Take a Digital Drive Along Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard, the Famous Strip That the Artist Photographed from 1965 to 2007

Ed Ruscha has lived near­ly 65 years in Los Ange­les, but he insists that he has no par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion with the place. Not every­one believes him: is dis­in­ter­est among the many pos­si­ble feel­ings that could moti­vate a paint­ing like The Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um on Fire? Nev­er­the­less, the plain­spo­ken Okla­homa-born artist has long stuck to his sto­ry, per­haps in order to let his often cryp­tic work speak for itself. Orig­i­nal­ly trained in com­mer­cial art, Ruscha has paint­ed, print­ed, drawn, and tak­en pho­tographs, the most cel­e­brat­ed fruit of that last pur­suit being 1966’s Every Build­ing on the Sun­set Strip, a book that stitch­es his count­less pho­tographs of that famous boule­vard — both sides of it — onto one long, con­tin­u­ous page.

What­ev­er you think of such a project, you can’t accuse it of a mis­match between form and sub­stance. Nor can you call it a cyn­i­cal one-off: between 1967 and 2007, Ruscha drove Sun­set Boule­vard with his cam­era no few­er than twelve times in order to pho­to­graph most or all of its build­ings.

These include gas sta­tions (an archi­tec­tur­al form to which Ruscha has made the sub­ject of its own pho­to book as well as one of his most famous paint­ings), drug­stores, appli­ance deal­ers, Cen­tral Amer­i­can restau­rants, karate schools, trav­el agen­cies, car wash­es, Mod­ernist office tow­ers, and two of the most char­ac­ter­is­tic struc­tures of Los Ange­les: low-rise, kitschi­ly named “ding­bat” apart­ment blocks and L‑shaped “La Man­cha” strip malls.

The mix of the built envi­ron­ment varies great­ly, of course, depend­ing on where you choose to go on this 22-mile-long boule­vard, only a short stretch of which con­sti­tutes the “Sun­set Strip.” It also depends on when you choose to go: not which time of day, but which era, a choice put at your fin­ger­tips by the Get­ty Research Insti­tute’s Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Ange­les Project, and specif­i­cal­ly its inter­ac­tive fea­ture 12 Sun­sets. In it you can use your left and right arrow keys to “dri­ve” east or west (in your choice between a van, a VW Bee­tle, or Ruscha’s own trusty Dat­sun pick­up), and your up and down but­ton to flip between the year of the pho­to shoots that make up the boule­vard around you.

Many long­time Ange­lenos (or enthu­si­asts of Los Ange­les cul­ture) will motor straight to the inter­sec­tion with Horn Avenue, loca­tion of the much-mythol­o­gized Sun­set Strip Tow­er Records from which the very Amer­i­can musi­cal zeit­geist once seemed to emanate. The Sacra­men­to-found­ed store was actu­al­ly a late­com­er to Los Ange­les com­pared to Ruscha him­self, and the build­ing first appears in his third pho­to shoot, of 1973. The next year the ever-chang­ing posters on its exte­ri­or walls includes Bil­ly Joel’s Piano Man. About a decade lat­er appear the one-hit likes of Lover­boy, and in the twi­light of the 1990s the street ele­va­tion touts the Beast­ie Boys and Rob Zom­bie. In 2007, Tow­er’s sig­na­ture red and yel­low are all that remain, the chain itself hav­ing gone under (at least out­side Japan) the year before.

12 Sun­sets’ inter­face pro­vides two dif­fer­ent meth­ods to get straight from one point to anoth­er: you can either type a spe­cif­ic place name into the “loca­tion search” box on the upper right, or click the map icon on the mid­dle left to open up the line of the whole street click­able any­where from down­town Los Ange­les to the Pacif­ic Ocean. This is a much eas­i­er way of mak­ing your way along Sun­set Boule­vard than actu­al­ly dri­ving it, even in the com­par­a­tive­ly nonex­is­tent traf­fic of 1965. Nev­er­the­less, Ruscha con­tin­ues to pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment it and oth­er Los Ange­les streets, using the very same method he did 55 years ago. The build­ings keep chang­ing, but the city has nev­er stopped exud­ing its char­ac­ter­is­tic nor­mal­i­ty so intense­ly as to become eccen­tric­i­ty (and vice ver­sa). What artist wor­thy of the title would­n’t be fas­ci­nat­ed?

Explore the Get­ty Research Insti­tute’s Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Ange­les Project here.

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Artist Ed Ruscha Reads From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a Short Film Cel­e­brat­ing His 1966 Pho­tos of the Sun­set Strip

Roy Licht­en­stein and Andy Warhol Demys­ti­fy Their Pop Art in Vin­tage 1966 Film

A Brief His­to­ry of John Baldessari, Nar­rat­ed by Tom Waits

Take a Dri­ve Through 1940s, 50s & 60s Los Ange­les with Vin­tage Through-the-Car-Win­dow Films

Watch Randy Newman’s Tour of Los Ange­les’ Sun­set Boule­vard, and You’ll Love L.A. Too

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Charles A Goodman says:

    Thanks for the mem­o­ries! For the hun­dreds of times that my friends and I cruised sec­tions of Sun­set, this ret­ro­spec­tive (?) brings those great times back to mind. Tow­er records, alone trig­gers thoughts, sights and smells of that par­tic­u­lar era; patchouli and week, cheap chi­anti…

    I spent hours tour­ing with the VW bus, both direc­tions. I love the way it’s pre­sent­ed, upside down on the left side and revers­ing when the route changes.

    I real­ly don’t want the pre­sen­ta­tion to end. Can it be obtained ($$$) in this for­mat on DVD, USB thumb­drive?

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