Seriality and Neutrality

Twentysix

In 1963 Edward Ruscha published Twentysix Gasoline Stations, which the Tate refers to as, “a modest publication”. This book, with its red text on plain white cover contains 26 nondescript monochrome photographs of petrol stations between Ruscha’s home in Los Angeles and his parent’s house in Oklahoma City. Despite my best efforts to discover the truth I remain unclear whether there are only 26 petrol stations on that route or whether Ruscha just chose to photograph these particular ones. Either way this book not only became a landmark for photography books, in that Ruscha was attacking the snobbish and elitist culture of crafted artists’ books designed for collectors (i), but it also established the number “26” in contemporary photography. Andy Warhol had by this time created 32 Varieties of Campbell’s Soup Cans (ii) and, as this work had been shown in Los Angeles in 1962, we can assume that Ruscha was influenced by the idea of exploring a  neutral subject whilst working to a specific but otherwise random number.

Eric Tabuchi paid homage to Ruscha in the period between 1999 and 2011 with two series. Twenty six Abandoned Gasoline Stations (4) and Twenty six Recycled Gasoline Stations (5). At face value these series have much in common with Ruscha’s original work. They are plain, objective documents of the existence of these mundane and banal structures. they follow the Deadpan Aesthetic in their simple statement of fact without particular interpretation or artistic embellishment.

Staying with the Ruscha-led genre of Gasoline Stations there is a  series by Jeff Brouws, Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (6), that was published in 1992. Being black and white this series has even greater similarity to Ruscha’s original work and like Tabuchi’s series it openly pays homage to Ruscha. In published form the photo book goes as far as to mimic the original cover and layout.

Moving away from gasoline stations but staying with the number “twenty six” we arrive at Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings (7), note the subtle change of using a number rather than the word. The subjects here are varied, lanes, garages, houses, fields, gardens and fields. The common thread is that each location lies just off the maps included in the London A-Z.

I can find no particular significance of the number twenty-six so it appears that Ruscha’s random selection of twenty-six buildings that lie somewhere between two cities on Route 66 has spawned two genres – “gasoline stations” and “26”

Seriality and Neutrality

Numbers aside, what are these four artists saying? The key point is that they aren’t saying the same thing so the obvious similarities between Brouws and Ruscha and between Rushca and Tabuchi are potentially misleading.

Ed Ruscha

Ruscha has dedicated much of his career to exploring, what Mark Durden (2) calls, seriality and neutrality. Twentysix Gasloine Stations,  Some Los Angeles Apartments, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, Nine Swimming Pools, and so forth. His photographs are generally devoid of people, empty of life they present their subjects as dull, unimportant surfaces. They are graphic but not designed, composed but not fussy, they retain the snapshot or postcard aesthetic. Gerry Badger (8) points out that Ruscha was not particularly interested in photography, he had come, along with Warhol, from the pop art movement of the 60s. Warhol appropriated his photos whilst Ruscha took his own so perhaps this is why we generally classify the former as a pop artist and the latter as a photographer, however such labels are misleading. Ruscha is using the camera to collect pieces, components of a larger work, he said that he picked up a camera to take a photograph in the same way he would pick up an axe to chop down a tree (2), the art is the finished and compiled object, the photo book, and not in the individual photos. Susan Bright (9) says that Ruscha, and others, were part of a movement that began the separation of contemporary photography from the photographic “purity” of the modernists such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. These new artists, who appeared in the late 60s and early 70s, offered functional, banal and artless photographs that presented subjects as examples, as specimens. As Badger (8) points out, in Twentysix Gasoline Stations you don’t get great art, or great photography, you just get twenty-six gasoline stations in a cheap paperback (i). The point is that the subjects are not chosen to make any particular statement, they are just presented as snap-shots for the viewer to digest.

Jeff Brouws

On the other hand Jeff Brouws is photographing the “American cultural landscape” (10). Since the 1990s he has explored a variety of subjects that relate to the urban and suburban landscape. He is especially interested in the evolution of the inner city that he perceives has dropped “beneath the radar”. He sees this as a landscape that has been defined by the deindustrialisation of the American North East and the consequential departure of the white population that conspires to create a post industrial inner city that houses a trapped and increasingly poor minority population, abandoned by the rest of America.

Even when he tackles, what look like,  less serious subjects he cannot resist placing them into a sociopolitical context. His own description (11) of his version of Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations points out that they were abandoned as a result of changes in legislation regarding fuel storage tanks that favoured the well funded, multi-national oil companies whilst putting the small independents out of business. He describes the evolution of the series as having started life as a “riff” on Ruscha’s work but as having “tangentially evolved into a documentary typology reflecting this changing aspect of the commercial landscape.”

Overall his work is complex and informed, he believes that all photographs have social and political meaning if placed in an appropriate context and, through his writing, he provides this context. The similarities between Brouws and Ruscha are several and various; both work in series, both present as typologies, both offer unadorned Deadpan compositions but where Ruscha follows the Deadpan philosophy of “here it is – make of it what you will”, Brouws directs the audience with his sociopolitical commentary.

Eric Tabuchi

Eric Tabuchi also works in series, presents typologies and has published two series of twenty-six petrol stations (4). I suspect that Tabuchi is more influenced by the Blechers than by Ruscha and his work is less obviously Deadpan, in fact many of his series, such as Alphabet Trucks (12), appear both colourful and playful. More like Brouws than Ruscha, he offers some context to Alphabet Trucks so we discover the series is about language (alphabet) and displacement (trucks) however, unlike Brouws, the context sets the scene rather than directing our interpretation.

Tabuchi has adopted the classic American road trip as his approach to a photographic study of France and his subjects range from trucks, to Chinese restaurants, petrol stations, skate parks and roadside flowers. I have been unable to find any interviews with the artist or essays that are accessible to a non-French speaker so I am wary about suggesting his motives. However, my sense is that Tabuchi is photographing things because they are there, in that regard more Eggleston than Shore, but that he then develops series that document aspects of modern France “sur le théme de la route” focusing on what he calls non-architecture.

According to Elias Redstone (5), Tabuchi’s series of Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (14) reflects on the changing patterns of travel and consumption that have left small suburban and rural petrol stations marooned in no-mans-land as they have been bypassed by new motorways. Tabuchi explains that he wants to show these humble forms as more prestigious architecture, to highlight something that is usually ignored and by following up with his second series Twentysix Recycled Gasoline Stations (15) he is also showing how humans can adapt to new situations with low-tech solutions.

Mark Power

There are two obvious links between Ruscha and Powers; the number 26 and the Deadpan aesthetic, but Power’s 26 Different Endings (7) seems more whimsical than Rusha’s Gasoline Stations and certainly less political than Brouws’ equivalent. On his website Power explains that the idea came to him in 2003 when having a picnic to the west of London, he realised that the field he was sitting in was in the London A-Z Street Atlas but that the next field was not. He also points out that this is a arbitrary delineation of London, each year someone decides the overall scope of the atlas so these marginal places drift in and out of , what might appear to be the, definitive map of London. Interestingly he sees this as being judgemental, inclusion being a prize, exclusion creating an “unfortunate place”, a non place perhaps.

26 Different Endings is an exploration of invisible distinctions, a line on a map that is not represented by any geographical, social or political divide. David Chandler (16) calls it a “dialogue between real and imaginary space”. Stephen Shore set out to bring ordinary places into the limelight but he did it by photographing them with a large format camera, carefully composed, selecting good light, perhaps it could be said that he put them into the best light. Power takes a different approach, he seems to emphasise the lowly status of these sub-marginal places where the city finally runs out of energy and literally drops off the map.

Powers message is quite different to the three artists previously considered. He shows us drab places, that seem empty of, not just people, but life; places without endearing features, neither urban, suburban nor rural; a no-man’s-land between the metropolis and the leafy lanes of the home counties. It is a study in greyness that might represent the lives of the people who inhabit these unmapped regions.

Summary

Having started by saying that the similarities are misleading, they are also highly informative. In the work of Ruscha and Brouws, for example, we see very similarly styled photographs of the same generic subjects, they could be shuffled into a single series of fifty-two photographs without, at first glance, appearing to be the work of two artists. However, the intent and the message are quite different which underlines the point that, as I concluded in my essay on the Deadpan Aesthetic , this style of photography leaves much of the work to the viewer. If we see Ruscha’s photographs as being a statement on urban sprawl and Brouws’ being  “nothing more than snapshots” rather than the other way round then, that is our choice. The artist is offering the viewer that choice, they are giving us uninterpreted fact and letting us draw our own conclusions.

These four projects focus on similar, often the same, subjects; three of them have a Deadpan aesthetic so the style is similar, but each series contains a different message. Ruscha is interested in the art form of the finished product; Brouws presents a social documentary series that speaks to a political agenda; Tabuchi understands the economic undertones but is more interested in exploring everyday architectural forms and Powers is using the outside zones as a metaphor for the lives of the people who live on the fringes.

The lesson here is that photographic style does not define the message or even the genre.

Notes on Text

(i) In Photography Today, Mark Durden (2) explains that Edward Ruscha was originally a graphic artist who developed into a highly influential photographic artist. His photo books were commercially produced and designed to be sold cheaply, an idea that sought to take art photography out of the galleries and into the public domain. Ruscha said that his ambition was to become the Henry Ford of book-making. Ironically it is now one of the more expensive and collectable photo books around. When first published it was priced at $3. 

2015-03-21_10-32-22

(ii) Campbell’s Soup Cans – the number 32 was not randomly selected, it was the number of varieties being produced by Campbell’s Soup when Andy Warhol created the work in 1962. (3)

Sources

Books

(2) Durden, Mark ( 2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press.

(5) Redstone. Elias. (2014) Shooting Spaces: Architecture in Contemporary Photography London: Phaidon Press Limited.

(8) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(9) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

Internet

(1) Ruscha, Edward (1963) Twentysix 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

(3) Warhol, Andy (1962) Campbell’s Soup Cans (accessed at MOMA 21.3.15) – http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/andy-warhol-campbells-soup-cans-1962

(4) Tabuchi, Eric (1999 – 2011) Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (accessed at lens Culture 21.3.15) – https://www.lensculture.com/articles/eric-tabuchi-twentysix-abandoned-gasoline-stations

(6) Brouws, Jeff (1974 – 1996) Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (accessed at the Artist’s website 21.3.15) – http://www.jeffbrouws.com/series/main_tags1-2.html

(7) Power, Mark (2007) 26 Different Endings (accessed at Magnum Commercial 17.3.15) – http://www.magnumphotos-commercial.com/photography/mark-power/special-projects/26-different-endings

(10) Brouws, Jeff (2012) It Don’t Exist – The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban Build-out on Inner America. (accessed at American Suburb X 21.3.15) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/jeff-brouws-“it-don’t-exist-the-impact-of-sprawl-and-suburban-build-out-on-inner-city-america-2009.html

(11) Brouws, Jeff (1992) Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (accessed on the artist’s website 22.3.15) – http://www.jeffbrouws.com/books/main.html

(12) Tabuchi, Eric (2009) Alphabet Trucks (accessed on the artist’s website 22.3.15) – http://erictabuchi.com/index.php?/editions/alphabet-truck-vol-2/

(14) Tabuchi, Eric (2008) Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (accessed on the artist’s website 22.3.15) – http://erictabuchi.com/index.php?/editions/twentysix-abandoned-gasoline-stations/

(15) Tabuchi, Eric (2009) Twentysix Recycled Gasoline Stations (accessed on the artist’s website 22.3.15) – http://erictabuchi.com/index.php?/images/17-recycled-gasoline-stations/

(16) Chandler, David. Mark Power: 26 Different Endings (accessed at lens Culture 23.3.15) – https://www.lensculture.com/books/7605-mark-power-26-different-endings

 

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