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Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Notebook: Ed Ruscha’s revolutionary moment in street photography

You don’t hear much about street photography anymore. There are lots of reasons why. One, hitherto unacknowledged, is that artist Ed Ruscha’s extraordinary photo books turned the genre upside down in the 1960s. It hasn’t been the same since.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article included a caption that identified the photograph as “untitled.” The photograph is titled “Los Angeles, California.”


In the ‘60s, street photography’s art world stature was peaking. We’ll get to Ruscha’s brilliant reinvention in a moment, but first it’s worth mentioning “Streetwise: Masters of ‘60s Photography,” a quiet, sometimes absorbing show currently at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts. It examines street photography’s old ideal — a personal style of documentary camera-work that crystallized in the wake of “The Americans,” Robert Frank’s landmark 1958 book.

Capturing people in public situations with the utmost candor is street photography’s general goal. Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation literary iconoclast, opened the book’s introduction with this descriptive blast: “That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road ... .”

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Kerouac took the opportunity to make a sly nod to “On the Road,” his own 1951 autobiographical tale of wanderlust. Frank’s book of photographs was controversial, its often grainy snapshot aesthetic light years away from the exquisite, carefully composed prints that represented photographers’ long-standing yearning for their work’s acceptance as high art.

“The Americans” said: To heck with that.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art eventually picked up the dangling thread. Its influential 1967 exhibition “New Documents” displayed 92 works by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, all built on Frank’s foundation. Considered radical at the time, it proposed that black-and-white pictures with ordinary subject matter and a casual, snapshot-like appearance represented photography’s new direction.

The current San Diego show adds six more photographers for a nine-artist survey of the decade. The focus shifts a bit too: “Streetwise” looks at the intersection of street photographs and social upheaval during a tumultuous decade.

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Among the works are Jerry Berndt’s gritty pictures of the Combat Zone, a seedy Boston adult-entertainment district; Ruth-Marion Baruch’s intimate chronicle of Oakland’s Black Panther Party; and Ernest C. Withers’ epochal documents of civil rights protests in the South — pictures given a slightly different cast by recent revelations that Withers, a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., was also an FBI informant.

The genre certainly hasn’t disappeared. Look at Flickr, Yahoo’s Internet photo site. There’s even an ongoing project called “Street Photography Now,” named after a survey book by former Tate Modern curator Sophie Howarth and photographer Stephen McLaren.

But neither does it stand on the rarefied pedestal once reserved for it. “We’re all street photographers now,” Howarth and McLaren write, acknowledging the ubiquity of digital cellphone cameras. Yet in the 1960s and especially in the United States, street photography was the most celebrated photography there was.

It could even be traced to the modern camera’s birth, starting with Louis Daguerre’s picture of Paris’ Boulevard du Temple, taken in 1838 or 1839. André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt and Brassaï, when they started working in the 1920s, ushered in what many consider European street photography’s golden age.

America’s Walker Evans didn’t like the term, given its association with the hawkers of commercial souvenirs at carnivals and tourist sites. Still, his now-famous admonition to use the camera to “stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop” is as succinct a description of the genre as was ever uttered.

So what happened when Ed Ruscha came along? How did he transform it?

Simply said, Ruscha put street photography on wheels. Virtually all street photographs since Daguerre, regardless of style or subject, were conceived as a pedestrian’s activity. With few exceptions, street photographs were what you took while walking in the city, often with a hand-held camera.

But nobody walks in L.A. — at least, they didn’t used to, according to the old cliché (and the old Missing Persons song). Sprawling, freeway-carved Los Angeles rendered obsolete a distinction that arose from a European idea of urban experience. Why would an L.A. artist make pedestrian street photographs?

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In 1966 Ruscha mounted an automatic camera in the bed of a pickup truck and drove up one side of West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and down the other, with the camera snapping away toward the sidewalks. The black-and-white photographs were printed side-by-side along the edges of a nearly 25-foot-long sheet of accordion-folded paper.

Ruscha, then 29, made a street photograph for a city — and soon a world — on wheels. The deep correspondence between his art and automotive perspectives in a mass-media society is today coming into sharp focus. “Ed Ruscha: Road Tested” is a show at the Modern Art Museum Fort Worth until April 17, and “Ed Ruscha: On the Road” opens at the UCLA Hammer Museum on June 11.

Ruscha’s Sunset Strip process derived from the way street action was (and still is) shot for movies and TV shows. By contrast, of the 83 photographs in Frank’s “The Americans,” only one was taken from inside a moving vehicle — a car heading out of Blackfoot, Idaho. Rather than looking out the window, it shows a portrait of the driver and a passenger inside the car.

Frank’s “The Americans,” as Kerouac understood, arose from the post-World War II mobility that sent Americans on the road. But for the writer and photographer, the car was mostly a means to get to places they otherwise might not get to on foot — places like a dais in Hoboken, N.J., where Frank photographed preening politicians; a bar in Las Vegas, where a patron stares vacantly into a jukebox; a tense family outing in a Detroit public park; or a vast Nebraska landscape interrupted by a lonely mailbox.

Even the picture he took at a drive-in movie theater was shot while Frank stood between two parked cars. Frank was making marvelous subjective decisions — a hallmark of traditional street photography. Ruscha, by contrast, was draining expressionist impulses from his art. His street photographs employ a mass-media system, as bloodless as it is unprecedented. What the artist saw shifts toward how he saw it — a perceptual revolution.

Compare Ruscha’s matter-of-fact Strip pictures to Winogrand’s “Los Angeles, California,” an erudite 1969 photo in MOPA’s show. Winogrand’s off-kilter sidewalk view at Hollywood and Vine shows a trio of fashionable female shoppers, backlighted by setting sunlight reflected off a storefront. As they step blithely over the Walk of Fame star of nearly forgotten gossip columnist Louella Parsons, the light blast seems to propel them past a young man slumped in a wheelchair and waiting bus and taxi riders.

Ruscha, rather than imply a social narrative, instead inserts conceptual distance between a viewer and everyday experience. His two prior photo books — “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” and “Some Los Angeles Apartments” — chronicle what their titles say, and both frame buildings from a passing car’s perspective.

His next two books go even further. “Thirtyfour Parking Lots” collects aerial views of automotive resting places as glimpsed from heaven. “Royal Road Test” records the tragicomic destruction of a Royal typewriter thrown from a speeding car onto a desert highway, waving fond goodbye to Kerouac’s old literary conception of Americans on the road.

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And, as it turned out, goodbye to the pedestrian empire of Winogrand and other street photographers as well. The ancestor of Google Maps’ online street view, which now allows Internet browsers to slide along urban and suburban thoroughfares, Ruscha’s art changed the genre for good. “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is street photography transformed, the radical pivot in a type of photograph that dates back to the camera’s origin.

christopher.knight@latimes.com


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