The Big Data Archive: Digitising Ed Ruscha’s Streets of Los Angeles

Nathaniel Deines, Getty Digital,

Zanna Gilbert, Getty Research Institute,

In 2012, the Getty Research Institute acquired the Streets of Los Angeles Archive, a collection of over 500,000 images of Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and other thoroughfares, created by Ed Ruscha beginning in 1965. Although Ruscha’s book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966, Heavy Industry Publications: Los Angeles) is a well-known landmark of artists’ publishing, the larger photographic project was virtually unknown. The images within the Streets of Los Angeles Archive exist primarily as negatives, many spooled onto motion picture film reels, meaning that traditional archival processing procedures were not sufficient to make the archive accessible. Thus in 2017, the Getty launched a project to digitise a selection of 120,000 images from the archive. In 2020, the Getty made the collections publicly available for research via a new Research Collections Viewer as well as the web platform 12 Sunsets, providing geolocated and searchable images through an interactive user interface. This panel grapples with questions raised by Ruscha’s archive, including the stakes of representing Los Angeles, the documentary impulse in photography, and the status of the photographic archive. The papers presented will explore the tensions between documentation and absence, Los Angeles’ turbulent history and Ruscha’s dispassionate apparatus, and the tendency towards entropy in information and what might be lost amongst the ‘big data’.

Speakers & Abstracts

Zombie Realism: Ed Ruscha, history and contingency

Andrew Witt (Humboldt University)

In the spring of 1997, Allan Sekula presented a paper at the University of Southern California titled ‘Los Angeles: Graveyard of Documentary’. The essay detailed how the city of Los Angeles historically defied the documentary genre. According to the artist, the persistence of social documentary photography in Southern California occurred only ‘marginally and cryptically’ as a dead genre, understood in his words as a type of ‘zombie realism’. The zombie form was a documentary mode ‘where the living speak only through the dead, or through those states of being that fall between life and death’. Although the concept was under-theorised, this paper attempts to fill in the blanks of Sekula’s argument by looking at one of the artist’s examples: Ed Ruscha. Ruscha’s archive held in the collection of the Getty Research Institute – composed of 500,000 photographs, contact sheets, and a multitude of documents and notes – provides a way to think through the social dynamics of photographic work in Los Angeles. Rather than succumb to a logic that separates Ruscha’s photographs into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ images, his archive encourages us to confront a fundamental aspect to the nature of photographic work in Los Angeles: the contingent, political and unconscious impulses that drive the making of images.

Picture Pars Pro Toto: Periphery as motif and concept in the work of Ed Ruscha and Robert Smithson

Ursula Klammer and Timm Kroner (Humboldt University)

Ed Ruscha’s Streets of Los Angeles Archive, now digitally visible and accessible for the first time, is the result of a sheer hyper-production of images with indeterminate information content. From an art-historical perspective, the question concerning the significance of each single picture in its relation to the whole inevitably arises. The archive, which in its entirety can hardly be received visually, is not only constituted by the single picture, but can also only be comprehended through it in its conceptual structure. We see a comparable relationship between part and whole in Robert Smithson, who received Ruscha’s artist book Every Building on The Sunset Strip (1966, self-published artist’s book, offset printing, [second printing 1971]) and acquired it for his art theory. The latter is dominated by the metaphor of entropy, which as a universal principle expresses a tendency towards dissolution of the particular into indifference and opens up a connection to the concept of the archive. This kind of formal determination is exemplified in Smithson’s photo essay A Tour to the Monuments of Passaic (originally The Monuments of PassaicArtforum [December 1967]), in Flam, Jack ed., Robert Smithson: the Collected Writings, S. 68-74), in which the peripheral wastelands are aesthetically sublimated in the composition of the photographic picture. Both artists share a fascination for urban and peripheral space as well as for the medium of photography and its inherent formal limits of depictability. However, their conceptual interests and the resulting approaches to the singular motif are different. This gives us reason to take a differentiated look at the single picture as pars pro toto, in which the logic of the archive appears in its ambivalence of conceptuality and contingency.

Unseen Freeways: Glimpsing the city’s unconscious in Ruscha’s archive

Jon Leaver (The University of La Verne)

Photographers such as Catherine Opie and Ricardo Valverde have depicted the geometry and phenomenology of Southern California’s freeways in ways that bring the subject into full view. By contrast, throughout Ed Ruscha’s Streets of Los Angeles Archive, freeways appear only fleetingly, glimpsed from Sunset Boulevard over the guardrails of an overpass or in the signage for an onramp on Melrose Avenue, like a flicker on the edge of one’s vision. In spite of the fact that Ruscha expressed a keen interest in documenting the freeways – as he had many of the city’s other roadways – he never did so as a primary focus. In part, this was due to the technical difficulties involved in photographing the subject. Ruscha’s method of capturing the city’s urban fabric generally involved driving at low speed along mostly deserted streets in the early hours of the morning, a procedure unworkable on Los Angeles’ freeways. In a wider sense, though, the absence of freeways from Ruscha’s archive reflects the more widely prevailing unease with which Los Angeles has regarded one of its quintessential urban features. The freeways, unlike the city’s boulevards, hold an ambivalent place in the life of the city, necessary to its functioning, but responsible for many of its ills: communities fractured by freeway construction, its perpetual transport gridlock, its polluted air. Using Ruscha’s peripheral handling of freeways as a metaphor for this ambivalent attitude to the city’s urban structure, this project further explores the freeways as the unconscious portion of Los Angeles’ divided psyche. If Ruscha’s boulevards are the city’s Ego – familiar and reasonable – the freeway can be regarded as its Id, central to its circulatory system but a place of unresolved motivations, and disconnected from everyday life.

Tracking Shots and Deadpan Photography, or Presence and Absence in Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard, 1966

Mark Shiel (King’s College, London)

In this paper, I will argue for the immense social, cultural, and historical value, and artistic achievement, of Ed Ruscha’s Streets of Los Angeles photographs, while also recognising their limitations and blind spots. I will concentrate on Ruscha’s photos of Sunset Boulevard in the 1960s and will approach them from the point of view of a scholar of film and media, thinking across disciplines. Because each series, like the collection as a whole, contains many, many thousands of images, I will argue that they are characterised by super-abundance which reflects and comments on the supposed super-abundance of Los Angeles’ economy, society and [Pop] culture after the Second World War. Their multiplicity also simultaneously replicates and diverges from the mechanisms of the tracking shot and montage in cinema, and especially Hollywood cinema, for which Sunset Boulevard was a favourite subject and location. However, despite their seeming plenitude, Ruscha’s street photos are also notable for what they lack – Los Angeles in the late 1960s was one of the most turbulent and violent cities in the world, and also one of the most diverse. Yet these characteristics of Los Angeles are barely registered in the photos, which not only document but also suppress the city. I will examine the photos for their constitutive tension between super-abundance and lack, arguing for their complex and knowing negotiation of the two.






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