PHOTOGRAPHY, GASOLINE STATIONS, AND WORN OUT TROPES?

In a New Yorker Culture Desk post titled What Makes a Work of Art Seem Dated, Tom Vanderbilt says that “what makes a work of art seem dated, I would suggest, is a sort of overdetermined reliance on the tropes, whether of subject or style, of the day…” and that reliance he describes as, “… a kind of historical narcissism.”

But what about photography? Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations relies heavily on those tropes as markers of a particular place and time. And as for the metaphor, Ruscha has said in interview (perhaps directly addressing the meaning of Twentysix Gasoline Stations or perhaps not) “there is a connection between my work and my experience with religious icons, and the stations of the cross and the Church generally.”  While looking at Ruscha’s work in 2013 the gas stations might immediately seem dated, but the metaphor (a religious one or not) never does. Maybe that is because gas stations are still with us. They are a motif someone from 1963 and someone from 2013 will both understand.

Perhaps in 3013 when we have either reverted to horses or electric charging stations have replaced gas stations, Ruscha’s work will seem less affecting but I doubt it. Twentysix Gasoline Stations has aged well. And it has done so because it relies on those dated tropes. I remember hearing a friend once equate wearing a crucifix on a chain around ones neck to wearing a tiny electric chair on a chain around ones neck. The image of an electric chair on a chain around ones neck seems, although perhaps poignant, absurd. However, the crucifix on a chain around ones neck makes quite a bit of sense for many people and if it is not relatable, it is at least understandable without too much consideration or pontificating. Both the cross and the electric chair are means of state sanctioned death, one being dated and the other being contemporary. The image of the dated mode however resonates more so than the other and this is because of religious association. Much the same, association is what makes photography insightful. By depicting what did happen it communicates infinite possibilities not just of what was transpiring but what else might transpire and also what had transpired. It is therefore important that photography point to something else.

I am not certain why as Vanderbilt suggests, that movies fall prey to this time stamp dilemma. It’s an argument I support and addresses my frustrations when watching a contemporary movie many years after its release. But photography does not succumb to this dilemma. Perhaps it has something to do with movement. With movement, like in a movie, there is activity which suggest that something is either alive or being used. With photography however, there is no movement. There is at best the suggestion of movement. Even so the frame of a photograph isolates that suggested movement, the subject unable to continue beyond any one corner or edge, reinforcing that what the viewer is looking at is no longer. It does not attempt to transport us to another time either. Whereas movies are now, even those set in the past if done well attempt to bring the viewer into that particular era, photographs are always then and was not now and is.

Photography is often an art form that does well when it intentionally seeks out the dated, outmoded subject matter. I remember listening to a lecture by Steve Shapiro in which he encouraged us in the audience to photograph gas stations and what not for as boring as they might seem, they will gain value and perspective with time. It is this intentionality of a documentary photographer that suggests an understanding that time does pass and photography as an art does well to remind us of just that.

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