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).

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?