"I never aspired to be a photographer," says artist Edward Ruscha. "To this day, I'm still not a photographer."
Yet here he is, in a tony Southern California gallery -- Gagosian in Beverly Hills -- with a big show of his photographs, taken over the past 40 years.
A painter with a Pop sensibility who is often identified as L.A.'s quintessential artist, Ruscha has produced iconic paintings of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art going up in flames and a version of the Hollywood sign, with block letters marching into the sunset across a mountainous ridge. An ace at making cool combinations of images and text, he's also known for floating provocative phrases in ethereal space: "Those of Us Who Have Double Parked," "Three Darvons and Two Valiums" or "Listen, I'd Like to Help Out, But."
Ruscha has taken thousands of photographs while producing all this work. He has even immortalized some of the images in witty little books of swimming pools, palm trees, real estate opportunities and parking lots. But photography is mainly "an aid" or "a support medium" for his painting, he says. "I've never pursued photography with a capital P."
Admitting that he had "some apprehension at first" when the gallery approached him about presenting a show of his photographs, Ruscha says later he thought "maybe so" and finally decided "why not?" The works on view are "unlooked-at things in my life as an artist," he says. "It's like revisiting some abandoned highway."
Longtime fans will probably be delighted to revisit his books -- including "Twenty Six Gasoline Stations," "Various Small Fires," "Some Los Angeles Apartments" and "Every Building on the Sunset Strip," which have been in shows in the past. But most of the images are being exhibited for the first time. Even viewers who have followed his work will probably get a few surprises among the selection of vintage books and photographs, new prints of old images and recent work.
Take "Ross the Rooster," a crumpled black-and-white photograph of a chicken, taken in 1960. "It's like a photograph of a friend," Ruscha says. "There were five of us guys who rented a house in Hollywood and he just appeared in the backyard one day. I captured him and put him in a little screened-in summer house that we made into a studio. He took to it and lived there."
As for the creases and wrinkles, "I guess I was into manipulated pictures," Ruscha says. "I wanted the picture to be something other than just a photograph, so I folded it up and cracked it."
Three pictures on the same wall, also taken in 1960, depict a 1938 Plymouth coupe that belonged to painter Joe Goode, an Oklahoma City high school chum who moved to Los Angeles with Ruscha and was one of the guys in the Hollywood house. Two head-on images of the car's grille are paired in a diptych. Another is attached to a long stick and "planted" in a landscape.
"I was manipulating images rather than capturing reality," Ruscha says. "I took a picture and then took another one, and put one on a stick and put that in the yard. It's just a matter of taking one step and then another and another."
The image of the Plymouth never evolved into a painting, but it lodged in Ruscha's memory. "Joe bought the car out here and used it for a couple of years," he says. "I think he let the license expire and left it in front of my studio. Finally it just got towed away. Today it would be worth a fortune."
A movie memory
Born in Omaha in 1937 and bred in Oklahoma City, Ruscha came to Los Angeles in 1956 and enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute with dreams of becoming a commercial artist. He had no interest in photography in his youth, but John Ford's classic 1940 film "Grapes of Wrath" captured his imagination.
"The idea of black-and-white photography got to me with that movie," he says. "I guess it brought a lot of things together that encouraged me -- to maybe become an artist or do something, leave Oklahoma."
He bought his first camera in Los Angeles. "Rolleiflex was the camera of the day," he says. "That was too expensive. I think it was like $300 or $400. I bought a Yashika, a copy of the Rolleiflex, for $36 brand-new. I began to shoot pictures while I was in school, but not on a serious basis. I liked the idea that it could capture the here and now, an immediate reality that could then be appraised and put back into a painting."
Occasionally, an image in the show triggers thoughts of a specific painting. A photo of a can of Spam in his 1961 series of "Products" pictures, for example, recurs in "Actual Size," a 1962 painting. But Ruscha doesn't paint directly from photographs, and their relationship to his paintings can be very subtle.
"Even this little guy might influence me in doing something that doesn't look anything like a rooster," Ruscha says, giving a nod to Ross.
As for what motivates him to pick up his camera and shoot, "I think a lot of it has to do with what goes on in the world," he says.
A sign above a building at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado appealed to him because "it was old and seemed to have a power to it," he says. In the "Products" pictures -- which feature boxes of Sunmaid raisins and Oxydol detergent and a can of Sherwin Williams turpentine in relatively formal still-lifes -- he liked that the containers were "semi-stressed," he says. "They weren't all brand-new. They have slight little imperfections and dings and all that."
A series of gas station photographs was shot on cross-country trips, along Route 66. "I love the bleakness of these places," he says of the grim little outposts. "It's alive to me." Devoid of artifice, these pictures look like casual snapshots -- and that also suits Ruscha just fine.
"I've always liked the term snapshot because it denotes something that's not absolutely planned," he says. "In effect, it's almost like stealing the subject and you steal it quickly, like a thief. I haven't really pursued the idea of very carefully setting up a scene and photographing it. I point the camera and shoot. It's like thinking but not thinking at the same time, a way of just capturing something and moving on."
With the passage of time the photographs have become more than visual reports. "A lot of these works have unintended consequences," he says. "When I photographed these things, especially the gas stations and the apartment houses, I was after the immediacy, the now. None of these things possessed any kind of nostalgia. I had a little inkling that someday these pictures would begin to look antique-y or nostalgic. That was something I wished I could avoid, but couldn't because everything eventually begins to look old."
Still, Ruscha hasn't abandoned his camera or his fascination with the streets of L.A. The most recent works in the exhibition are "Bow Tie" landscapes, color prints that were shot this year in the desert near Palm Springs. Printed from a computer, each picture is a symmetrical image with a pair of pure white arrows or angular shapes forming a sort of bow tie superimposed on the foreground.
Ruscha calls these odd white shapes "dingbats" and says they are like captions, but what they say isn't clear. "I'm trying to add some new kind of language to the concept, that there's a second statement within a main statement," he says with an air of mystery, suggesting that he's still grappling with the idea.
Perhaps more surprising than that body of new work is that he continues to systemically photograph the Sunset Strip and other major thoroughfares, with the help of crew. Returning to sites he has photographed over the years, Ruscha says he feels like an archeologist charting the layers of an ancient site. One day, he hopes to publish a book that will track the evolution of the Sunset Strip.
Retrospective exhibitions can be unnerving for artists, Ruscha says. The photography survey feels "strange but good," and he hopes "it will lead somewhere." But it has led him to question the effect of artists he particularly admires.
"The photographers who have influenced me most, like Walker Evans or Robert Frank, have great, emotionally charged statements in their work, and mine don't," he says. "I'm not picking up on the power of their emotion, but I must be picking up on something else. Maybe it's just the black-and-white quality of the prints."
Yet even as he ponders this mystery, he has a quick answer for puzzled viewers who wander into the show expecting to see his trademark work. "If you compare this to an exhibit of my paintings, you might say, 'What's the deal? Where does this connect?' I feel that my painting and my photography are not as much two separate entities as they work toward one another. Or at least photography works toward painting and makes me understand it a little better," he says.
"I would love to get in painting some of the effects I get in photography, but the pursuit discourages me. Like maybe it can't be done, so go ahead and do it with a camera."
'Ed Ruscha: Photographs'
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Where: Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills
Ends: April 19
Contact: (310) 271-9400