Monday, April 14, 2008

Ruscha, LTD

In 1965 Ed Ruscha mounted an automatic Nikon camera to the back of his pickup and spent a day driving slowly down Las Vegas' Sunset Strip, photographing every bit of a two mile stretch. The book produced one year later, Every Building On the Sunset Strip, mimicked the experience of what his camera had seen. One row of photos ran across the top of the pages and another row (the other side of the street) ran upside down across the bottom of the pages. The only supporting text was an address below each building. Ruscha said that he wanted to give equal weight to everything his camera had seen without any personal prejudice. A curb was as important as a sign post or a doorway or a car. Years before Eggleston, his was an attempt at purely democratic photography.

Rushcha's effort met with mixed response. Many in the art world didn't take him seriously. The photography world mostly shrugged him off. And mainstream America? Don't even ask.

43 years later, Ruscha's effort is at last beginning to gain recognition in the corporate sphere. Last year, one of the world's largest corporations, Google, began an art project based on Ruscha's. Tentatively entitled GoogleStreet, the work applies Ruscha's subtle deadpan approach to the streets of the world's major cities. Following after Ruscha, Google will mount automated cameras on cars. These cameras will make still photographs of every part of every street in a particular city. A team of specially trained artists will collate and label the streets before they are put on the web for public perusal (an initial plan to publish the photographs in book form was abandoned after it proved unwieldy). Unlike the initial art piece, the web version is interactive. Internet gallery goers can manipulate the perspective and distance of their view.

Google art director George Shacold explained why his company initiated the project, "Google, along with most of corporate America, has always has a soft spot for Ruscha's work, but until now we hadn't found the proper way to express it. Until recently the technology just wasn't there. Finally things have caught up, and we have the means to apply Ruscha's artistic vision to a wider arena, in this case the entire world." Shacold says that the project should take 7 to 10 years, after which it will incorporate every street in each of the world's major cities.

"Ruscha's project was great," Shacold says, "but unfortunately it's limited to a two mile strip. Google doesn't believe in creating art with limits. Eventually we hope to expand this art work to encompass pretty much everything." According to Shacold, GoogleStreet is only the first in a series of Ruscha themed art works. Plans are in place to begin photographing every gas station on earth, followed by every parking lot on earth. "Twenty-six feels like such an arbitrary limit. Why not keep going?"


J. Karanka said...

AKA, when the internet just was not enough.

photobram said...

I saw a copy of the original Ruscha book last September at the Tate St. Ives, all stretched out. It really is an amazing object, having the feel of a Chinese scroll painting, very different from panning through a Google Street. One can take in a lot of Sunset Strip in one glance and then just look closer at bits. When looking closely it just goes on, drawing you in, filled with incredible detail that, though black and white, seems far more real and intimate than glowing color images on a screen.