Lee Friedlander, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Lee Friedlander's photos of America show a place of failed heroism, where Toyotas and Nissans have replaced Buicks and Cadillacs

In the spring of 1964, the American glossy, Harper's Bazaar, commissioned a little-known photographer called Lee Friedlander to shoot the year's new model cars.

You can imagine the sort of thing the editor had in mind – glinting Buicks and Cadillacs, all chrome and fins, driven by Wasp-y women in gloves and hats. Friedlander, though, had other ideas. There were cars in his photos all right, and they were shiny. But they were also driverless, deserted, as though some cataclysm had wiped out the car-owning population of America.

Worse, at least as far as Harper's was concerned, this apocalypse had struck while the cars were parked not outside Saks or the Montauk Yacht Club, but the kind of places the magazine's readers simply did not go to – strip malls and dusty motels, drive-in cinemas, fast-food joints and suburban gardens with plastic deer. One sleek Chrysler was hidden behind a pile of old tyres at a Mobil station; a Lincoln convertible was reflected in the window of a cheap furniture shop. This was not what the editor had had in mind. Friedlander was paid for his photographs, but they were never published. They stayed in an archive for the next 40 years.

Read like this, The New Cars 1964 – one part of this two-part show at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London – sounds like a bit of a joke, an attempt to sneak a little subversion into the pages of America's society bible. No doubt Friedlander's photographs did have a vague political intent, but their darkness runs deeper than that. One of the most noticeable things about them is that their cars are almost all cropped or framed, and are shot either through glass or reflected in it. We see the cars in a car-like way, as though we were looking from, as well as at, them. Much has been written about the effect the invention of plate-glass in the 1830s had on the way people saw, the one-shot gaze of the Impressionist flâneur. Friedlander's photographs make an equivalent suggestion, that car-ownership had led to a car-ish way of seeing. Now the cars were looking back.

In this sense at least, The New Cars 1964 was intently un-American. Since the Model T Ford, car-ownership had defined American individualism, the American dream. In 1949, Arthur Miller's tragic common man, Willy Loman, looked not to church for his god but to Chevrolet. By the early 1960s, though, faith had begun to decline; photochemical smog had first been described in the 1950s; in November 1963, months before the Harper's commission, John F Kennedy was assassinated while being driven through Dallas in just such a Lincoln as the one in Friedlander's pictures. It would be another 25 years before Roland Barthes pointed out that the word "shoot" was used for both cameras and guns. Friedlander, though, seems to intuit this in his own drive-by shootings – to see the car as somehow fatal, not so much effect as cause, the thing that had made strip malls and drive-ins, dead tyres and suburban sprawl.

This revelation may not have been to Harper's liking, but the 33 photographs on show in The New Cars 1964 are extraordinary even so: deadpan, anti-heroic, sinister, beautifully composed. And side by side with these are more than 100 of the 192 images Friedlander made after 2001 – titled America by Car – the photographer having taken himself off on a 10-year tour of the continental US by way of Avis and Hertz.

It is tempting to see the pictures in America by Car as an up-to-date inversion of those in The New Cars. Now, we are on the inside looking out, the windows and windscreens of Friedlander's various rentals serving as frames for an America which is almost incidental to them. What glimpses we do get of the country are of a place monumental but run down: 19th-century buildings blurred at the edges, old-fashioned factories and factory chimneys, a polity in decline. "Live-in relationships are like rental cars," says a sign, inexplicably, outside a church; it is read, naturally, from a rental car. Many of Friedlander's new images are reflected in rear-view mirrors, as though America is to be seen looking backwards. One photograph is of the US flag at half-mast, another of a sign saying "Exit only". The cars, all padding and polish, feel like a refuge from the world beyond them.

In 2009, General Motors was rescued from bankruptcy by the US government. It was the end of the American dream, the beginning of a global reality: the badges on the dashboards of Friedlander's new cars show most to be Japanese. The America outside these Toyotas and Nissans seems worrying, not the kind of place where you want to stop and get out. It is also oddly familiar, less as a nation than as a genre: Friedlander's work is a road movie in still form, with all the failed heroism that that implies. This is a lovely show. See it.

Next Week:

Charles Darwent sees Rothko in Britain at the Whitechapel Art Gallery

Art Choice

Art turns to murder mystery in Ryan Gander's unsettling site-specific installation Locked Room Scenario. Commissioned by Artangel, it takes place in a warehouse in Hoxton – booking essential (to 23 Oct). At the National Gallery, Devotion by Design displays Italian Renaissance altarpieces in the way they were originally intended (till 2 Oct).

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