Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) was not about making beautiful photographs. It’s a square, thin, paperback book with 26 black-and-white photographs of gas stations along Route 66 during car rides between L.A. and his hometown, Oklahoma City. Similarly, in Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), it’s a flat accordian pamphlet with a 25-foot-long Birdseye viewpoint of the two-mile strip. So, how did Ruscha’s books influence art and photography over the last fifty years? Why is he one of the central figures in photography from the late 20th century? How does his work successfully engage with the book form? These are questions I would like to explore further.
Rusha’s photographs fell somewhere in between the spectrum of early California Pop Art and Conceptual art. They weren’t about emotional engagement. They were simply photographs of “everyday subject matter presented in an uninflexed, repetitive manner” (Walker, 2012). The photography, layout, and typography all make a book like Twentysix Gasoline Stations a meaningful contribution to artist’s books of the twentieth century (Walker 2012). In the case of Twentysix, the size of the book is small in itself, as most of Rusha’s books were. The text is industrial looking, and the layout very simplistic with photographs and very little text, if at all. Twentysix’s very “Huh?” quality is what makes it engaging. We become intrigued by the book’s mundane, inconsequential quality. Yet, it appears that the artist, Ruscha, saw something in the landscape, the design, and the painting-like quality of the image, to capture it. In this YouTube video, Ruscha, he says how the white man now owned these gas stations that were previously Native Americans’ land. The images that he documented were his own “cultural curiousities”. (TateShots, 2013). Ruscha did not take pictures just for the sake of taking them. The subjects of his photographs were reality, visible or hidden. These photographs are emblematic of the period, but are also archival, reminants of the past that we can look to today, and there are many contemporary books influenced by them (See: Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations, Twentynine Palms).
Ruscha’s “anti-art” aesthetic and realism were and continue to be influential in the field of photography. His understated covers, simple typography, and seemingly ordinary subject matter were a new method of making books and making art. The books of Ed Ruscha are “Neither an art book…nor a book on art” but “a work on [their own]” and a “fragile vehicle for a weighty load of hopes and ideals” (Klima, 1998).
Photographs from http://whitney.org/Collection/EdwardRuscha