RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha made his name in the 1960s by taking pictures of gas stations, apartment houses, vacant lots - in other words, L.A.'s most run-of-the-mill non-landmarks. As photographs, they may seem unremarkable, yet they're considered among the 20th century's most enduring images and have been exhibited in museums around the world. On the 50th anniversary of Ruscha's first photo series, Carolina Miranda paid the artist a visit in his Los Angeles studio.
CAROLINA MIRANDA, BYLINE: For a seminal work of art, "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" doesn't look like much. It's a small, thin paperback book resembling an old industrial manual - just 26 black-and-white photos of gas stations that Ed Ruscha self-published in 1963 at the age of 26.
ED RUSCHA: If I showed the book to somebody who worked at a gas station, they might be genuinely interested in it and saying, oh yeah, I remember that place out on the highway.
MIRANDA: The intellectual establishment, however, wasn't convinced. One critic described the book as doomed to oblivion. The Library of Congress refused to put it in its stacks.
RUSCHA: I found some odd sort of suspicion coming from people who were in the art world, like what is this you're doing? Are you putting us on? (Chuckling)
MIRANDA: Those photos have since been shown in museums around the world, and they are now on view at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Virginia Heckert helped organize the exhibition.
VIRGINIA HECKERT: At that time, the idea of an artist book was a meticulously crafted, limited edition, expensive work that would wind up in a private collection or institution.
MIRANDA: Ruscha, however, got a commercial printer to mass-produce 400 copies, which he sold at $3 a pop. Heckert says the crude, almost anonymous quality of Ruscha's pictures represented a shift from the highly personalized art of the 1940s and '50s.
HECKERT: They're all reactions to the chest-thumping, soul-baring Abstract Expressionists and the drama and emotion of creating paintings that are very physical.
MIRANDA: But the photos, nonetheless, provide a glimpse into where the artists was coming from. The son of an insurance auditor, Ruscha was raised in Oklahoma City but moved to L.A. in 1956. The gas stations he photographed all sat on Route 66, the highway he rode on his regular visits home.
RUSCHA: I just had a personal connection to that span of mileage between Oklahoma and California and it just kind of spoke to me.
MIRANDA: So did the stark black and white cinematography of John Ford's 1940 film adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath," which told the story of Oklahoma migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. They traveled Route 66 too.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE GRAPES OF WRATH")
RUSSELL SIMPSON: (as Pa Joad) Ain't you going with us?
JOHN CARRADINE: (as Casey) I'd like to. There's something going on out there in the West and I'd like to try and learn what it is.
MIRANDA: "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" was also pioneering in the way that it captured an essential aspect of modern American life: the car. Ruscha is a gearhead. He keeps a mint-condition 1933 Ford pickup behind his sprawling L.A. studio.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)
RUSCHA: I just take it around the neighborhood here. I'm too afraid it's going to get smashed up and I like it.
MIRANDA: Car culture makes its way into another of Ruscha's seminal photographic works, called "Every Building on the Sunset Strip."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE END")
JIM MORRISON: (Singing) He walked on down the hallway, baby.
MIRANDA: In the '60s the Strip, a commercial stretch of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, was the place to hang out in L.A.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE END")
MORRISON: (Singing) He came to a door, looked inside.
MIRANDA: Ruscha saw The Doors play at the Whiskey A Go Go and he dug the street's flamboyant signage.
RUSCHA: And it just had a wavy, windy sort of look to it that I liked and I just said, well, this is - I'll start here.
MIRANDA: What he started was another reinvention of the artist book. Published in 1966, "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" is an accordion pamphlet consisting of a 25-foot long panorama of the entire two-mile strip. Reading it feels like cruising Sunset in third gear. Ruscha's books have been widely influential among artists who have adopted their disaffected look.
But their influence also extents to architects. Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Frank Gehry, who has known Ruscha since the 1960s.
FRANK GEHRY: I love the guy, you know, I mean, he's been a great inspiration to me.
MIRANDA: As a young designer, Gehry was obsessed with ordinary material such as corrugated steel and chain-link fence. He felt a deep kinship to Ruscha's unromantic view of L.A.
GEHRY: I thought it was so real, so laid-back, so not in your face, so just exploring things and this is how I explore things, and I'm fascinated with the streetscape, so I take pictures of every building on the street and look at it.
MIRANDA: At age 75, Ruscha hasn't stopped looking, but what he sees has changed.
RUSCHA: The buildings are still standing but the names are gone. They've gone back to something quieter. What's happening to our city? Let's worry. (Laughing)
MIRANDA: You want L.A. to be a little jazzier?
RUSCHA: No, it can go any way it wants and I'll still be here.
MIRANDA: And as long as Ed Ruscha's around, L.A. will get its picture taken. For NPR News, I'm Carolina Miranda in Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)