- Softcover with dustjacket
- 24 cm x 32 cm
- 100 pages
- 37 colour and 37 black and white images
- Price €30.00 £27.50 $35.00
- ISBN: 9781907946448
- Gasoline is also available as an ebook, published by MAPP
An extract from a conversation about the book between David Campany and George Kaplan:
George: So these are press photos of gasoline stations? How did you find them?
David: A number of big North American newspapers have been selling off their archives. I guess they are just a burden for them now. Today press photos are electronic files, but for decades they were 10 x 8 inch glossy prints. I’ve been picking them up here and there.
What are the markings on the photos?
Crop marks, usually in grease pen, made by the newspaper’s art director or layout team. Many prints carry two or three sets of marks, showing multiple uses of the same image. On the reverse there is more information. Dates, captions, clippings from the photos as used in the newspaper. Sometimes there is the photographer’s name, but not always.
Gasoline stations are quite banal things. How come they are newsworthy?
Yes, they are banal but when they make the news it’s usually because of an accident, a crime, a shortage or an economic crisis. This makes them a good measure of what’s going on in society. You’d be surprised how much happens at gasoline stations.
What period is covered by these photos?
The final image in the book is actually the earliest. It’s also the only one that was not taken in North America. It’s from Germany, December 26, 1944. We can’t really deal with North America in isolation from the rest of the world. Until I came across this photo I hadn’t realized Standard Oil was operating in Germany back then. In fact the company had aided the Nazi war effort. That’s a pretty dark chapter. And I wouldn’t have known about it had that image not prompted me into a little research. The most recent are the pair of aerial photos. They show tornado damage in Great Barrington, western Massachusetts on May 30, 1995. So it’s a span of around fifty years.
A number of the pictures look like they’re from the 1970s.
That was quite an eventful decade for gas. Oil shortages. Price increases. Geopolitical instability. Road congestion. Choking cities. Growing consciousness about pollution. Dreams of the tank always full and the freeway always empty were coming to an end.
In the early 1960s the artist Edward Ruscha took a road trip to photograph gasoline stations. He went so far as to describe the images that make up his first book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) as “an extension of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade in photographic form”.
He took those photographs himself, so if they are like Duchamp’s Readymade it’s on the basis of a style (or stylessness) of the photography that could be appropriated, not the actual photographs. Since there was nothing special about his photographs they may as well have been appropriated. The problem is photographs don’t remain unspecial and style-less for long. In unforeseen ways the passing of time renders them significant. Changes in photographic technology show us that neutral never is very neutral. Documents aren’t as dumb as we might like to think.
Some snaps of the Gasoline ebook:
A conversation about Gasoline with Stanley Wolokau-Wanambwa of fine blog The Great Leap Sideways.
The Great Leap Sideways (TGLS): Your book Gasoline forms part of a relatively recent resurgence in what we might at least loosely call archival photographic work. It addresses itself to the selective framing and dissemination of press imagery used to interrogate the daily life of gas stations as ubiquitous outposts in the American landscape. You’ve repurposed that imagery to show the ways that they were interpreted, which makes me think of Sekula’s argument that these sorts of archival images can come to be seen as history rather than as its interpretation. I wonder what motivated you to disassemble these images in the ways that you have, and to ‘re-stage’ them to show how they were put to use? In what ways do these images form a history in your view?
David Campany (DC): There is a long-standing critical tradition of reworking photographic images. It goes back at least to Dada and Surrealism. I think the artist as editor, and indeed the editor as artist, really emerged in the late 1910s and 1920s, in relation to the beginnings of ‘mass media’ – the magazines and newspapers that once had such a hold over the look and values of society. That said, I do recognize something in what you call a ‘resurgence of archival photographic work’. I suspect this resurgence is related to the end of that 20th century version of the mass media. Press photos, those frequently retouched 10×8 glossy prints and all that they imply about the working practices of newspapers – from employment structures and technologies of layout to filing systems – all that is now obsolete. Yet we still have a thing called ‘the press’ and the ‘press photograph’.
The question of whether, or how, photographs come to be seen as history rather than its interpretation is fascinating and one of the crucial aspects of any reflective engagement with photography. I think Jean-Francois Lyotard put it best in his book Le Différand: “Reality succumbs to this reversal: it was the given described by the phrase, it became the archive from which are drawn documents or examples that validate the description.” Really, there’s so much at stake in this we could spend a lifetime exploring it. I guess my re-staging of those press images was in part an attempt to explore that process a little, to show something of the means by which photography becomes a substitute for the real, or for history. Maybe it’s this aspect of the archival that’s had a resurgence. I sense there’s a lot of interest in the means through which photographic images are put to use in the culture at large, past and present. That’s healthy.
TGLS: Plainly we are dealing in Gasoline with images made by photojournalists rather than by artists, but your creative intervention in this archive brings to mind John Schott’s remark about Ed Ruscha’s work, wherein he says that Ruscha’s images “are not statements about the world through art, they are statements about art through the world.” I wonder how you think that the contrast Schott draws might relate to this book?
DC: Hmm… interesting. I’ve not come across that remark. It would take me a while to think it through but my first reaction would be that I cannot fully recognize the dichotomy, as least not in photography. What’s always interested me about photography is its negation of a clear line between artwork and document. Photography became an art, in the sense that we understand it post-Ruscha (post-Pop, post-Conceptual Art) through an acceptance that the photographic document always has an aesthetic dimension, and the ‘art-photograph’ never really escapes the document. What does this mean for my book? Well, you mentioned Ruscha. His gasoline station photos are now half a century old. In that time their ‘readymade’ quality – dumb, boring, perfunctory – has almost vanished. As photographs they are of their time (technically, aesthetically) just as the gas stations he photographed were of their time. The wider art world loves them now but for decades they really were just too familiar to be understood. Art requires estrangement. Ruscha did claim he wasn’t interested in the artistic status of this work but I’m suspicious of that. He’s an artist to his bones. By contrast I’m not sure I care overly about the artistic status of these press photos of gasoline stations in my book. But I am interested in their aesthetic dimension since the aesthetic can be a path towards the critical estrangement / engagement with the document. It can open up something reflective. A reconsideration.
TGLS: Following a little further this idea of art functioning best where it creates an estrangement of a sort — one that highlights that tension ‘between artwork and document’, I wonder what you think about the relation between a perennial desire for newness in art, and the healthy interest you see in the resurgence of archival photographs?
Paradoxical as it may seem, much new contemporary work investigates old photographic archives. Obviously that’s not a new idea per se, but it seems a very contemporary preoccupation with the ‘reality effect’ of photographic imagery. Could it be that since much of our contemporary culture resembles that of prior decades in a sort of retromania, that archives of images from those periods can seem unerringly relevant to the here and now? If the precise appearance and meaning of the here and now is difficult to pin down, is the archive a pre-eminent venue for examining our identity and our historical inheritance?
DC: Any art that we think is good seems to us new, at least on on some level. This is so whether it was made five hundred years ago or yesterday. However, very often I suspect the ‘desire for newness’ on the part of many artists, collectors and galleries today is either a function of the marketplace or a symptom of no longer being able to, contemplate the idea of an artwork lasting.
Photography’s maturing interest in its own past also seems to be the consequence of two related forces. Photography has been eclipsed as the defining medium of the age (I’m not sure that anyone would say that today we live in the ‘age of photography’ as we once did). This eclipse is what has made photography so comprehensibly available to art. Where once photography ‘made history’ today photographic artists very often make history their subject matter. I’m exaggerating the shift, of course, but I hope the gist is clear.
TGLS: Perhaps another way of thinking about this is to suggest that within the discourse of art and art theory, the issue of reality and objectivity in photographic terms has been thoroughly complicated and extensively critiqued. Therefore for some practitioners, it is easier to make work about the complexity of seeing – the complexity of perception, history, reality, meaning etc – than to ‘make statements about the world through art’? I absolutely agree that Schott’s remark needs careful analysis, but hopefully the broad strokes of this sort of hypothesis can in any case be helfpul…
DC: Well I think that historically, over the last three centuries or so, realism has always been complicated and provisional. In modernity realism is a moving target. Maybe photography, or those with vested interests in it, thought they could freeze realism the way the shutter freezes action. The hegemony of the mass media magazines did that for a while. But their stranglehold on the conventions for realism is over. This makes form much more of a live issue than it once was. Realism does not have a form that can be taken for granted. We must fight for it in the midst of things. This too is a reason why art, where form is always a live issue, is now much more interested in photo-archival impulses and in experimental forms of documentary practice.
TGLS: That’s a really intriguing notion, and I suppose in a sense there’s a medium-specificity in archival work that is in keeping with modernism’s conventions, in as much as through them we go back and interrogate the form of realism that was most persuasive when photography was still ascendant in the wider culture.
To backtrack a little, could you perhaps tell us how you came to begin investigating this archive of photographs, what led you to them, and how over time that investigation led to the basis for Gasoline?
DC: One aspect of photography that interested me from a young age was its dependence upon context. I remember in the mid-1980s seeing how every December the glossy magazines of the weekend newspapers would run features on the best news photos of the year. ‘The Year In Pictures’, that kind of thing. It’s still popular. Photos that first appeared as parts of news stories or photo essays would be isolated and treated as significant pictures. Sometimes books of such pictures would be published. Around the same time I started going to exhibitions. I remember seeing a huge show of W. Eugene Smith’s work. Extraordinary photographic prints behind glass, in frames, with captions telling you they were from Life magazine photo stories. I was intrigued about the magazines which were never present back then, the way they are today in the better exhibitions of the work of photojournalists. When I went to study photography I read a lot of Allan Sekula and John Tagg, who discussed context and archives a great deal. I read a lot of Guy Debord too. I also came into contact with the work of John Heartfield, Andy Warhol, John Baldessari, John Stezaker and the postmodern appropriationists. And Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan’s 1977 book Evidence had a great influence on me, I’m sure: photos from industrial archives plucked and placed enigmatically upon white pages.
At that time I was making interventions on public billboards – pasting blown-up computer generated texts to subvert meanings. Well, that was a long time ago but I’ve remained interested in context as a key factor in photography, and I’ve remained interested in photojournalism, which still doesn’t have the rich written history it deserves. I’ve continued to make photographic work and written about photography, and have come to realise that the shared term in all of this is editing. Editing is something that writers do, that photographers do, artists do. Editing is also a distinct set of professions – newspaper editors, pictures editors, film editors, book editors, curators, collectors. Editing is creative and analytical at the same time. That’s really fascinating. And now the internet is making editors of us all.
So it wasn’t such a leap to find myself interested in press photos. Hundreds of thousands of them are being sold off as newspapers dispose of their archives and go fully digital. It’s a bit like the glut of movies stills than was sold off in the early 70s when film distributors realised they were no longer needed. Artists like Baldessari and Stezaker jumped on them and still do great things with them.
I knew Ed Ruscha’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations. But I always thought he overemphasised the eventless, banal aspect of them. Gas Stations are actually very eventful places. By chance I came across a photo of a woman with her head in her arms sittings at the wheel of a car. It was a press print made during gas shortage in Baltimore in 1979. I thought it was such a striking, strange, beautiful image. I decided to look for more along the same lines that might help tell a story not just of American Press photography but of American gas dependence. There’s a lot of chance involved in searching. Then there’s the creativity and analysis involved editing what you have.
TGLS: What did you learn about the rhetorical functions of press images from this wide fifty-year period out of which you’ve selected the images in Gasoline? We were talking before about that period in which magazine journalism defined the form of realism, and you’ve purposefully included the annotations on these images that specified which parts were to be used, which to be excised, so I wonder how your labyrinthine search through these collections informed your understanding of how this kind of imagery was made to work?
DC: Allan Sekula once remarked – I think in the essay you quote at the beginning there – that photographers are usually the proletariat in the production of meaning. They are the detail workers. The real power lies in the hands of editors, commissioners, art directors. Looking at press photos you get a sense of the photographer as just one cog in the machine, one stage in the carefully honed production of the newspaper. I think this trumps any revelation about rhetorical functions. An attentive viewer can work all this out from these prints, the fronts of which carry retouching (a significant skill in itself pre-Photoshop) and art directors’ crop marks, while the backs carry captions, dates, agency rubber stamps, cuttings from the final use of the images and, in there somewhere the photographer’s name.
TGLS: Thinking back to your earlier comment about the influential force of Situationism on this work, it’s interesting to note how quickly and easily a sense of irony or absurdity is produced just by the simple act of extracting these images from the context in which they were used. Some re-connection to that context is provided by showing the backs of the images, and the occasional clippings and notes pasted there, but not always and in most instances not in a great measure.
You’ve obviously worked to highlight the real visceral undercurrent of political and societal conflict that surrounds the centrality of this commodity in American culture, as well as the kinds of aggression and damage that it can produce or provoke. Could you perhaps talk more about the editing of this archive in the light of your reading of Debord and Situationist thinking more generally?
DC: There’s no manual for this kind of work. However intellectually grounded, or critically grounded, one is still having to be quite intuitive. I find editing a mysterious business. There’s so little written on the subject and even very astute editors are often not particularly able to say much about their ways of working. On top of that, I feel I come to images first as a viewer. I like to exercise my imagination and intellect when I’m looking at pictures. John Cage called it ‘Response-ability’, the responsibility the viewer has to play their active part in the making of meaning. Roland Barthes called it the ‘birth of the reader’. I feel I part company with the Situationists on this issue. Situationism was often high-minded, snobbish and pessimistic about the viewer. Since I can’t second-guess what viewers are doing I try to edit in ways that have various levels or points of access. It’s the same approach when I’m writing or curating an exhibition.
TGLS: In your recent interview with John Stezaker, you were discussing with him the surrealist interest in the idea of a collective unconscious as it related to particular types of vernacular photographs, and you asked him a question I’d like to ask you: ‘is the collective unconscious here a dream of the past, about the past, through the past? Can you imagine making archival work from contemporary images?’
DC: I think it’s all three: of, about and through the past. Can I imagine making archival work from contemporary images? Yes, I think so, but the stakes are very different. The advantage of working with images that belong to what Walter Benjamin called ‘the just forgotten’ of recent culture is that there’s a dialectical push-pull at work, where the images seem to be neither part of the present or consigned to history. In 1948 Walker Evans did a piece for Fortune magazine about turn-of-the-century postcards. He reproduced a dozen or so of the cards and wrote an extraordinary text, very Benjaminian, very Baudelairean, about just this point. The common artefacts of the recently forgotten past have a special potential to illuminate the present and its conception of history.
TGLS: What for you were some of the ways that this archive, and this selection illuminate our present moment and our conception of history? So much is made of our being an image-centric culture (although I know that this has been a lengthy lament since prior to the printing presses) – but do you think that these images are more legible now in the wake of the high point of mass media photojournalism, and in the ascendancy of instagram?
DC: The Greeks have two words for time. ‘Chronos’ is History: time as marked by events. ‘Kairos’ is the stuff in between those events, something close to what has now come to be called the ‘everyday’. Photography is interested in both. We might think of photojournalism as a practice interested in Chronos, whereas a wandering hunter-gatherer photographer like Garry Winogrand or William Eggleston is interested in Kairos. But the distinction is never that clear. What to we make of minor-photojournalism, the coverage of small micro-events for local papers? And what to we make of the fact that the older photographs by Winogrand and Eggleston are now incredibly rich historical documents, even if they weren’t exactly made with that intention? Photography has really complicated our ideas of history because it is equally attracted to event and the non-event; the untypical and the typical. I think the press photos that interest me are somewhere in the middle. They were made as documents of small events (say, a gas shortage in Baltimore in 1979) but those small events are clearly connected to larger events (in global petro-politics). Meanwhile, even when the pictures do seem eventful, they are also full of minor details (of gesture, dress and patina, of industrial design and so forth). I’m thinking on my feet here because I’ve never been exactly sure of the nature of my interests. I don’t think anyone one is, really. It’s stimulating to be asked.
TGLS: Have you had much of an opportunity so far to lecture on this work, or give presentations? What sorts of conversations does it typically provoke (dependent, of course, on the audience you’re confronted by)?
DC: I haven’t spoken about it much. But I’ve been surprised by the amount of press coverage. To be honest I thought it was a specialized little book and hadn’t quite accepted the obvious fact that whatever else it’s about, it’s about cars and gas and Americana of a certain kind. And there’s always an audience for that. I’ve also enjoyed the response to the book as an object. I’m pleased with how it turned out. MACK is a very attentive publisher, attuned to all the subtleties of book craft. That said I think there’s an over-obsession with books as objects these days, a reflex response to photos on screens, no doubt. This can can actually overwhelm the images. We were very careful about this. I worked with the designer Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine to find a way of doing things that didn’t make too much of a fetish either of the book or the photographic prints it reproduces. Of course, most of the time if design is really good then people don’t say much about it!
TGLS: I wonder also whether as a university professor you spend much time teaching comparable works from contemporary/modern photography, at least loosely construed or periodised? How do students tend to engage this sort of work, and what questions seem for them most urgent in relationship to strategies for reading it now?
DC: I don’t think one can understand photography without some grasp of its archival character so, yes, in my teaching I do address image circulation, re-use, picture agencies, collections, archives, the role of the editor, appropriation, image-text relations. Plus of course we look at the book as a form that has been central to photographic culture. More broadly though, a lot of my teaching is simply a matter of encouraging students to be alert to the powers and nuances of images. The short text in my book refers to a remark made by Colin MacCabe, biographer of Jean-Luc Godard: “…in a world in which we are entertained from cradle to grave whether we like it or not, the ability to rework image and dialogue … may be the key to both psychic and political health.” I think it’s absolutely necessary to encourage students to have an active relation to the images around them. This may not lead to physically reworking them, but it might lead to a sharpened awareness of them – reworking them mentally, so to speak.
TGLS: It’s a funny coincidence that you mention that Godard quotation, because I’ve just been revisiting Tod Papageorge’s Yale School of Art commencement speech from May of 2004, and he quotes Herzog in relation to some of the issues at work in the MacCabe quotation above. The closing paragraph of that speech runs:
“The great German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, said in 1983: “I truly believe that the lack of adequate images is a danger… I have said that before and I repeat it again and again, and as long as I can speak I will speak out for that. If we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs.” Whether the images that you go on to make after today will, as Herzog has it, be adequate to save us – or at least alert us to the need to be saved – depends on if we, your audience, engaged in our myriad communities, can find in them some resonating evidence of how we live now.”
Film-makers and film critics have often been very illuminating in their observations about the complicated agency of still images, and their relevance to the ways in which we frame our understanding of the world, as much as the ways in which that understanding is framed for us… Could you maybe talk about what you think some of the particular functions and responsibilities are for practitioners and students of the photographic image now, in an era after the ascendancy of the picture magazine and the press image? I’m thinking here, for instance, about the sequence in the book that runs from the double spread of the very large car jam at the gas station and car wash through ‘Sunoco, Phillipps 66, No Gas Happy Holidays’ to ‘Everybody’s Oil Corporation’..?
DC: Herzog is an interesting starting point here. I am convinced he couldn’t make the extraordinary images he makes if he wasn’t fascinated with human nature. Its achievements, its weaknesses. That’s really the starting point both for making significant images and for the intelligent and creative response to them. Semiotics, psychoanalytic theory, phenomenology, theories of ideology – these are indispensable frameworks for helping students to understand the images around them, but if they don’t have a basic curiosity about human nature I think very little is possible. That curiosity is there in all young people but it needs to be cultivated or it dies under the weight of life’s drudgery and commerce. I think this is why my Gasoline project began with one of the most human pictures in the book, the one on the cover. I find that shot of the woman at the wheel really emotional. Look closely and you’ll see the retoucher has paid very close attention to this image, accentuating and defining its details, so that it will reproduce well in the rough halftone of newsprint. There’s a lot of care in that image.
TGLS: Papageorge urges the outgoing class of ‘04 to engage precisely that need earlier in the speech, and I suppose one of the things that’s fascinating both about the image you mention, and a number of others in the book is the way that they intimate the scale of the mismatch between basic individual human aspirations (to get to work, to get home, to do the shopping etc) and the tectonic force of oil in the culture and the landscape. The little boy on the bike, the cluster of four men stood underneath the enormous sign that reads HELL, the teenage boy reclining on the bench in a flooded forecourt…
How broad and varied was the scope of life depicted in the images you collected, and how do you think that these ones point us toward curiosity in human nature?
DC: That’s a very interesting point. There’s a lot of quite intimate detail in these press photos. Much of it gets cropped out or simply doesn’t register in the graphic halftone of newsprint. But at its best – by design or by accident – photography is an extraordinary medium for picturing the interface of the micro and the macro, the tensions between individual human aspiration and the tectonic forces. I feel very drawn to images that allow us to experience and understand those tensions.