Twenty-six is a significant number in contemporary photography, an idea I have discussed before in an essay on Seriality and Neutrality; in 1963 Ed Ruscha published Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1), a modest publication containing 26 nondescript monochrome photographs of petrol stations between Ruscha’s home in Los Angeles and his parent’s house in Oklahoma City. Ruscha himself described them as snapshots:
“(It) is not a book to house a collection of art photographs – they are technical data like industrial photography. To me, they are nothing more than snapshots.” (2: p.20)
On June 23rd I planned to capture photographs of twenty-six polling stations choosing twenty-six buildings to draw attention to Ruscha as a reference, not just for the empty and meaningless number of gasoline stations he chose to photograph but because I was adopting his conceptual process.
Margit Rowell describes it as first establishing a “linguistic premise” – the work’s title (3: p.21) and a visual concept that defines both the content and the parameters of the project. This conceptualisation is a trade mark of Ruscha’s work, he was inspired by a word or phrase that “entered his consciousness as catchphrases that gave him titles to turn into books.” (3: p17) To many photographers this is the artistic equivalent of putting the cart before the horse as it inevitably limits the in-project evolution of a series but the idea of a project being title-led and his use of seriality helped to establish Ruscha’s reputation amongst Conceptual artists in the 1960s and 70s.
Inevitably our working processes diverged; Ruscha having decided on his title started capturing his photographs in 1962 finishing in 1963. My polling stations were positioned inside permanent structures but their role in the democratic process was just for June 23rd so all twenty-six had to be captured within the day.
Ruscha explains that the aesthetics of his whole series were dictated by the first photograph he captured – Standard, Amarillo Texas.
“The photograph was the model for other depictions, with its baseline perspective and its diagonal screaming overhead. It followed an idea I had about cinematic reality … It’s not simply a story about a type of architecture that I might be interested in ……. (early film makers) shot this train so it appeared as though it was coming from nowhere …. in a sense that’s what the Standard gas station is doing. It’s super drama.” (3: p.18)
This comment illuminates not just his intent but the way in which his conceptualisation drives the work. The strong diagonal boldly dominating the frame becomes a repetitive motif throughout the series and the fact it is a text component was relevant to my own thinking.
Ruscha was not my only reference and I will discuss some other practitioners a little later but, like Ruscha, I allowed my first photograph of the day to establish the key components that I hoped for in the rest of the series. Crondall has many of the elements I had in mind when conceptualising the project; Luigi Ghirri explained his choice of square on framing in Colazione sull’erba as “trying to avoid formal manipulation” (4: p.27), by adopting this approach the photographer acquires a direct gaze freeing the viewer to analyse and reflect on the subject. In Ruscha’s case he set out to create a “no-style”, something we have come to think of as deadpan (here):
“Actually what I was after was no-style or a non-staement with a no-style.” (3: p.11)
I am often attracted to the deadpan aesthetic but rather that seeking out flat grey skies or post processing to achieve a de-saturated look I tend to restrict myself to adopting simple, un-artful compositions which avoid, wherever possible the compositional conventions of painted art. Colour is also important to me, black and white is too abstract and desaturated colour an uncomfortable halfway house; even on a dull day our world is full of rich colours.
In Crondall I was able to offer a long lead-in which suggests a path to the polling booth emphasising the banal setting. The other important element is the signage which transforms this humble village hall into being part of the democratic process.
Unlike Ruscha I found it harder to maintain a common approach throughout the day as many of the locations didn’t lend themselves to the same viewpoint but without exception I was able to include the signage. By working on a single and predefined day I was also hostage to the weather which was rarely better than miserable. This introduced a somber sense to the pictures that I had not anticipated.
Gasoline stations by purpose and design contain similar components and by treating them in a common way Ruscha highlights their subtle differences and obvious similarities. As a result his series has become a reference for many subsequent typologies so it is interesting that he was unaware of the work of the Bechers which had started before Twenty-Six Gasoline stations and continued long after it. Whilst their presentational style is radically different, the Bechers’ grids versus Ruscha’s series, as photographers they have much in common. The Bechers started their work in a pure documentary mode, only later re-contexualising their grids as gallery art; Ruscha’s work in many ways is anti-fine art, he was primarily interested in reportage “bringing back the facts” (3: p.18) but like the Bechers he was interested in his subject as architecture.
“I would look at a building and disregard the purpose of that building… I was really more interested in this crazy little design that was repeated by all the gas companies.” (3: p.18)
The architecture of “my” polling stations was the most interesting result of the day. Here we were making, what we were repeatedly told, was the most important political decision for forty years yet we expressed our opinion in a series of mundane structures; village halls, churches, an Army training centre, schools, and a village hall that doubles as a cricket pavilion. These structures seemed far removed from Westminster or Brussels where mighty buildings symbolise the power of democratic government, great cathedrals of law making and debate. Out on the borders of Surrey and Hampshire the buildings of decision looked ill suited to role that was trust upon them; village halls fresh from the scouts jumble sale or ready to stage the latest amateur dramatic society show, churches who postponed the senior citizen’s coffee morning and empty child-less schools.
On face value this appears to be contradictory to Ruscha’s intent but the underlying concept is the same. He was interested in the repetitive nature of a utilitarian design, I was interested in the range of architecture being used for a single purpose on a single day.
Course assignments don’t lend themselves to a twenty-six picture series so, with the Bechers, Jeff Brouws and Eric Tabuchi in mind, I consider presenting the final photographs as a typology. This approach achieves what typologies always offer – the opportunity to analyse similarities, in this case mostly the signage, and the differences, which in this instance were extreme.
Ed Ruscha is full of contradictions, he is a painter, draftsman and printmaker who famously refers to photography as a hobby and who began to take photographs to “capture the here and now. An immediate reality that could then be appraised and put back into a painting” (3: p.11); yet he remains one of the most influential photographers of the second half of the twentieth century. He is claimed by the Pop art world for his use of seriality that some critics suggest was influenced by Andy Warhol’s 32 Varieties of Campbell’s Soup Cans which had been shown in Los Angeles in 1962 and is similarly claimed by Conceptual art and Photographic art. He said at one point that he wanted to become the Henry Ford of book making (2: p.20) and it is important to recognise that his photographic projects, including Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations were conceptualised as books. Equally important is that they were not conceptualised as fine art books but as homespun, self published, limited edition, humble books which were designed to be sold cheaply.
Between 1963 and 1978 Ruscha published sixteen books of which Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations was the first. Collectively and often individually if we consider books such as Every Building on Sunset Strip these books are a landmark in the distribution of photographs outside of the gallery, the democratisation of, what to many remains, a vernacular art form. Ruscha’s snapshot images and imaginative book designs set the tone for the contemporary photo book undermining the elitism of the gallery and creating an accessible platform for photographers to distribute and show their work.
(2) Durden, Mark ( 2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press
(3) Rowell, Margit and Weinberg, Adam (2006) Ed Ruscha, Photographer. New York and Göttingen: Whitney and Steidl
(4) Ghirri, Luigi (2016) The Complete Essays 1973 – 1991. London: MACK
(1) Ruscha, Edward (1963) Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (accessed at Tate 23.2.15) – http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/transforming-artist-books/summaries/edward-ruscha-twentysix-gasoline-stations-1963