Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a thin paperback that resembles an industrial manual of the 1960s, is often considered to be the first modern artist’s book. The book is exactly what the title describes: 26 images of gasoline stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha was living and working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and frequently traveled the route between the two cities to visit his family.
“I just had a personal connection to that span of mileage between Oklahoma and California,” Ruscha told NPR earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of the book. “It just, it kind of spoke to me.”
In an interview with Avalanche magazine in 1973 he said, “I’d always wanted to make a book of some kind. When I was in Oklahoma I got a brainstorm in the middle of the night to do this little book called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. I knew the title. I knew it would be photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations.”
So, Ruscha documented gas stations along that route in black-and-white photographs and labeled them with their locations, from “Texaco, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles” to “‘Flying A, Kingman, Arizona” to the final image “Fina, Groom, Texas.”
Ruscha published the book at age 26 in a run of 400 numbered copies in April 1963. Though it was the same year as Ruscha’s first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the book didn’t initially receive a warm reception. In a 1963 letter, the Library of Congress declined to add a copy to their collection, noting the book’s “unorthodox form and supposed lack of information.”
The book gradually acquired cult status in the 1960s, and a second edition was published in 1967 and a third in 1969. Surviving first editions of the book are rare.
Ruscha’s archive, which was recently acquired by the Ransom Center, includes snapshots of the gas stations, Ruscha’s notes about the project, the Library of Congress letter, and an advertisement with the headline “REJECTED Oct. 2, 1963 by the Library of Congress.”
Four large bins containing the archival material of artist Ed Ruscha arrived at the Ransom Center recently. Packed and carefully layered within were boxes, tubes, and portfolios containing Ruscha’s notable creations on paper. The collection includes his limited edition artist’s books and deluxe suites of prints, photographic publications, colorful exhibition posters, prints of his 16 mm movies, and a rich assortment of papers and journals documenting the creation of his publications and art commissions and referencing his various literary influences. Together, this material represents the achievements of a remarkable artistic career that spans more than half a century.
Born in 1937, Ed Ruscha is considered today to be one of the most important artists of his generation. Words and wry phrases have always played a central role in his artwork, beginning with the West Coast Pop Art phenomena of the 1960s where his roots run deep. For Ruscha, whose background includes commercial art and typesetting, words are visually malleable and can carry multiple meanings. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” Ruscha once said.
Arts writer, Calvin Tomkins, summed it up best: “His (Ruscha’s) early paintings are not pictures of words but words treated as visual constructs.”
Single word paintings with odd titles such as Oof (1963) and Boss (1964) were early precursors to more complex works such as the series of rhyming prints titled News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues (1970), which are included in the archive.
Ruscha’s art would evolve and expand intellectually—Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns were early influences—to become beautifully crafted and complex conceptual works of art, which have been described over the years as being comedic, deadpan, and elegantly laconic.
West Coast car culture and commutes on Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma where Ruscha grew up all helped inspire many of his photography-based artist’s books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Royal Road Test (1980), and Parking Lots (1999). All are represented in the archive.
Most recently published is On the Road (2010), Ruscha’s limited edition artist book of the classic novel by Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). The archive includes full-size mockups of the book, annotated copies of the novel, sketches, photographs, correspondence, and business papers. These materials resonate perfectly with the Ransom Center’s own collection of materials related to Beat Generation authors, which includes the journal that Kerouac kept while preparing to write On the Road.
Also included in the archive is Sayings (1995), a folio of ten color lithographs bound in linen that are based on Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale (1894). Ruscha selected phrases written by Twain in a black dialect spoken during the era of slavery. He superimposed the phrases (hand-written in what Ruscha calls his “Boy Scout Utility san serif”) over colorful wood grain patterns, creating a tension that resonates with larger social and racial issues in America today.
Ruscha’s creative distillation of popular American culture over the last half century with its layers of typographical code makes him an exciting artist to explore, and, for the Ransom Center, one of the more compelling if not quintessential to acquire.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City in 1941 and to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. In the years since, he has been widely recognized for his paintings, drawings, photographs, and artist’s books.
Ruscha is known for art that often manipulates words and phrases in unconventional ways. Ruscha’s art is deeply influenced by his love of books and language, as reflected by his frequent use of palindromes, unusual word pairings and rhyme. He has often combined the cityscape of Los Angeles with vernacular language, and his early work as a graphic artist continues to strongly influence his aesthetic and thematic approach.
Ruscha’s archive comprises five personal journals filled with preliminary sketches and notes; materials related to the making of his artist’s book of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (2010); notes, photographs, correspondence and contact sheets relating to the creation and publication of his many other artist’s books, including Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965); and materials relating to his short films Miracle (1975) and Premium (1971); his portfolios; and several art commissions.
Once processed and cataloged, the materials will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room to students, researchers and the public.
The purchase of the archive was primarily supported by generous donors, including Michael and Jeanne Klein, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Foundation, Mark Wawro, and Melanie Gray. The University provided additional support for the acquisition.
Ruscha, who continues to live and work in Los Angeles, donated a substantial portion of the archive to the Ransom Center, including a complete set of his artist’s books, print portfolios, 16 mm reels of his films, and a complete set of exhibition posters.
A small selection of materials from the archive will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through December 1.
Posing for the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson (1832–1898) for over a dozen years, Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864–1925) grows up before our eyes through the series of portraits made of her during the 1860s and 1870s. Named after Princess (later Queen) Alexandra, who was a close friend of her mother, Xie (pronounced “Ecksy”) was the daughter of a clerical colleague of Dodgson’s at Christ Church College in Oxford. She began sitting for Dodgson’s tableaux at the early age of four, and, by at least one historian’s count, sat for him more than 50 times before she turned 16. Several other children—or “child-friends”—that Dodgson photographed were quickly bored with dressing up and sitting for long poses before the camera, but Xie participated well into her teens and is frequently referenced in the photographer’s diaries.
Dodgson’s first, or “seated,” portrait of the costumed Xie is directly influenced by one of the greatest child portraits of the Georgian Era, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of Penelope Boothby (1785–1791). Penelope, the only child and heir of Sir Brooke Boothby, the seventh baronet, and his wife, Susanna, was painted at the age of three in Reynolds’s London studio in July 1788. By all accounts, Reynolds enjoyed the company of small children as much as Dodgson and had a fine relationship with the young Penelope throughout their sessions. Art historians attribute the endearing quality of the painting to their brief but strong personal bond.
Another factor contributing to the painting’s fame was the tragic fate of its sitter. Young Penelope would spend the remainder of her short life at the family estate at Ashbourne Hall in Derbyshire. She died apparently of encephalitis in 1791, a month before her sixth birthday. Her death led to the tragic collapse of her parents’ marriage. After the final breakup of the family estate, this most successful of Reynolds’s child portraits eventually found its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Dodgson undoubtedly fell under its spell a half century later.
Dodgson posed a costumed but clearly older Xie in a position similar to the Reynolds painting. He also had her stand in costume for a second pose. For the final image from the series, he brought into his studio a wicker chaise and an Oriental parasol, had Xie remove her oversized “Mob-Cap” bonnet, and placed her in semi-recline in the chaise. The resulting tableau, an original Dodgson composition combined with Xie’s own studied gaze, would become one of the great child portraits of the Victorian Era.
Dodgson, who gained early fame in mathematics and literature under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, remained an avid photographer for 25 years until abandoning the art in 1880. He retired from teaching the following year but stayed in Oxford, writing about mathematics until his death in 1898. Xie Kitchin published no memoirs or reminiscences of her friendship with Dodgson, but she would go on to marry and live in London until her death in 1925. Interestingly, the first of her six children was named Penelope.
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In 2012, Magnum introduced the sale of carefully reproduced contact sheets, offering “the opportunity to own a piece of Magnum’s history.” Indeed the digital turn in photography has forced the contact sheet, once an inextricable part of the photographic process, into obsolescence. Contact sheets, made when negatives are printed directly in contact with photographic paper, gave photographers a first look at their images and provided an important tool for editing. They also serve as artifacts, revealing how photographers approach a subject and work through time and space.
In a statement for the 2011 group publication Magnum: Contact Sheets, edited by International Center of Photography Curator Kristen Lubben, Jonas Bendiksen (b. 1977) marveled at his apparent hesitancy to “use up” too much film on any one scene. He recalled, “here we were in a cloud of white butterflies circling the remains of a Soyuz space rocket’s second stage, while local farm boys were gutting it for scrap metal. In total I shot less than half a roll of film. From the basic angle and composition from which I got the final selection, I clicked the shutter three times. That would not have happened today.”
In a stunning break with the black-and-white tradition of war photography, Susan Meiselas’s pulsating color images documenting the resistance against—and ultimate insurrection of—the brutal Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua were published in magazines and newspapers around the world. The revolutionaries quickly appropriated her photographs, adapting them for billboards, postage stamps, posters, and other imagery in support of their cause. In 1981 Meiselas (b. 1948) published her landmark book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979, combining photographs, historical documentation, and the personal testimony of Nicaraguans in an attempt to “overcome the sensational quality of fragmentary news reports by placing these events in the context of an evolving political process.” Retracing her steps, she returned to Nicaragua in 1991 for the film Pictures from a Revolution, and again in 2004 for the project Reframing History, an installation of 19 mural-size enlargements of her original photographs at the sites where they were first made, reigniting discussions about the past and reconsiderations of dreams once held of a better future.
For some Magnum photographers, picture stories published in magazines and newspapers represent just the first stage in the development of a much larger project. Some consider the book the ideal platform for extended visual narratives. Conceived independently and conducted outside the traditional framework of photojournalism, books have become a mainstay of documentary practice and an integral part of Magnum’s creative repertoire. Since the agency’s founding, Magnum Photos has published dozens of group projects, and its members have collectively produced over 1,000 volumes that together form both a history of Magnum and a history of the modern world.
Eli Reed has worked as a professional photographer with Magnum Photos since 1988 and as a clinical professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin since 2005. To Reed, his success directly results from the simple motivating question, “Why would you want to be less than what you can be?”
Throughout his career, Reed’s understanding of his potential has been bolstered by his active relentlessness. “You’ve got to do this work because you really want to do it,” he said. “It’s not necessarily going to happen easily. It’s not going to happen ‘just because.” Reed’s combined vision and dedication has driven his career from newspaper journalism to international photography in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
Perhaps more significantly, Reed insisted, he knows when to say yes. “You get… in to various situations because of you,” he said, “You make the decisions, and it’s important [to know] when to say yes. We’re all living on borrowed time from the day we’re born to the day we pass away, so what are you going to do before you go?” Reed strives to share this lesson with his students, emphasizing what seems to be his mantra in both photography and life at large: “Awareness is everything.”
It was Reed’s awareness that first led him to Sudan in 2001. The photographer was asked to join a film crew to document the Lost Boys, young refugees from the Second Sudanese Civil War. Although he was already particularly interested in Africa, Reed said the opportunity to travel there arose because he was “paying attention,” and he hopes his audience will do the same. The goal of the photo documentary of the Lost Boys, he explained, is “to educate people” and to spark interest in and action on their behalf. A dozen photographs are on display at the Harry Ransom Center through December 8 in an exhibit entitled Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan.
Ultimately, all aspects of Reed’s profession stem from a single motivation: to “pass on” information and experience, either through the classroom or professional photography.
“I’ve had a really interesting life,” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of people in different situations… and some terrible things happen, and some wonderful things happen, and it’s called the ‘Circle of Life.’ I can’t think of a better thing to do than, not just to share it, but to help people who are going on into this ‘Brave New World.’”