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  1. #1
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS

    Thanks to the wonders of interlibrary loans, I was able to get through my university a copy of Ed Ruscha's seminal anti-photobook, TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS (1963). The edition I borrowed is the 1969 reprint, which is still exceedingly expensive to buy from a dealer.

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    It's a teeny paperback, published on letter paper, and the halftone quality is about the same as your usual paperback. The subject is, appropriately, a series of pictures of 26 different gasoline stations. Everything conspires to make you think about the banal and the unimportant, until you actually look at the photographs. For this, I will refer you to all the images that are already somewhere else on the internet (just google them).

    It's hard not to notice the strength of composition, and the little details that keep the picture together. Sometimes the shadow of the photographer is what was needed to hold the composition together, other times it's the perfect alignment of electricity poles with gas pumps. If you know Walker Evans, this is already familiar territory.

    Yet it's difficult to get exactly what kind of statement this is making. Evans was making multi-layered, poetical statements, but Ruscha seems to be having more fun, while at the same time be really looking for the zero degree of meaning, even the mocking kind that says "you're really looking at a picture of gas stations, seriously, look at yourself!" The sequence alternates between single images and double-page spreads, day and night shots (which make a strong conceptual statement: why would we believe this is really an Enco in New Mexico when we can't recognize it?). Not exactly a typology, not a road trip either (for that see Jeff Wall's Landscape Manual instead).

    In fact, I think it's probably best explained by a subsequent artist--an anachronism in a way, but not when you consider art as a dialogue--Stephen Shore. Both are formalists and conceptualists (pictures can be explained by their formal research, or by the idea behind their making), and both make tableau out of the non-picturesque. While the Shore of Uncommon Places has a more heightened need for aesthetic satisfaction than Ruscha, the earlier one of American Surfaces shared the low-tech, limited-means, conceptual and minimal style of Ruscha (no, I won't say snapshot!).

    It's an intriguing book, and it preserves a fair amount of mysteries, the least insignificant of which really is indeed "why am I looking at gas stations again?"
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    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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  2. #2

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    I am a big fan of Ruscha's artwork, and it seems his photography is not very well known as it is overshadowed by his paintings. But that book and other works like "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" were influential to people like Shore and to non-movements like the New Topographics. I love Shore's work too, as well as George Tice's Urban Landscapes.

    For me, there doesn't have to be any kind of "purpose" or underlying message. These photographs can simply be about a place in time. I never get tired of looking at them.

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    Every building on the Sunset Strip is my holy grail; not just for it's artistic merit but as a record in time of Los Angeles, as I knew it. It's unfortunate that the books haven't been reissued for a reasonable price. Didn't Ruscha also do a book called Several Small Fires?

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    bsdunek's Avatar
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    I guess it is a bit 'pricey'! $950 used to $1,250 new. I also see there are others that have the same, or nearly the same title. Such as Jeff Brouws & Eric Tabuchi. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but they could have at least changed the number (maybe 25 or 27). I do like Ruscha's work - very 60's.
    Bruce

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    Gas for $0.26???

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    My art school library in Sydney had an original copy of Every Building On the Sunset Strip. It was kept in a glass case but even as an undergrad I only had to ask and they would take it out for me to look through. This was the early '90s. It was wonderful to be able to look at the original document.

  7. #7
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    Interesting timing. I just photographed spreads from this book for inclusion in a catalog. The RISD Museum (my employer) is putting up an American landscape photography show this fall and the Ruscha will be part of it. What a pleasure to see and handle this little book in person. "Sunset Strip" has long been one of my favorites too.

  8. #8
    ath
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    A few years ago I was invited to the opening of a Ruscha photo exhibition in Cologne. The exhibition was set up by the MOMA in NY (IIRC) and 5 people praised Ruscha in german and english (they managed to pronounce his name in 7 different ways). Ruscha was there, the Bechers were there.
    Then the doors opened and we went to see the pictures. Two caught my attention: the sunset strip and a parking lot with multiple appearance of Ruscha.
    The rest left me cold and I left with the impression: banality. Another artist who thinks he's a photographer.

    Maybe I could appreciate them on an intellectual level if I were more into art history - but the pictures themself didn't move me.
    Regards,
    Andreas

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    Quote Originally Posted by jumbosilverette View Post
    not just for it's artistic merit but as a record in time of Los Angeles, as I knew it.
    YES! So many people think records in time can't be art. They most certainly can if they are done with a keen eye and with care. Finally we're getting somewhere around here

    Thanks to the others who have responded to this thread with enthusiasm! And bravo, Michel!

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Michael R 1974 View Post
    YES! So many people think records in time can't be art. They most certainly can if they are done with a keen eye and with care. Finally we're getting somewhere around here

    Thanks to the others who have responded to this thread with enthusiasm! And bravo, Michel!
    Absolutely. There is no question in my mind about that, and to me there is no reason such a photograph can not be both accurate recording of place and time and transcendent art object simultaneously. It can go beyond even that. Certainly most of the photographs that I love and return to function on many levels for me, probably in ways that I'm not completely aware of.

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