Updated: Jun 10
Ed Ruscha and his book 26 Gasoline Stations were the impetus for this semester’s break. While researching him, his works moved me once again after years.
The different art forms that emerged from the 26 Gasoline Stations project, as well as the little booklet that has inspired many artists for over 60 years, are still relevant. His pictures of the gas stations, which seem to have been taken without much effort and in passing, are intentionally imperfect. The small format of the book, simply printed, stands in stark contrast to what most photographers still consider desirable: perfect images that are best presented as oversized prints.
Since I'm moving to Europe in a few months after twelve years of living in America, I had the idea of using some vacation time and going on one last trip; to explore at least part of Route 66 following in the steps of Ed Ruscha. In addition, many famous national parks of the American West are practically on my doorstep. So, in addition to searching for traces of Ed Ruscha, I almost automatically focused on planning the trip around locations that were photographed by large names such as William Henry Jackson, Carleton Eugene Watkins, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, William Bell, Ansel Adams, but also the work of Mark Klett.
Unfortunately, I only had 9 days to travel what I assumed would be around 2800 km.
In the end it was more than 4,000 km in 9 days and resulted in no pictures resembling those taken by the idols. In return, I gained the realisation that I cannot both travel fast and take a good pictures. The nature and it's great vastness completely overwhelmed me and left me speechless photographically, although I was entrenched in the beauty of it on every step of the way.
During the journey I realised that I need a lot of time to grow together and become one with my surroundings to take a picture. I need the time to walk around in the present lighting and objects of my photographic desires; to make friends with the objects I want to photograph. This also made it clear to me why I don't like photographing strangers.
Halfway through the journey, I came across a rest area in front of Monument Valley, which was the first image I captured. Above all, I had time to take pictures in peace until all the souvenirs had been bought and the toilets had been used.
So the journey’s focus changed from looking for Ed Ruscha to looking for rest stops. In the end, they gave a harmonious rhythm to the endless driving and the vast landscapes that flowed into one another.
Route 66 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff proved to be the most boring part of the trip and for me it portrayed parts of the collorless and uniformed America of today, absent of all signs of Ed Ruscha. Traveling through the national parks and more secluded roads was an opportunity to travel back in time to reach the architecture of the old rest areas.
Of course, after I got home and organised the pictures from the trip, I found many other photographers who were dealing with this same topic. For example, Lizzy Oppenheim spent years trying to capture every rest stop in the US. "Just before their closure due to budget cuts," she said in the 2009 Kickstarter video where she was raising money for the project.
In the project The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside, Ryann Ford gave the rest stops, that were slowly disappearing and being demolished by the state due to a lack of funding, a platform through a five year long project, which appeared in a much-cited book in 2016.