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

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