It's perhaps fitting that Ed Ruscha - one of the central figures in late 20th century photography - does not consider himself a photographer. "I think photography is dead as a fine art," he told John Coplans in 1965. "Its only place is in the commercial world, for technical and commercial purposes." Ruscha stretched the boundaries to suit his own needs, using photos as source material for paintings, prints, books, and other noncommercial applications. But photos remained a means, not an end. A few years later, in 1972, in an interview with AD Coleman he went even further. "I'm not a photographer at all. I never take pictures just for the taking of pictures…It's strictly a medium to use or not use, and I use it only when I have to."
In the photo culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, such statements were anathema. The dominant aesthetic as passed down from Newhall to Steichen to Szarkowski had not yet escaped the trappings of high modernism. Photography still had a chip on its shoulder. It wanted to be art and modeled itself accordingly. Photographers strived to manifest practiced expertise. Photographs were carefully seen and crafted, then framed for the wall. The fine art print, preferably in black and white, was idealized. Perhaps fetishized is a better word.
Into this world stumbled Ruscha. He didn't make prints. He made small paperback books. He knew nothing of the zone system or previsualization. Worse, his focus was seemingly misguided. Instead of expressing the sublime his books typologized the banal. The printing was simple, rough and unfussy. His first hand-made book, Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, went over like a lead balloon. The next one, Various Small Fires, fared about as well. Some Los Angeles Apartments was next, depicting plain exterior views of various residences around LA. If the photographs had ventured inside, and inside Ruscha's apartment in particular, they would've shown copies of his unsold books stacked along the walls.
In recent years Ruscha has softened his stance on photography. He now acknowledges its inherent power beyond mere illustrative tool. But if Ruscha has shifted only slightly, photography itself has undergone a revolution. A half-century after he helped to pioneered it, Ruscha's style is not only fashionable -- it seems prescient. Typologies are everywhere. Banality has been thoroughly mined, as have been found photos and appropriated imagery. Photographers go out of their way to create rough edges and imperfections. The recent spate of Google Street View projects emulate the direct impersonal style of Ruscha's . "I'm not a photographer at all," sounds like a boast from modern practitioners like Doug Rickard, Erik Kessels, or Joachim Schmidt. And photobooks, once a secondary avenue for expression, are now arguably the medium's dominant form. It only took 50 years but the photo world is finally catching up to Ruscha in 1963.
Perhaps predictably the reconsideration of Ruscha's influence has spawned a few recent titles. Various Small Books published this spring by MIT Press, is a nice compendium, listing many Ruscha-style books from the past 40 years.
Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments by Virginia Heckert takes a more specific approach, focusing on the Ruscha volume which was perhaps most seminal. The timing is not accidental. On the 50th anniversary of Ruscha's first book the Getty Museum has mounted a retrospective, of which this book is an outgrowth. The book has 38 plates, roughly the same number as the 34 in the original book, but they are not exactly the same images. Some are missing, a few have been replaced, and some added, according to what is in the Getty exhibition. Make no mistake, this is a show catalog, not a reprinting.
That specific photos in Some Los Angeles Apartments have been shuffled and re-ordered points to the power of Ruscha's style. His projects aren't about photos so much as they're conceived as projects. None of the photos in the book are particularly memorable. None have become iconic. If you think of a Ruscha photo now while reading this, it probably won't be an apartment. Maybe it's a gas station or a strip of buildings. Just the title alone -- Some Los Angeles Apartments -- captures most of what one needs to know, and the photographs are simply tools to support it. Means to an end. Concept preceding image is an approach which now dominates contemporary photography, but it wasn't always so. Heckert's book serves as a helpful history lesson.