The Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Angeles Project

A collaborative team at the Getty Research Institute has been working to digitize and analyze the influential Los Angeles street photography of Ed Ruscha. Mark Shiel provides an overview of the project and discusses parallels between Ruscha’s photographs and LA cinema in the 1960s.

For the past three years, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has been running a sort of experiment. An international array of seven teams of art historians, media analysts, architects, urban planners, and AI and software engineers has joined with Getty staff, at the Institute and online, to document, interpret, and debate the famous street photographs of Los Angeles which the artist Ed Ruscha has taken in successive waves from the mid 1960s to recent times. Beginning with the photographic field work from which he selected images for his legendary book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), Ruscha has painstakingly photographed every single yard of miles and miles of Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard and dozens of other streets in that city still dominated by strip development and the automobile (though their stranglehold has been thankfully loosening of late).1Ed Ruscha, working with various collaborators, has photographed Sunset Blvd in twelve shoots from 1966 to 2001, Hollywood Boulevard in four shoots between 1973 and 2004, and about forty other major and minor LA streets between 1974 and 2010. For further details, see the Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Angeles website and finding aid at: https://www.getty.edu/research/special_collections/notable/ruscha.html In each photo shoot, the artist has worked with two or three assistants and a semi-automated photographic system consisting of a 35mm film still camera ­— or, since 2001, sometimes a digital still camera — mounted on a tripod on a flatbed truck and pointed at the opposite side of the street perpendicular to the direction of travel of the vehicle. Driving along at about twenty miles per hour, each photo shoot has taken several hours, sometimes a whole day, stopping and restarting frequently, and producing around 6,000 to 8,000 images. Before the switch to digital cameras, in order to minimize the disruption caused by changing the film in the camera, the process used multiple bulk rolls of film, each containing about 200–250 exposures, which were fed through the camera from an external motorized cassette.

Since 2012 the Institute has housed the entire archive of Ruscha’s street photography, amounting to around 650,000 images, preserved in a combination of film negative, photo print, contact sheet, and digital forms.2Emily Pugh and Megan Sallabedra, “Ed Ruscha, Streets of Los Angeles project: developing collaborations to support digital art history”, Art Libraries Journal 46, no.2 (April 2021): 45. These constitute one of the most extensive and enthralling “urban visualization” projects in human history, but a project started long before that term was in vogue. Now preserved and interpreted by the Getty and its collaborators, Ruscha’s street photos have had, and continue to have, an important shaping role in Los Angeles’ civic imaginary and metropolitan heritage, while also representing the nth degree of a socio-cultural and engineering phenomenon – automobile-led urbanization – that formed and deformed cities and towns around the world in the twentieth century.

Sample pages from original mock-up of Ed Ruscha’s book “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966) on display during research workshop at the Getty Research Institute, January 2020

The Getty’s response to the epistemological challenge of such a massive archive has been both interpretive and technological. Throughout the experiment, Getty staff have undertaken a process of mass digitization of the photographs to preserve them and make some of them publicly available online, while the discussion and debate between them and the external teams has proceeded in stages as the digitized record has grown. Meanwhile, artists and photographers have joined the various meetings and a cutting-edge data visualization company out of San Francisco has produced a strikingly new interactive cartographic-photographic web interface to bring to life online both the Getty’s Ruscha archive and the history of Los Angeles. As such, the Ruscha project fulfills the common agenda of the GRI and the larger Getty to present, conserve, and interpret “visual and cultural heritage for Los Angeles and the world” and to promote “a vital civil society through an understanding of the visual arts.”3See the Getty’s mission statement at https://www.getty.edu/about/ GRI research, exhibitions, and publications are often urban in focus — most notably in the multi-institutional programs of events known as Pacific Standard Time, of which there have been three iterations so far: Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945-1980 (2011-12), Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in LA (2013), and Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (2017), the latter focusing on Latinx and Latin American art in the city-region.

The project to preserve, digitize, and interpret Ruscha’s street photos, and to make them more widely available to the public, provides multiple opportunities and benefits not only for Los Angeles but for specialists and general audiences. This is evident in the rich variety of methods being used by the various researchers involved in the project and in the topicality of the questions Ruscha’s work has prompted them to ask. In summary, these fall into three categories – technological, urban, and visual cultural.

With respect to the technological, for example, an approach being taken by one of the collaborating teams is to develop open-source software to recognize objects and visual elements which appear repeatedly in Ruscha’s photographs, such as automobiles, store fronts, items of street furniture, architectural details, and even foliage, and to identify, cluster, and interpret patterns of such items across space and time — both within the long sequence of images produced in each individual photo shoot and in the various photos of a particular place photographed by Ruscha several times in different years. On one level, in so far as this approach is more interested in the ability of AI to interpret photos than in Ruscha or Los Angeles per se, it might seem relatively limited. After all, it doesn’t matter to a computer whether it is asked to carry out pattern recognition in a series of images of Sunset Boulevard, MRI scans, or satellite photos of rainforests. But from another perspective, this approach is fundamental and innovative because it inevitably resonates with present-day debates about AI, databases of photo and video, privacy, and surveillance, examining Ruscha’s photos as a kind of artistic forerunner of Google Street View.

However, where so much of today’s debate about data privacy is concerned with images of human bodies and faces, remarkably these are almost entirely absent from Ruscha’s street photos — the built environment is the subject of every frame. Because of this, technological analysis of Ruscha’s photos enables a second approach that uses the photos as a means to better analyze and understand the architecture and urban planning of Los Angeles and of the late twentieth century American city. One of the collaborating teams is carrying out background research to supplement Ruscha’s photographs of particular streets, blocks, and buildings with diverse data on the land development of each site, the history of the buildings it contains, their ownership, real estate value, and function to produce a new, nuanced history of small-scale, fine-grained urban change over time. Meanwhile, another team focuses on what Ruscha’s photos reveal about building typology in Los Angeles and in American cities and compares his photographic method to that of the more functional field photography carried out by architectural historians such as Richard Longstreth.

Original Sunset Blvd test contact sheets, probably 1965 Courtesy of Getty Research Institute (Ruscha Steets of Los Angeles Collection Box 13 Folder 2)

This comparison reveals many interesting similarities but also highlights differences, especially in underlining the self-conscious artistic concept and technique underpinning Ruscha’s street photos. This is the concern of the third key approach being taken by the research teams collaborating with the Getty — a visual cultural approach, combining art history and cinema studies. One method here is to situate Ruscha’s turn to street photography in the mid 1960s in the periodization of modern art history. This counterpoints, on the one hand, his earlier work in painting and the distinctive “Cool School” of LA Pop Art associated with the legendary Ferus Gallery with, on the other hand, his serial photography of the built environment and the emergence of Conceptual Art. The latter arguably brought about a radical break with notions of authenticity and uniqueness in representation even greater than that of Pop Art and more akin to the first recognition and practice of photography as art in the Dada and Surrealist avant gardes of the 1920s. Another approach seeks to relate Ruscha’s street photos to emerging conceptions of the postmodern city in the 1960s and ‘70s. This interprets serial photography as a kind of encoding of data in response to urban sprawl, interpretable through systems theory, communications theory, and the cognitive approach to urban planning made famous by Kevin Lynch, Donald Appleyard, and Gyorgy Kepes, who argued for the importance of the visual environment in shaping individual and social psychology in the city and relied heavily on photography in their field work and publications.

Ruscha’s street photos demonstrate the rich and distinctive capabilities of the medium of photography — artistically, technologically, and technically — when it is closely engaged with specific places, and with their evolution over an extended period of time. My own interest lies in the ways the photos invite reflection on the relationship between photographic and cinematic innovations in the representation of cities, space, and place in the 1960s – an exceptionally experimentative decade. Counterpointing them generates insights in respect of each medium both in general and in that historical moment, not only because of their shared reliance on the basic apparatus of the camera.

Alexandra Schwartz has remarked on the “numerous affinities and connections between Ruscha’s art and filmmaking.”4Alexandra Schwartz, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 68. Several of Ruscha’s most well-known works foreground Hollywood and its iconography – for example, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (oil on canvas, 1962) and Hollywood (color screenprint, 1968) – and seem simultaneously tinged with nostalgia for, and ironically distant from, the golden era of the Hollywood studios that was then coming to an end. Ruscha trained in graphic design at the Chouinard School of Art, which was financially supported by Walt Disney, and his photographic practice and art book publishing often mimicked the commercial art principles of his training. Ruscha’s studio was in Hollywood and he was closely connected to the countercultural social scene of the so-called New Hollywood, especially through his friend Dennis Hopper, the accomplished actor, director, and photographer. Finally, Ruscha made two short films of his own – Premium (1971) and Miracle (1975) – which were vignettes on the theme of metamorphosis filmed on interior sets.

Schwartz and other commentators have noted the cinematic qualities of Ruscha’s street photography in particular. For example, David James has seen fit to declare of Ruscha’s book Every Building on the Sunset Strip that it is “not only Ruscha’s best movie, it is one of the best movies made in LA,” while considering it alongside the work of other artist-filmmakers who were based in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s, such as Wallace Berman, John Baldessari, and Bruce Nauman.5David James, “Artists as Filmmakers in Los Angeles,” October 112 (Spring 2005): 119. Matt Reynolds has analyzed what he calls the “paracinematic” aspects of Ruscha’s photo books, which resemble films but are printed on paper.6Matt Reynolds, “Ed Ruscha’s Moving Pictures,” in Alternative Projections: Experimental film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980, ed. David E. James and Adam Hyman (New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing, 2015), 187-202. Reynolds also explains out that many artists and experimental filmmakers experimented with serial photography at this time – for example, Hollis Frampton, Morgan Fisher, Eleanor Antin, Allan Sekula, and Gary Beydler. For Reynolds, their highly selective presentation of still images in sequence is part of a long preoccupation with tropes of motion and stasis in Ruscha’s art and partakes in a long tradition of urban panoramas that require the viewer to perform a kind of editing while viewing them. Martino Stierli has explained the considerable influence of Ruscha’s “continuous motorized photos” on Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, whose ground-breaking urban analysis Learning from Las Vegas (1972) was based on fieldwork they carried out with their Yale University architecture students, during which several short films of the cityscape were made, including Las Vegas Deadpan (1968), following a visit to Ruscha’s studio in LA.7Martino Stierli, Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: The City in Theory, Photography, and Film (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013), 148-61. This film was a motion picture as such, 21 minutes long, and filmed in color with a forward-facing camera mounted on the hood of a sedan as it drove around Las Vegas.

Not so thoroughly examined to date, but nonetheless striking, are the parallels we can observe between Ruscha’s street photographs and feature films around the same time. This was an era of particularly intense technical and stylistic innovation in cinematography and editing even within the relatively corporate and capitalistic parameters of Hollywood cinema, whether in the distinctive countercultural New Hollywood which was supplanting the studio system or in the wave of highly influential films made by European directors in the United States at this time. While instances of hand-held camera, rapid zooming, and jump-cutting abound in this cinema, one of its most consistent features was an interest in the visualization of heightened mobility, especially by means of vehicle-mounted tracking shots. These were sometimes strongly motivated by heroic action in genre films such as the police thriller Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968), but also by violent psychosis in the crime film Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967). They expressed hippie dissent and the idea of social justice in the road movie Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), while other examples were relatively disembodied and abstract, as in the art films Smog (Franco Rossi, 1962), Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1968), Lions Love (Agnès Varda, 1969), and Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970).8For further discussion of these and other relevant films, see Mark Shiel, “‘It’s a Big Garage. Cinematic Images of Los Angeles circa 1968,” in Architectures of Revolt: The Cinematic City circa 1968, ed. Mark Shiel (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018), 164-88; and Mark Shiel, “Los Angeles and Hollywood in Film and French Theory: Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (1969) and Edgar Morin’s California Journal (1970),” in Cinematic Urban Geographies, ed. François Penz (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 245-68. All of these were indebted in one way or another to the ground-breaking driving sequences of Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), Pierrot le fou (1966), and Weekend (1967), which exaggeratedly sped up or slowed down the quotidian experience of the automobile by jump cutting or the long take. They were all also facilitated by technological trends towards more lightweight and portable cameras and related equipment, which were especially evident in driving sequences.

Driving shot with forward mounted camera showing La Cienega and Wilshire Blvds from “Lions Love” (AgnèsVarda, 1969)

In Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha pushed the principle of serial photography to such an extent that it took on some of the characteristics of the sequence shot in expressing continuous mobile point of view. However, Ruscha’s shots are joined together relatively seamlessly by his painstaking cut-and-paste technique which insists on a homogenized point of view and linear temporality. These contrast with the disjointed jump cutting during driving sequences in Easy Rider and Zabriskie Point where the editing makes numerous small but striking adjustments in point of view and real time. Ruscha’s street photography has more in common with the relatively continuous long takes of Model Shop and Lions Love, both of which involve several extended driving sequences, including point-of-view shots taken from inside the vehicle looking out, although the latter technique also has an earlier pedigree in film noirs such as Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950).

Reverse tracking shot showing the Speedway at Venice Beach, Los Angeles from the opening of “Model Shop” (Jacques Demy, 1968)

Ruscha describes a more continuous strip of space-time than the driving sequences in most feature films – the temporality of his photo series is closer to that of experimental films such as Andy Warhol’s Empire (1963) or Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), though they were concerned with changes over time in architectural environments filmed from stationary rather than mobile camera positions. The temporality of Ruscha’s images, seen in light of motion pictures, also reminds us that in the 1960s consideration of the relationship between stasis and movement was often expressed in a constitutive tension within individual works between still and motion photography — for example, in Chris Marker’s dystopian sci-fi short La Jetée (1963), William Klein’s critique of the fashion industry Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), or political films as diverse as Columbia Revolt (Newsreel, 1968) and Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968).

However, the temporality of Ruscha’s images is more open than that of any cinema in so far as, whether in book form, in the archive, or digitized online, the images may be perused slowly or rapidly depending on the inclination of the viewer, who may also choose to scan them from left to right or vice versa. Indeed, even that choice is further attenuated in Ruscha’s books, and in the Getty’s digital portal, because two synchronized strips of photos are visible simultaneously – for example, the north side of Sunset Boulevard above and south side below — although Ruscha did not photograph them simultaneously, but one after another, proceeding from east to west or west to east before turning the vehicle around halfway through each shoot and driving back in the opposite direction.

The typical presentation of Ruscha’s photos suppresses both the production and post-production processes. For example, subtle variations of light and camera position, as well as the joints between shots, are much more evident when viewing the negatives or contact sheets of the same photos in the Getty archive. It is also notable that Ruscha’s need to photograph in long sequences required him to improvise technically in a way that paralleled recent cinematic innovations. In their shoots of the 1960s and ‘70s, the bulk rolls of film that he and his assistants used were 55-foot (i.e. 17 meter) lengths of Ilford FP3 or FP4 35mm still film cut in half to fit their specially adapted camera.9Ilford FP3 or FP4 were so-called because they were ‘Fine grain Panchromatic’ films, appreciated for their sharp definition and rich tonality, while Ilford HPS was a “Hypersensitive Panchromatic” film especially useful for shooting in available light or low light. On the technical history of Ilford photo films, see https://www.photomemorabilia.co.uk/Ilford/HP3_Films_Plates.html Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard used an analogous technique to film A bout de souffle (1960), joining together numerous 17 meter rolls of Ilford HPS 35mm still film for use in their Éclair Cameflex motion picture camera.10See Michel Marie, The French New Wave: An Artistic School, trans. Richard Neupert (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 90. Roberto Rossellini had done something similar when he sought to overcome wartime restrictions by cobbling together various lengths of 35mm still film to shoot moving images of city streets for Rome Open City (1945).11See Mark Shiel, Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City (New York: Wallflower Press, 2005), 47.

By comparison with the humanist thematic urgency of such films, however, Ruscha’s street photos are much less anthropocentric and are strikingly lacking in affect. The artist’s preferred term for this deliberate aesthetic is ‘deadpan,’ because the camera aims for a rigorously lateral point of view, the work is presented for its audience without authorial signatures — and knowingly, as if the result of automatic processes — and the photos concentrate on the built environment and its façades rather than human bodies or faces which would inevitably be more expressive. In fact, although Ruscha’s photos of Los Angeles streets are tremendously numerous, they rarely contain human figures. The effect of this abstraction is further enhanced by the use of a 35mm or 28mm wide angle “perspective control” lens, a kind of lens specially designed to reduce or eliminate the distortion of perspective, or exaggerated convergence of vertical lines, that typically occurs when a person photographs the façade of a building looking up at it from street level.

Ruscha’s street photos were admired by Reyner Banham for providing “a view of the typical Angeleno building and environment ‘like it is’,” and by Venturi and Scott Brown for what they characterized as his recognition of the “the validity of the commercial vernacular.”12Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies (London: Allen Lane, 1971), 251; Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977),  xii, 6, 53. Commentators in Artforum pointed to his systematic approach as a paradigm of conceptual art.13See, for example, Nancy Foote, “The Anti-Photographers,” Artforum 15, no. 1 (September 1976): 46-54; also Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, October 55 (Winter 1990): 105-143. Documenting and interpreting the photos, research staff and visiting research teams at the Getty Research Institute have debated these positions and are collaborating on a comprehensive edited book that will be published in 2023. That this project has evolved, over the past three years, at a time of heightened anxiety and contestation in the city, only adds to its topicality and value in so far as the project has facilitated renewed debate about the political meaning of Ruscha’s street photos. Today, at a time of increased action to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in society, the lack of people in Ruscha’s street photos might be read as a sign that he lacked interest in such issues. Ruscha took his first test photos of Sunset Boulevard, with the photographer Jerry McMillan, in 1965, the year of the traumatic Watts riots, and the busiest period of his street photography extended into the mid 1970s, during one of the most violent eras of urban agitation and unrest in American history. This led to some very different tracking shots of the street in radical political cinema — for example, of the young black female protagonist of Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1975) who tramps the boulevards of Watts poor, tired, and distressed.14For a close reading of Bush Mama, see Jan-Christoph Horak, “Tough Enough: Blaxploitation and the L.A. Rebellion,” in LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, ed. Allyson Field, Jan-Christoph Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 119-55.

Like much Hollywood cinema set in Los Angeles, Ruscha’s photos are geographically selective, containing evidence of the de facto segregation of much of the city, especially its relatively comfortable and photogenic Westside. Ruscha is not responsible for that de facto segregation, though a skeptic might ask whether his street photos do enough to draw attention to, comment on, or condemn it. On the other hand, Ruscha’s deadpan presentation of Los Angeles arguably enhances our understanding of its conflicts if we view its violent and cool aspects dialectically.

For example, Ruscha’s close engagement with neighborhood and locale, and with movements through them, raises profound questions of environment and temporality by encouraging the viewer to slow down or even stop the hyperactivity of the automobile, countermanding the consumer society, of which Jean Baudrillard saw Los Angeles as a physical expression. Meanwhile, that he reveals the passage of time by repeatedly photographing the same places over decades arguably draws attention to the capricious instability of the urban landscape under capitalism and its processes of “creative destruction.”15Sharon Zukin, Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991),  5. There are valuable lessons in this today, at a time of anxiety and concerted effort towards greening and rewilding the city, combatting wildfires and homelessness, achieving densification and high-speed rail construction, and expanding the Los Angeles Metro. In light of these problems and opportunities, the absence of people in Ruscha’s street photos might be read as an ecological warning — a flashback to the anthropocene or a premonition of the emptied-out public space of Covid times. What is certain is that the work thoroughly deserves to be preserved and made more widely known, for current and future generations.

Photographer Jerry McMillan (left), Getty staff, and visiting researchers at the Getty Research Institute, with display of Ruscha materials, January 2020

Acknowledgments

For the opportunity to participate in the Ed Ruscha: Streets of Los Angeles research project, I am grateful to the Getty Research Institute and its staff, especially Andrew Perchuk, Emily Pugh, Zanna Gilbert, and Megan Sallabedra. Thanks also to my co-investigators Alyce Mahon (Cambridge) and Amy Murphy (USC) as well as to the members of the other teams and discussants whose collective effort is described here. The full list of participants in the January 2020 meeting of the project teams (the last meeting at the Getty before Covid) was as follows: Kate Albers, Whittier College; Damon Crockett, Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage Lens Media Lab; Doug Duhaime, Yale Digital Humanities Lab; Gabrielle Esperdy, New Jersey Institute of Technology/Editor, SAH Archipedia; Brian Goldstein, Swarthmore College; Susan Laxton, University of California, Riverside; Peter Leonard, Yale Digital Humanities Lab; Alyce Mahon, University of Cambridge; Paul Messier, Yale IPCH Lens Media Lab; Amy Murphy, University of Southern California; Garrett Nelson, Dartmouth College; Jennifer Quick, Harvard Art Museums; Francesca Russello Ammon, University of Pennsylvania; Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen Group; Mark Shiel, King’s College London; Sally Stein, University of California, Irvine; Logan Williams, Stamen Group; Andrew Perchuk, Getty Research Institute; Greg Albers, Getty Publications; Nathaniel Deines, Getty Digital; Zanna Gilbert, Getty Research Institute; Anne Helmreich, Getty Research Institute; David Newbury, Getty Digital; Emily Pugh, Getty Research Institute; Megan Sallabedra, Getty Research Institute.

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