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Back in 1965, when artist Ed Ruscha was doing a lot of photography, he wouldn't have called himself a photographer. To be honest, he probably would have scoffed at the idea. His goal was to make books — and photographs were simply a means to that end.
Ruscha made a name for himself in the '60s art world by self-publishing a series of books like Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles and Some Los Angeles Apartments — slim volumes with minimal text that presented indifferent documentation of exactly what the titles suggested. Between 1963 and 1978, he published 16 of them in large editions — and 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the first one, Twentysix Gasoline Stations.
To coincide with a current exhibition, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles released a new book about the 1965 series, called, appropriately, Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments. It includes 38 deadpan photos of high-rises, walk-ups and dingbat buildings that typify that era of architecture.
And as curator Virginia Heckert writes in the introduction, "it is thanks to Ruscha's having recorded these structures in 1965 — and in many cases having provided the inspiration for others to photograph similar subjects — that we find ourselves today more observant and appreciative of the architecture that so unassumingly but definitively influences our experiences of the city."
For those unfamiliar with his name, Ruscha was an influential force in conceptual art, inspiring an outcropping of more artists, as Heckert suggests — including, quite literally, Eric Doeringer's project to re-shoot these same apartments.
In some ways, it feels wrong to pick just a few and put them in a blog post. (Maybe he'd have my head for it, but I chose the ones with building names in fun typefaces.) But in other ways, it's better to see some of it than none of it.
Today the images seem sterile and dispassionate, and really, they looked that way at the time, too. But at the time, Ruscha was asking big questions: about man and the environment, about photography and art, and about history and the way we document it — questions that endure well past the golden age of dingbats.