In the Shadow of Ed Ruscha


by Russet Lederman

 

As a photobook collector with a specific focus on postwar Japanese and European photography and books, it may seem strange that Ed Ruscha’s books would be prominent on my radar. Not true. A few years ago I had an exchange with a graduate student that incited my interest in how two Ruscha books, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), have what I call a “backwards” impact on earlier books that contain photographs. I hesitate to call some of these earlier books “photobooks” because in several cases they were never conceived as such, and it is only now that we refer to them using more lofty terminology. Originally, they were simply visual documents collected in an album format.

Since their release, there has been much scholarship on the impact of Ruscha’s democratically produced offset books of “artless” snapshots on his peers and successive generations of artists and photographers who makes books, but less talk about how his books from the 1960s and ‘70s have reshaped our perception of several books that preceded his. Recently, the uptown Gagosian Gallery held an exhibition called Books & Company, inspired by Ed Ruscha’s books and held in conjunction with the release of Various Small Books: Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha, a 2013 publication edited by Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton and Hermann Zschiegner. Both the show and the book reinforce the cult-like status of Ruscha’s books and how they have influenced innumerable parodies, clones and riffs on his conceptual approach of setting up distinct parameters for photographic content. Examples in both the book and the show included: Jonathan Monk’s None of the Buildings on Sunset Strip (2002); Stan Douglas’ Every Building on 100 West Hastings (2003); Tom Sowden’s Some of the Buildings on the Sunset Strip (2008); Jeff Brouws’ Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (1992); and Gabriel Lester’s Sixtytwo Gasoline Stations (2007). Ruscha’s legacy of anti-photography photobooks is well established – but it’s not my focus.

My interest is in his backwards influence was stimulated four years ago by a graduate student whose class visited my home for a presentation on postwar Japanese photobooks. My husband and I showed her and her classmates a Japanese accordion book from 1954 composed of a photographic panorama by Yoshikazu Suzuki of every building on Ginza 8-chome, which is part of a two-volume set called Ginza Kaiwai / Ginza Haccho, and which has a strong visual connection to Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. The student brazenly said, “The only reason we are discussing and considering this postwar Japanese book is because of its association with Ed Ruscha’s work.” I should repeat that Ruscha’s book was published in 1966, several years after the Japanese book in question.

I have to admit that I was taken aback by her comment. It compelled me to consider how Suzuki’s Ginza Haccho, which presents two parallel photographic strips on either side of the well-known Ginza shopping street with captions underneath noting business names, had been reframed by an artist’s book that had been published twelve years afterwards. Of course the question arises as to whether Ruscha knew of or was influenced by Ginza Haccho. He has remained silent on the topic. And honestly, I don’t think it matters much. What does matter is our perception of the earlier book. What was once an ignored volume that documented a neighborhood, in a set with another book that included woodblock reproductions by Hiroshige and text by Shohachi Kimura, has become a sought-after collectible demanding high prices. I might have to agree with that precocious student who stated that Ginza Haccho would never have seen such acclaim if not for Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip.

If we look at documentation on the two books in the various anthologies on photobooks, we can see that attention to Ginza Haccho appears several years after interest in Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip, which received entries in “books on books” such as Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books from 2001 and Gerry Badger and Martin Parr’s The Photobook: Volume II from 2006. Ginza Kaiwai/ Ginza Haccho started to receive entries in photobook anthologies in 2013 and was included as the first book in Various Small Books: Referencing Various Small books by Ed Ruscha. A year later, in 2014, Badger and Parr included it in volume III of The Photobook: A History—8 years after they cited Every Building on the Sunset Strip in volume II.  

On first look, the two books do have many visual similarities. It is hard not to assume that Ruscha was aware of Ginza Haccho. Both books use an identical structure of two strips of photographed buildings divided by white space with text at the center to show well-known commercial streets. However, from my perspective, the similarities end there.

The images in Suzuki’s Ginza Haccho panorama are meticulously stitched together with the addition of photo-montaged cars and people for further visual depth. During 1953 and 1954, Suzuki took over 200 photographs of Ginza 8-chome to ensure that a homogeneous tone and lighting would be consistent throughout. When first released, the book was primarily a documentation of a specific location. However, Suzuki also maintained a strong interest in the craft of photography and its fine art potential. He sought to create “good” photographs.

Ruscha, on the other hand, had no interest in the craft of photography. A.D. Coleman quotes Ruscha in a 1972 New York Times article as saying, “I have no interest in photography as a medium. I mean, I like to look at photographs, I really find them intriguing, especially when they have a documentary sense to them…”1 In another interview with Trina Mitchum, Ruscha states that his interest lies in the value of an “image, which could be reproduced in a magazine, newspaper or a ten-cent Xerox.”2   For Ruscha, photography as a popular medium or a snapshot is most accessible, as is the book format. Ruscha’s images are purposefully uninteresting, snapshot-like and a neutral “collection of facts.” Unlike Suzuki’s documentary approach, Ruscha uses photographic information to disarm rather than deliver artful-ness. Ruscha presents his images in an inexpensive book format to create what he calls a “Huh?” response, a device to use his particular message to disarm.3 This head-scratching reaction is one of the tenets that defines Ruscha’s anti-art aesthetic and bookmaking, and separates Sunset Strip and Ginza Haccho into distinctly different, yet visually overlapping, contexts. 

Over the last few years there have been several articles noting the comparison, but one in particular by David Campany for Aperture in 2012 specifically looks at this issue of backwards recognition in the Ginza Haccho and Sunset Strip examples. I believe Campany makes a few points that need repeating:

First: [examples like the Ginza Haccho and Sunset Strip] remind us that a precedent becomes so retroactively…

Second: smart, inventive, [and] ambitious… photography did not begin with conceptual art and can never be the exclusive preserve of any avant-garde. Good work gets made in unpredictable places and times…

Third: the history of the illustrated press remains largely uncharted…

Fourth: many of the challenges that face progressive photography today have been faced in the past… Photographers and artists need not succumb to the anxiety that ‘it’s all been done before’...

 

Following the backwards rediscovery trajectory to another of Ruscha’s books, I’d like to now look at his first book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, from 1963. As I mentioned earlier, there are innumerable parodies, clones and riffs on Twentysix Gasoline Stations. The book’s impact on artists’ books and photobooks is undeniable and has set the stage for Ruscha’s potent archivist-meets-west-coast-cool visual legacy.  As an offset edition created for inexpensive distribution, the volume consists of ordinary black-and-white photographs of twenty-six gas stations on Route 66 between Los Angeles and Ruscha’s home state of Oklahoma. There is no craft or narrative, just captions noting names and locations. Ruscha’s anti-art deadpan conceptualism in Twentysix Gasoline Stations springs partly from his art school studies in commercial design and typography at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he also learned about the work of the late 19th century/early 20th century photographer Eugène Atget. 

In looking at Twentysix Gasoline Station, I am less interested in a direct backwards correlation, but rather see it as a means of re-assessing images by Eugène Atget. Recently, it has been suggested that Atget’s images were taken from their original documentary intent and presented within a modernist aesthetic that was of particular interest to Man Ray and Bernice Abbott, two early champions of his work —the latter responsible for the publication of Atget’s first monograph, Atget: Photographe de Paris in 1930, three years after the photographer’s death.

Ruscha’s interest in Atget’s work is well documented. He talks of being shown his images while he was a student. In his interview with A.D. Coleman, Ruscha mentions Atget’s work when asked whose photography has influenced him. But in typical Ruscha fashion, his response is a bit enigmatic: “ At-get—how do you pronounce it? Atget?—I love his work because it’s like going on a little trip, and that‘s what I like about it.”4

            Atget, like Ruscha, took pride in his role as a documentarian of places and things. In a 1972 Artnews article, Ruscha describes his role as being a “reporter” who was laying down the facts without being allegorical or mystical. He saw himself as creating a training manual for people who want to know about things. Atget’s old Paris images function in a similar manner. They are a methodically collected group of documents of turn-of-the-century Paris streets and architecture in the shadow of modernization. Atget, as proclaimed by the sign over his door, sold Documents pour Artists—photographs that were reference tools for salon painters, illustrators, sign painters, industrial designers, architects and libraries. Perhaps similar to Ruscha, Atget’s insistence that his photographs were only documents was an intended artlessness? In contrast to the Pictorialist and Surrealist publications and exhibitions of his time, Atget presented work as documents within a popular visual culture with no aspirations toward high art or an avant-garde agenda.

What interests me about the Atget and Ruscha connection is that we can draw upon Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Ruscha’s books in general to reconnect Atget with his anti-art roots. Championed by Abbott, who bought half of his negative inventory after his death, Atget’s practice was introduced to a larger audience as a precursor to modern photography. If not for her and Man Ray, who famously published an Atget image on the cover of La Revolution Surrealiste in 1926, Atget’s images may never have been recognized beyond his time. Yet from my perspective, the modernist label that came with his initial art world recognition may have served Abbott and Man Ray more than Atget.

If we read him with a backwards reflection that removes the narrow modernist perspective which was added with Abbott’s publication of Atget: Photographe de Paris, we can move his images closer to those of Ruscha, and return them to their original role of documents that report and lay down facts (as Ruscha would say). For the sake of brevity, I am skimming over Atget’s specific interactions with Man Ray and Abbott and do not wish to diminish their role in bringing his work to light. Certainly, Abbott understood that Atget’s photographs were not about aesthetics and valued his non-artist perspective. In her introduction, she noted Atget’s “shock of the realism unadorned. [His] subjects were not sensational, but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity.”5 But it was clearly her intention through editorial choices in Atget: Photographe de Paris to position him as a modernist father for the next generation of artists and photographers. She could not predict at the time that thirty-two years later, Ruscha would come along and cast a new shadow that would expand Atget’s role to include an antecedent of conceptualism and Ruscha’s anti-art sensibility.

If we look beyond Abbott’s edited selection in Atget: Photographe de Paris, we find a photographer who is more a conceptualist than a Modernist. Like Ruscha, Atget worked within a defined set of parameters to create photographs that document facts and that were exchanged through populist commercial transactions. Just like Ruscha in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Atget identified his images with informational titles, which included name or location and a date.  He also kept a small black book called a repertoire, which he used to note addresses and business transactions. Abbott, who wished to remove Atget’s utilitarian base, decided in her edit of his first monograph that these titles should be disassociated from the images, and placed them on a flap at the back of the book.

Unlike Ruscha, Atget did not personally seek to publish or distribute his images in book format. However, as noted above, I would like to suggest that Ruscha’s later teasing, anti-art stance of photography for “technical purposes only” has introduced a new perspective for viewing Atget’s “shock of realism unadorned” — pushing it beyond Abbott’s modernist framework in an expansion that signals conceptual practice.

Unlike Suzuki’s Ginza Haccho, which has a direct visual correlation to Ruscha that—as my precocious student stated—may not have been recognized if not for his Sunset Strip book that was published twelve years later, Atget had a firmly established role in the history of photography. What proves interesting in both of these examples—one of discovery and the other of re-evaluation—is the fluid nature of criticism. History is written and rewritten with hindsight. My observations on Ruscha’s backwards influence is a snapshot, frozen for a moment, before it continues to evolve in an ongoing review process that moves both backward and forward.

 

 

Contribution to the Panel: Furthering the Critical Dialog: Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations & Every Building on the Sunset Strip at Contemporary Artists’ Books Conference (CABC), PS1, New York, Sept. 17, 2016.

___

Notes

1 As quoted in A.D. Coleman, “My Books End Up in the Trash,” The New York Times, v. 121, n. 41, 854, August 27, 1972, p. D12.

2 As quoted in Trina Mitchum, “A Conversation with Ruscha,” in Leave Any Information at the Signal (Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press, 2002) 84.

3 Interview with Willoughby Sharp, “’…A Kind of Huh’: An Interview with Ed Ruscha,” in Leave Any Information at the Signal (Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press, 2002) 65.

4 A.D. Coleman, 49.

5 Bernice Abbott, Introduction in Atget: Photographe de Paris (New York: E. Weyhe, 1930).