PRINT February 1965

Concerning “Various Small Fires” An Interview with Edward Ruscha


A. Yes, the first, in 1962, was “Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations.”

Q. What is your purpose in publishing these books?

A. To begin with—when I am planning a book, I have a blind faith in what I am doing. I am not inferring I don’t have doubts, or that I haven’t made mistakes. Nor am I really interested in books as such, but I am interested in unusual kinds of publications. The first book came out of a play with words. The title came before I even thought about the pictures. I like the word “gasoline” and I like the specific quality of “twenty-six.” If you look at the book you will see how well the typography works—I worked on all that before I took the photographs. Not that I had an important message about photographs or gasoline, or anything like that—I merely wanted a cohesive thing. Above all, the photographs I use are not “arty” in any sense of the word. I think photography is dead as a fine art; its only place is in the commercial world, for technical or information purposes. I don’t mean cinema photography, but still photography, that is, limited edition, individual, hand-processed photos. Mine are simply reproductions of photos. Thus, 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.

Q. You mean there is no design play within the photographic frame?

A. No.

Q. But haven’t they been cropped?

A. Yes, but that arises from the consciousness layout in the book.

Q. Did you collect these photos as an aid to painting, in any way?

A. No, although I did subsequently paint one of the gasoline stations reproduced in the first book—I had no idea at the time I would eventually make a painting based on it.

Q. But isn’t the subject matter of these photos common to your paintings?

A. Only two paintings. However, they were done very much the same way I did the first book. I did the title and lay-out on the paintings before I put the gasoline stations in.

Q. Is there a correlation between the way you paint and the books?

A. It’s not important as far as the books are concerned.

Q. I once referred to “Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations” and said “it should be regarded as a small painting”—was this correct?

A. The only reason would be the relationship between the way I handle typography in my paintings. For example, I sometimes title the sides of my paintings in the same manner as the spine of a book. The similarity is only one of style. The purpose behind the books and my paintings is entirely different. I don’t quite know how my books fit in. There is a whole recognized scene paintings fit into. One of the purposes of my book has to do with making a mass-produced object. The final product has a very commercial, professional feel to it. I am not in sympathy with the whole area of hand-printed publications, however sincere. One mistake I made in “Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations” was in numbering the books. I was testing—at that time—that each copy a person might buy would have an individual place in the edition. I don’t want that now.

Q. To come back to the photos—you deliberately chose each subject and specially photographed them?

A. Yes, the whole thing was contrived.

Q. To what end? Why fires and why the last shot, of milk?

A. My painting of a gas station with a magazine has a similar idea. The magazine is irrelevant, tacked onto the end of it. In a like manner, milk seemed to make the book more interesting and gave it cohesion.

Q. Was it necessary for you, personally, to take the photographs?

A. No, anyone could. In fact, one of them was taken by someone else. I went to a stock photo of graph place and looked for pictures of fires, there were none. It is not important who took the photos, it is a matter of convenience, purely.

Q. What about the layout?

A. That is important, the pictures have to be in the correct sequence, one without a mood taking over.

Q. This one—I don’t quite know what it is—some kind of fire, looks rather arty.

A. Only because it is a kind of subject matter that is not immediately recognizable.

Q. Do you expect people to buy the book, or did you make it just for the pleasure?

A. There is a very thin line as to whether this book is worthless or has any value—to most people it is probably worthless. Reactions are very varied; for example, some people are outraged. I showed the first book to a gasoline station attendant. He was amused. Some think it is great, others are at a loss.

Q. What kind of people say it is great—those familiar with modern art?

A. No, not at all. Many people buy the book because they are curiosities. For example, one girl bought three copies, one for each of her boy friends. She said it would be a great gift for them, since they had everything already.

Q. Do you think your books are better made than most books that are marketed today?

A. There are not many books that would fit into this style of production. Considered as a pocket book, it is definitely better than most. My books are as perfectly made as possible.

Q. Would you regard the book as an exercise in the exploration of the possibilities of technical production?

A. No. I use standard and well-known processes; it can be done quite easily, there is no difficulty. But as a normal, commercial project most people couldn’t afford to print books like this. It is purely a question of cost.

Q. Do you know a book called “Nonverbal Communication” by Ruesch and Kees?

A. Yes, it is a good book, but it has a text that explains the pictures. It has something to say on a rational level that my books evade. The material is not collated with the same intent at all. Of course, the photographs used are not art photographs, but it is for people who want to know about the psychology of pictures or images. This (“Various Small Fires”) IS the psychology of pictures. Although we both use the same kind of snapshots, they are put to different use. “Nonverbal Communication” has a functional purpose, it is a book to learn things from—you don’t necessarily learn anything from my books. The pictures in that book are only an aid to verbal content. That is why I have eliminated all text from my books—I want absolutely neutral material. My pictures are not that interesting, nor the subject matter. They are simply a collection of “facts”; my book is more like a collection of “readymades.”

Q. You are interested in some notion of the ready made?

A. No, what I am after is a kind of polish. Once I have decided all the detail—photos, layout, etc.—what I really want is a professional polish, a clear-cut machine finish. This book is printed by the best book printer west of New York. Look how well made and crisp it is. I am not trying to create a precious limited edition book, but a mass-produced product of high order. All my books are identical. They have none of the nuances of the hand-made and crafted limited edition book. It is almost worth the money to have the thrill of seeing 400 exactly identical books stacked in front of you.

John Coplans