PRINT Summer 2004


Like scene-stealing extras, the photographs that fill Ed Ruscha’s books of the ’60s have long refused to play a supporting role in his artistic production. Nevertheless, as early as 1965, the artist insisted that the pictures in Twentysix Gasoline Stations or Various Small Fires were not important in and of themselves, but only insofar as they allowed him to make books. In the early ’70s he opined, “I’m not a photographer at all,” a sentiment he echoed recently when claiming that he’s never considered himself a “photographer with a capital P.” Still, it’s the pictures within his books that rate him first among a generation of ’60s artists, many trained as painters, who adopted the camera as a tool for making art instead of simply photographs. In other words, Ruscha’s real camera trick was turning photography with a little p into art with a capital A.

This fact has not been lost on historians or artists such as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh and Jeff Wall, who understand Ruscha’s embrace of a snapshot aesthetic as breaking with photography’s long-standing tradition of technical and compositional finesse in favor of modernism’s insistent renunciation of pictorial conventions and even skill. Or, as Ruscha himself put it with characteristic simplicity, “The photographs I use are not ‘arty’ in any sense of the word.” Until now, this “un-arty” approach was thought to have originated with Twentysix Gasoline Stations, but that may change with the unveiling of a trove of photographs Ruscha made when he traveled Europe with his mother and brother in 1961.

The selection of twenty-five photographs in this portfolio represents only a small fraction of the more than three hundred pictures Ruscha shot with a simple twin-reflex Yashica on a car tour spanning seven months and as many countries. The artist recently donated nearly the entire corpus to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where a sampling will be presented this summer in the exhibition “Ed Ruscha and Photography,” organized by curator Sylvia Wolf. Taken together, the photographs represent the artist’s first serious reckoning with the medium after an early foray at art school, where “the idea of art photography was shooting nudes.” It’s tempting to see in these pictures premonitions of Ruscha’s later serial logic or favored motifs, but the artist cautions, “I think they’re sort of naive. They’re like an alphabet of learning to me, an example of somebody’s early education.”

Indeed, these pictures occupy a strange, almost preconscious limbo between “arty” Constructivist views off the edges of buildings and straightforward shots in front of them (not surprising, given that Ruscha recalls an interest in Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy on one hand and Atget and Evans on the other). If he would later abandon the former approach in favor of his own “de-skilled” take on the latter, in Europe he vacillated freely between the two. Ruscha confirmed as much when commenting, “I had no real strategy toward taking pictures. I wasn’t making art.” At first, this statement might make us question whether it’s appropriate to present these photographs today in a museum, or even in these pages. However, a closer inspection of the images reveals an added twist. For if we’ve grown almost too accustomed to regarding the offhand photographic style deployed in Ruscha’s books as a conscious artistic “strategy,” it’s curiously counter-intuitive to consider that he actually took these deadpan pictures of wagons and signs and girls and windows as snapshots. Their status as such only makes them all the more beguiling, and clearly worthy of a second—or rather a first—look.

Scott Rothkopf