This Week In Photography Books – Stefan Olah

by Jonathan Blaustein

Everything’s bigger in Texas, and Americans love their cars. How’s that for mashing two stereotypical truisms into one. It’s like a mixed metaphor, only better. (Like if you kill two birds with one stone, you might cry over spilt milk. Poor little birds. They never hurt anyone. What’s wrong with you? Killing two defenseless birds.)

What was I saying?

Oh. Right. Americans and their cars. Ours are bigger than yours, if you live anywhere but here. We like big trucks and Hummers and things like that. Little cars are for sissies. And Europeans. (We all know how much I like Europe, so let’s not take my joking too seriously.)

Kidding aside, Europeans drive smaller cars than we do. It’s a fact. (Maybe the Japanese do too, but I’ve never been there. If you want to fly me over to Japan to give a lecture or something, send me an email and we can talk.) Small cars make sense in Europe, what with the ancient streets designed for horses and fiestas and such. Can you just imagine trying to navigate a Ford F-350 through the streets of Rome? No thanks.

Things are different over there, and mostly, we assume they’re better. (Except for the economy, of course.) The charm and the history are seductive to us, as we often lack that here. But we do have our own strengths: empty highways, endless horizons and kitchy gas stations, like the ones immortalized by last week’s artist, Ed Ruscha. (No, I won’t throw him under the bus again this week.)

Like “Some Los Angeles Apartments,” Mr. Ruscha made an artist book in the 60’s called “Twenty Six Gas Stations.” They were depictions of Americana, and the categorical title was likely inspired by the 19th Century Japanese woodblock printers Hokusai and Hiroshige, not to mention Marcel Duchamp and his readymades. How do I know this? Because I read it in a book called “Twentysix Viennese Gas Stations,” by Sebastian Hackenschmidt and Stefan Olah.

In this, the second edition, there are actually far more than twenty six gas stations. The name remains to ensure the reader gets the connection/allusion to Mr. Ruscha. He was the clear inspiration, and the book includes a pastiche of interviews he’s given over the years. But the book is not about him, really.

The focus is on a car culture that is as alien as I can imagine, living, as I do, in the heart of the American West. (Or as I like to call it, the land of lunatics and dropouts. Which am I? Do you have to ask?) Out here, there is space for everything. Gas stations are expansive, with plenty of room for people to hang out and try to bum spare change for cigarettes or booze. (Which they also sell, in most places.)

In Vienna? Forget about it. There’s no room for such extravagance. And if there were, they’d probably still do something different, what with their refined tastes. As it is, this book shows us that people buy gas for their cars in some pretty weird places. Like alleyways, apartment building basements, and little courtyard hideaways. Strange, and almost effete.

Let’s be real here. This book will not change your life. The photos are well crafted, with solid, formal compositions and good use of (bleak) color. They’re cool, in that pan-Germanic kind of way. But you won’t have an epileptic fit from their genius.

Instead, they provide a window into the antithesis of an archetype. Or, rather, they give us ethnocentric Americans a solid look at how the other half lives. And how we might, too, once gas prices rise enough that Smart cars are the intelligent choice for all of us. For now, they’re pretty useless out here. Once you see some 18 wheelers hauling down the road at 85mph, you’ll know what I mean.

Bottom line: Cool book riffing on Ed Ruscha’s idea

To Purchase “Twentysix Viennese Gas Stations” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 5 Comments On This Article.

  1. “The photos are well crafted, with solid, formal compositions and good use of (bleak) color. They’re cool, in that pan-Germanic kind of way. But you won’t have an epileptic fit from their genius.”

    These three sentences basically describe fine art photography in the last 5 to 8 years. I’ve seen enough “bleak color” in the “pan-Germanic” style to last me 10 lifetimes. In the past, I would attempt to describe this look to as William Eggleston discovering the de-saturate slider.

    Your description sums it up better.

  2. it is not required, the point is that the colors do not dominate the image, so many photographers weakens colors, besides, most photographic materials gives stronger colors than they actually are.

  3. as someone who has both lived in Vienna and filled a car with gas at some of those stations i would like to point out the fun fact that a car is one of the worst ways of transportation in Vienna. or most of the european cities, altogether. in most cases you are way faster if you go by bicycle.
    but then it is a really bad idea applying your small scale european transportation experience on a city like, let’s say for example, Anchorage. guess how i know. =)