We never intended to go to Williams, Arizona, but, if we had not, I am not sure I would have written this. That afternoon, we had driven across from Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon, arriving much later than expected. After staring open-mouthed at the view for a while, we went over to the Visitors’ Center to book a room for the night, but there was nothing available. Williams, about 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon, was apparently the nearest place to find a motel, so we rang one at random, reserved a room and drove for an hour through a darkness lit only by the car headlights.
In the hard white light of the following morning, I went for a walk down the main street of Williams – a wide drag lined with motels, restaurants and supermarkets. All along it, signs indicated that this was a remaining section of the ‘Historic Route 66’. In the 1960s and 1970s the old road had been gradually replaced by Interstate Highway 40. Indeed, I discovered later that Williams was the last town to be bypassed in 1984.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its demise, Route 66 is probably still the most famous road in America. This was the road that the Joad family travelled from Oklahoma to California in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and it was Steinbeck who called Route 66 the ‘Mother Road’. Bobby Troup’s popular song ‘Get Your Kicks on Route 66’ was recorded by, among others, Nat King Cole and the Rolling Stones; in the early 1960s there was also a police show on US television called Route 66.  It is a mythic road and now the subject of much nostalgia, though this is to forget that, as Larry McMurtry has remarked, ‘it was always a dangerous road, with much more traffic to carry than it could carry safely. Dead bodies in the bar ditch and smushed cars on wreckers were always common sights along old 66’. (One of those roadside accidents was photographed by Robert Frank in 1955 – a small group of bystanders huddled in a snowstorm next to a body covered in a rough blanket.)
I remembered, however, that there was something else to see in Williams. I walked down to the end of the strip and there I discovered what I was looking for: a gas station (Figure 1a). In fact there were two gas stations facing each other on either side of the road – a Chevron station and a Mobil station. And I photographed them because they reminded me of two other gas stations in Williams – also Chevron and Mobil – which I had seen before in the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, made by Ed Ruscha in 1962 (Figure 1b).
As the book’s title indicates, it contains images of twenty-six gas stations, photographed along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma (though it is also important to emphasise that the road itself is never actually depicted or indeed referred to in the book). The two stations at Williams sit opposite each other in the seventh and eighth photographs in the book. I did not know if the gas stations I was now looking at were standing in the same place as the ones Ruscha had photographed in 1962 (nothing changes as fast as the everyday), but still my reaction was far from innocent. Just as my view of Monument Valley was filtered through the films of John Ford and my view of the Grand Canyon through the paintings of Thomas Moran, so I saw the gas stations of Williams, Arizona, through the photographs of Ed Ruscha.
The Twentysix Gasoline Stations that we would look at today is of course not the same as the book that Ruscha made in 1962. Not only does it show us a landscape that has long disappeared, but how we think about the book has also changed, and this is because of the contextualizations and recontextualizations that have formed around it. Some of these are personal, like my story of going to Williams. Some of them are cultural – to do with America, the West, the automobile – and a full account would have to take them all into consideration.
In 1962 Edward Ruscha was 25 years old. He had moved in 1956 from his home town Oklahoma City to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he has been based ever since. His work centred on the iconic presence of ordinary everyday objects and a desire to push back the boundaries of art. One of the artists who influenced him in this was Marcel Duchamp, with his concept of the ‘Readymade’, but Duchamp was also an important influence for a whole generation. In 1962, the year that Ruscha made the book, Andy Warhol exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles his series of paintings of Campbell’s soup cans – each one the same, each one different. There are obvious parallels here with Twentysix Gasoline Stations in the concentration on an everyday subject matter presented in an uninflected, repetitive manner, but, of course, there is also a big difference. Twentysix Gasoline Stations is not a set of paintings, it is a book of photographs.
At the start, it seems that most viewers were genuinely puzzled by Twentysix Gasoline Stations. The first review of the book came in the Los Angeles-based magazine Artforum in September 1963, when Philip Leider remarked: ‘It is perhaps unfair to write a review of a book which, by now, is probably completely unavailable. But the book is so curious, and so doomed to oblivion, that there is an obligation, of sorts, to document its existence, record its having been there’. Yet astonishingly Twentysix Gasoline Stations did not simply disappear; instead its reputation steadily grew and grew.
If, in 1963, anyone had wanted to define Twentysix Gasoline Stations, it would have been as a piece of Pop Art. (In his review, Leider is definite on this point: ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a Pop Art book’.) Pop, after all, was then the latest movement in American art, connecting California with New York. In the fall of 1963 Andy Warhol made a return trip to Los Angeles, driving across country with Gerard Malanga, Wynn Chamberlain and Taylor Mead. Later, in his book POPism, he recalled the trip: ‘The further West we drove, the more Pop everything became … Once you “got” Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again’.
Ruscha himself emphasized this Pop reading in 1963 when he based one of the most iconic and precisionist of his early paintings on the photograph of a Standard gas station at Amarillo. In this new guise, it became a sort of heroic, ideal gas station – a ‘standard’ station in the other sense of the word. When, in 1966, the painting ‘Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas’ was illustrated in Lucy Lippard’s anthology Pop Art, it was accompanied by a caption referring to the painting’s source in Twentysix Gasoline Stations.
At around the same time that Ruscha was taking delivery of his first edition of 400 identical copies, another Californian artist, John Baldessari, made a sequence of photographs: ‘The backs of all the trucks passed while driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday 20 January, 1963’. It would be another few years before this sort of art would be named. In 1967 Sol LeWitt wrote a short text, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, which he defined thus: ‘In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art’. According to Ruscha, that is almost literally what had happened with Twentysix Gasoline Stations: ‘The title came before I even thought about the pictures’.
By the late 1960s, then, Ruscha’s books had come to occupy a central if quixotic position within Conceptual Art, though some more theoretically minded artists were sceptical of Ruscha’s attitude. Victor Burgin later told John Roberts: ‘in that period I remember thinking that he wasn’t anybody one should take seriously. Because basically he seemed to be some sort of Californian stand-up comedian’. But humour and irony were embedded elsewhere in Conceptualism and its use of photography, albeit that it was necessarily of a deadpan variety.
From then on, any art-historical placement of Ruscha’s early books would put them in that loose category we might call ‘photographic conceptualism’. Yet as Kevin Hatch has observed, any definitive attempt at categorization is inherently unstable: ‘Not quite Pop paintings in book form, not exactly eccentric documentary projects, and not merely a pit stop on the road to Conceptualism, Ruscha’s curious books … become increasingly difficult to categorize the more one considers them’. This task becomes no more straightforward as one moves on to consider the role that the Twentysix Gasoline Stations came to play in the discourses of photography itself.
Just as, in the mid-1970s, the art world suddenly woke up to photography, so, from the photographic direction, there was a breaking-down of barriers and it is clear that Conceptualism helped photographers themselves to think more critically about the particularities and paradoxes of their medium. In 1975 Ruscha’s photographs were directly referenced in the catalogue of a small exhibition which had enormous influence: New Topographics, mounted at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The show signalled a decisive shift away from the heavy Romanticism that had pervaded American landscape photography post-Ansel Adams and Minor White. The work of Robert Adams, for example, made around Denver, Colorado, offered a dispassionate look at the suburbanization of the landscape. Adams was angry about what was happening but his pictures do not display that. Rather he aimed for a calmness that he felt would ultimately be more effective. Elsewhere he wrote: ‘Pictures that embody this calm are not synonymous, of course, with what we might see casually out a car window. (They may however be more effective if we can be tricked into thinking so.)’
Adams’s analogy of the view from the car window can be interestingly connected with Ruscha’s apparently casual photographs, though it is less convincing when it is applied to his own rather classically controlled work. However, other New Topographicists responded quite directly to Ruscha’s work, among them Stephen Shore. In the 1960s he had worked in Warhol’s studio and thus had perhaps more sympathy for avant-garde art. He had first come across Ruscha’s books in 1967 or 1968 and, by his own account, ‘for me and my friends they were a delight’.
In 1981 the discourse around Twentysix Gasoline Stations had taken another turn, when Douglas Crimp published his essay ‘The Museum’s Old / The Library’s New Subject’. Crimp was one of a number of radical critics buzzing around a new concept, Postmodernism, and intending to discredit thoroughly Modernist distinctions between High and Low. Photography – with its multiple forms and indeterminate status – was an important weapon in this campaign.
In the essay, Crimp told the story of how he had once been doing some picture research in the New York Public Library and he found a copy of Twentysix Gasoline Stations filed not under ‘art’ but under ‘transportation’. At the time, he says, he found this merely funny. ‘But now, because of the considerations of postmodernism, I’ve changed my mind; I now know that Ed Ruscha’s books make no sense in relation to the categories according to which art books are catalogued in the library and that is part of their achievement. The fact that there is nowhere within the present system of classification a place for Twentysix Gasoline Stations is an index of its radicalism with respect to established modes of thought’. In one sense, this might be considered a recategorization of Twentysix Gasoline Stations as ‘postmodern’, or at least ‘proto-postmodern’, but it does also point to something less categorizable, something fluid and unstable in the book, which continually seems to evade any attempt at definition.
Ed Ruscha is now a much respected artist and, with time, an inevitable process of retrospection has occurred. Catalogues raisonnés of both his prints and paintings have been published and his writings and interviews were collected in 2002 in the October book Leave Any Information at the Signal (from which many of the quotations in this essay have been garnered).
The influence of Ruscha’s books has been thoroughly pervasive and almost incalculable. But, as a final coda, one must note not only that general influence but also some very specific acts of hommage. In 1992 the Californian photographer Jeff Brouws produced a small volume, Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations, deliberately following both the design and style of the original. In 2008 the French photographer Eric Tabuchi in turn paid homage to this homage with his own collection of Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations, a portfolio of formal colour images made across France.39 Also in 2008 Frank Eye in England produced his book Twenty-Four Former Filling Stations,40 while Peter Calvin, based in Dallas, Texas, has photographed a series of 26 Repurposed Gasoline Stations, each transformed into another sort of establishment.
It is ironic perhaps that a book so perfectly dumb and passive should have excited so much commentary, so much exegesis. But perhaps that is the reason – because almost anything can be read into that dumbness. What is extraordinary, however, is that all these interpretations have not destroyed the ultimate inscrutability of the book. In 1973 Ruscha tried to evoke ‘an inexplicable thing’ he was looking for and felt he had found in his books. He called it ‘a kind of a “Huh?”’ – the reaction which someone might have when they encounter the book for the first time. With that apparently simple but ultimately gnomic formulation, Ruscha himself alluded to the resistance to categorisation in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a resistance to which both Kevin Hatch and Douglas Crimp referred and which paradoxically has enabled the book to carry, at the same time, so many different meanings. And Twentysix Gasoline Stations can still have that disconcerting effect. Even now, I might find myself picking it up and looking through it and the only reaction that really seems appropriate is just that: Huh? ■
This article is an edited extract from our new edited collection, The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond.
Ian Walker is Reader in the History of Photography and Programme Leader for the MA/MFA Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. He has written widely on photography and, in the past few years, his research has focused on the relationship between documentary photography and Surrealism. He has published two books: City Gorged with Dreams and So Exotic, So Homemade. He is now working on a collaborative book on Czech Surrealist photography.
Top image courtesy of Wikipedia.
1 This is part of an extended evocation of Route 66 at the start of Chapter 12 of John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 123.
2 See Michael Wallis, Route 66: The Mother Road (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990). Bobby Troup wrote the song ‘Get Your Kicks on Route 66’ in 1946 while en route to live in California; his own account of its genesis is on pp. 9–15.
3 Larry McMurtry, Roads (London: Phoenix, 2001), p. 14.
4 The caption to the photograph indicates that it was taken in Arizona between Winslow and Flagstaff (Robert Frank, The Americans, 1st US edn: New York: Grove Press, 1959. Subsequent editions have varying pagination, but in Manchester: Cornerhouse, 1993, this picture is on p. 79).
5 Edward Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (Alhambra, CA: The Cunningham Press, 1962). The date of the book is variously given as 1962 or 1963. Even in the book itself, the title page gives 1962 and the colophon 1963. It seems that, while the book was made in 1962, it was not actually published until early 1963.
6 Philip Leider, ‘Books’, Artforum (September 1963), p. 57.
7 Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism (London: Pimlico, 1996), pp. 39–40.
8 ‘Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas’, 1963, is now in the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.
9 Lucy Lippard (ed.), Pop Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1966), p. 151.
10 See Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), pp. 14–15.
11 Sol Le Witt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Artforum (Summer 1967), p. 79.
12 Coplans, ‘Concerning Various Small Fires’, in Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal, p. 23.
13 John Roberts, ‘Interview with Victor Burgin’, in The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966–1976 (London: Camerawork, 1997), p. 93.
14 Two important later texts in this respect are Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962–1969’, October 55 (Winter 1990), pp. 105–43, and Melanie Mariño, ‘Almost Not Photography’, in Michael Corris (ed.), Conceptual Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 63–74.
15 Kevin Hatch, ‘“Something Else”: Ed Ruscha’s Photographic Books’, October 111 (Winter 2005), pp. 107–26 (p. 108).
16 William Jenkins (ed.), New Topographics (Rochester, NY: George Eastman House, 1975). The exhibition included work by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr. The New Topographics exhibition has now been examined in great detail in Britt Salvesen and Alison Nordström, New Topographics (Tucson, Ariz.: Center for Creative Photography, Rochester, NY: George Eastman House, and Göttingen: Steidl, 2010); Salvesen discusses the exhibition’s relationship to Ruscha’s work on pp. 26–8. This publication presents a much fuller collection of photographs than the original catalogue and makes clearer the technical and aesthetic differences between, for example, the work made by Ruscha and Schott along Route 66.
17 Robert Adams, introduction to Denver (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1977), unpaginated.
18 Susanne Lange, ‘A Conversation with Stephen Shore’, Bernd and Hilla Becher: Festschrift, Erasmuspreis, 2002 (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2002), p. 48.
19 Douglas Crimp, ‘The Museum’s Old / The Library’s New Subject’, Parachute 22 (Spring 1981); repr. in Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1993), pp. 66–81, and Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989), pp. 3–13.
20 Oddly, if one goes now to the online catalogue of the New York Public Library, it seems that they do not actually possess a copy of Twentysix Gasoline Stations.
21 Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins, p. 78. Crimp’s essay is accompanied by a pair of photographs by Louise Lawler which show pages from the book in mid-turn, a subtle play on the very element of undecidability emphasized by Crimp.
22 Jeffrey Brouws, Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (Santa Barbara, CA: Handjob Press/National Gas-n-Go Publications, 1992).
23 See online at: http://www.petercalvin.com/26repurposedgaso.html (accessed 9 September 2009).
24 Sharp, ‘“… A Kind of a Huh”’, in Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal, p. 65.