Ruscha is also a documentarian of sorts. He’s made photographic and painted inventories of parking lots, gasoline stations, swimming pools, rooftops views, and, most famously, the Hollywood sign. “I used to be a paperboy,” he told me when I expressed my admiration for one of his early art books Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). “As I’d walk along the streets, I identified with each house and who gets a newspaper and who doesn’t, and also which papers go on the porch—and dealing with this from a street level led me to want to capture and record this street in Los Angeles they called Sunset Boulevard. So I started photographing it in a democratic fashion in 1966 and I’ve been doing it regularly ever since.”
The photographs are unpretentious, neither especially gritty nor glamorous, and collaged into panoramas that strikingly resemble Google Street View, though there’s something a little more wobbly and wonderful about Ruscha’s. “I don’t particularly have a strategy to it or an agenda,” Ruscha admitted. “I’m not focusing on things that are noteworthy in a historical way, but more or less like—what does everything look like from a storefront plane?”
What Ruscha is hoping to capture isn’t easily articulated, even if the methodology is plainspoken and straightforward. The photograph of a parking lot is a photograph of a parking lot, but is it anything more? Of his 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, for example, he told The New Yorker in 2013 that he liked the words “gasoline” and the number “26” and that “that’s what I was after—the head-scratching.” (Famously, the Library of Congress declined the copy Ruscha sent; the book is now a collector’s item.) Still, some of these landmarks or places are captured at a sloping angle, and looking at them in succession can feel akin to watching a movie or as if you’re zooming past in a car. Even in their isolation, the images convey a sense of narrative.