. You didn’t have to be from Nyack to vaguely recognize the view from Frieldander’s car window. The photo is meant to be representative of the zealous patriotism on display in (and on) average homes across the country – but especially, in the New York tri-state area. It captured the fortitude of the American everyman post-911.
Friendlander’s photograph of Nyack was taken 12 years ago, (probably) right around this time of year. I was nine years old at the time, but I can still remember how that atrocity, meant to tear the nation apart, instead – at least, immediately – united us. At a certain point on that dystopian day, it became too hard to watch the news; neighbors gathered on the street and reflected together. The nation was in a collective state of shock and Nyack was no different. But shock did not prevent residents from doing everything in their power to help those who had lost loved ones on that tragic day. Nationally, stories of Nyack’s own “man in the red bandana” and iconic photos of firemen hoisting an American flag at Ground Zero symbolized the country’s resilience and the idea that our shared adversity would only strengthen us.
In hindsight, it seems terribly difficult to argue that 9/11 did strengthen us. The past twelve years have been characterized by futile war, an economic meltdown, polarized politics, and the loss of fourth amendment freedoms. A glance at the rearview mirror isn’t exactly encouraging. And while I know that you’re not supposed to stop and stare at a wreck, if we can learn something from America’s accidents, maybe, Mr. Friedlander will continue to see American flags draped over the garages of houses that look just like the elusively familiar one he photographed in Nyack.
Max Cea (@max_cea) is a contributing editor at NyackNewsAndViews and a Junior at the College of William & Mary