home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

various small books

9 june 2013

I'd known the work of artist Ed Ruscha for ten years or so, and become increasingly interested in him in the past two after seeing his small books of photography (in a museum retrospective in Fort Worth, I hasten to add; the original books, which once sold for a couple of bucks, are now too expensive to buy used or check out of a library). As usual I've been left so far behind by the currents of hipness that I had no idea that Ruscha had inspired an entire genre of photography books. Though I liked his stuff, I had no idea that, as critic Mark Rawlinson puts it, Ruscha's books "irrevocably altered our understanding of art" (8).

In fact, even after reading Rawlinson's essay, prefatory to the new MIT Press meta-collection of photographs of Ruscha-like photobooks, Various Small Books, even after seeing the immense amount of work that artists around the world have put into knockoffs of Ed Ruscha, I'm still uneasy the hyperbole. How can an artist "irrevocably alter our understanding of art" when most people – even at an academic cocktail party – have never heard of the guy? I'm not suggesting that celebrity itself is any gauge of profundity. I recently saw Jeff Koons in whiteface on a magazine cover, and I imagine not even Jeff Koons himself would take credit for irrevocably altering our understanding of anything except how to get yourself on a magazine cover.

In part, my bewilderment at Rawlinson's claim is a "what you mean 'our,' Kemo Sabe?" phenomenon. If "our" means "the subset of hipsters who revere Ed Ruscha," then, yeah, by definition. But I also think that the claim overreaches by making Ruscha into the necessary man of art history that he would say he's not and hasn't tried to be. (Though as I've noted, Ruscha is probably not to be trusted when he assesses himself.) No, it's a more general sense that Ruscha has participated in a much larger phenomenon in art: the valuing of found images, produced by means available to mass commercial consumers, reflecting the most banal surfaces of contemporary life. I think he's done that very well, but I think that thousands of other artists have been at work along the same lines. How influential can any single creator be, anymore?

If I start this review with a quibble, it's not to disparage Various Small Books, or Rawlinson's treatment of Ruscha and his acolytes. Rawlinson does exceptionally well in defense of Ruscha's creations. He engages a critique made by Jeff Wall, who basically accuses Ruscha of cynicism, lack of ambition, and what's worse, not knowing how to use a camera:

Although one or two pictures suggest some recognition of the criteria of art photography[,] … the majority seem to take pleasure in a rigorous display of generic lapses: improper relation of lenses to subject distances, insensitivity to time of day and quality of light, excessively functional cropping, with abrupt excisions of peripheral objects, lack of attention to the specific character of the moment being depicted … (Wall, quoted on 18)
Part of Wall's critique attacks Ruscha's conceptions and his self-image as an artist; part of it attacks his craftsmanship; very little (of what Rawlinson quotes, at least) attempts to respond to the images (or the way the books order and collect them) per se. One can answer the critique of Ruscha's attitude by invoking the intentional fallacy: these pictures exist; who cares what the artist was thinking about when he made them, or what he thinks of them now?

And one can perhaps answer the critique of Ruscha's craftsmanship by noting that art photography as an endeavor is pretty much defined by improper relations, insensitivities, abrupt excisions, and callings into question of just what is the specific character of a moment. (And, of course, by willful cropping, whether excessively functional, excessively dysfunctional, or just plain weird.)

But Wall doesn't stop there. Rawlinson summarizes Wall's central complaint this way:

Ruscha's photographs fail to reveal the structures of oppression and antagonism, the ideologies which trap us within the "iron cage" of contemporary capitalism, because his work … "mimes the operating logic of late capitalism," choosing to replicate rather than transfigure those self-same systems of power. (18)
This critique is harder to refute, and not merely because politics is a topic on which we might have to agree to disagree. Wall says that, within the whole existing system of images of (in this case) apartment buildings, Ruscha's photographs reinforce the unjust way that landlords treat tenants. They reinforce injustice whether he means them, or we read them, naïvely (gosh, what a swell apartment complex!), or ironically (oh myyy, what a tacky apartment complex!) We can never simply look at a composition as an abstraction, if it contains elements that link it to an oppressive discourse. In some ways, Wall's ideas constitute a radical philistinism. Plain old philistinism looks at Ruscha's Some Los Angeles Apartments and says "why isn't he taking pictures of Truth, Beauty, and the Sublime instead of some ugly apartment?" Radical philistinism says "why isn't he taking pictures that deconstruct the iron cage fashioned by Truth, Beauty, and the Sublime, instead of some ugly apartment?"

Rawlinson says of Ruscha's photobooks (here specifically of Every Building on the Sunset Strip), however, that their

extreme flatness helps cast off clichéd thought to reveal a series of perceptual complexities that questions photographic vision and the medium of photography as deployed in mass-culture. (24)
Innocence is apparently forbidden. The photographs either replicate or resist; their simple existence as images is inconceivable. Possibly this is because they are photographs. As Errol Morris points out, a photograph is assumed to hold a mirror up to actuality (in early processes, quite literally), though everyone knows that it may be a funhouse mirror. Painting, by contrast, is allowed to find abstract beauty in the cages of capitalism – there is a long tradition in the U.S. of various -isms that celebrate the forms of capital without seeming to endorse its social relations – but that's because even relatively realistic painting involves considerable abstraction.

A photograph of an ugly apartment building ought to say something about that ugliness, but Ruscha's photographs just find a defamiliarized beauty there (or rather, in looking at them, that's what I find, and others would say I'm just not looking critically enough). In Various Small Books, Phil Taylor's main text catalogs many variations on the theme, books that echo not just Ruscha's photographs but his books' layout and design, even his cover typography.

The books cataloged range from serious homages to arch parodies: and given that there's always the suspicion of archness about Ruscha's work to begin with, one wonders whether serious doesn't mean arch anyway. And does a parody of something arch revert to serious?

Toward the serious end of the spectrum are books like Martin Möll's Twentysix Gasoline Stations Revisited (2009), which attempts the venerable feat of re-creating original photographs from the same spots where their taker stood (or sat, or drove past). Of course, gas stations being what they are, "in many cases … the original gas station no longer remains or the structure has been modified beyond recognition" (190). One of Ruscha's books is called Every Building on the Sunset Strip; one of the homages is Jonathan Monk's None of the Buildings on the Sunset Strip (2002), assembled by driving the same stretch of Sunset Boulevard that Ruscha covered, but taking pictures of the cross streets instead of the buildings. (Which, you must admit, adds a touch of danger to the enterprise, as at least one image by Monk shows a car barrelling across Sunset straight at him.)

Then there are the books that choose a Ruscha-like subject and execute it in the master's straightforward manner. One of the more startling is Louisa Van Leer's Fifteen Pornography Companies (2006), which resembles Some Los Angeles Apartments, except that all the buildings Van Leer photographs are blue-movie studios (and very few of them tip to being studios at all). They are cheerfully banal in a Ruscha-like way, while documenting an industry that "remains nearly invisible" in the physical landscape of Los Angeles (110).

Many of the books described (and beautifully excerpted) in Various Small Books take Ruscha's method and transfer it from Southern California to an artist's own home ground. Every Building on 100 West Hastings, promises Vancouver, BC artist Stan Douglas's 2003 homage to Ruscha's Sunset Strip. Jean-Frédéric Schnyder's Zugerstrasse Baarerstrasse (1999-2000) clicks its way down a street that joins two Swiss villages.

Some adaptations of Ruscha's ideas would have seemed like a confirmation of the worst paranoid notions of the mid-20th century. Jon Rafman's Sixteen Google Street Views (2009) uses Ruscha's technique of finding photographs themselves instead of taking them, combined with the method of displaying impassive things along the side of a road. But Rafman's pictures are drawn from the database of Google Maps, that friendly technology that tells everyone where your house is, and what it looked like several years ago. Rafman's book, says Phil Taylor, "is comprised of images sourced from Street View that the artist considers resistant to the totalizing technological apparatus that produces them" (208): and you'd be inclined to agree, looking at Google showing you a burst fire hydrant, or a Breugelish figure attempting to lead a recalcitrant horse.

A large proportion of the Ruschaesque books noted here are impertinent nonsense, though, daft in ways which make the original small books seem rich with gravitas. Hermann Zschiegner (a co-editor of the project) contributes Every coffee I drank in January 2010. Ruscha had done a book called Stains, which makes found spatters of this and that into miniature abstract-expressionist images; Zschiegner simply takes pictures of the lids of his throwaway coffee cups. The anarchist splash of the stain is still there, but it's confined in picture after picture into the mass-produced plastic lids, with their functional baffles and their monitory legalese ("CAUTION CONTENTS HOT," so don't sue us). Marcella Hackbardt offers Various Unbaked Cookies and Milk (2010); in perhaps the ne plus ultra of absurdist Ruschaism, Doro Boehme & Eric Baskauskas give us Various Blank Pages (2009), which seems like one of those joke books (like "The Wit of Margaret Thatcher," as a sitcom character once suggested) until, as Taylor notes, "upon close inspection the pages of the book are illustrated—full bleed with double page spreads from some indeterminate publication, devoid of any images or text" (201).

And when you come to pages 202 and 203 of Various Small Books, you encounter a double page spread (though bordered, not "full bleed") of a photograph of somebody holding Various Blank Pages open to a photograph of a blank double page spread. This could go on for a while, so in hopes that somebody else will take a picture of this picture, I think I'll end this review with a picture of just that.

Taylor, Phil. Various Small Books Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha. Edited and compiled by Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton, and Hermann Zschiegner, with an essay by Mark Rawlinson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.