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Ed Ruscha, the occasional photographer

Five decades after he documented every gas station from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, US artist reveals that today he rarely takes photographs

The leading US artist Ed Ruscha, who is showing a series of new paintings at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill in London (Extremes and In-betweens, until 17 December), tells The Art Newspaper that he rarely takes photographs today, even though he was a trailblazer in the medium at the start of his career.

His last major photography exhibition, In Focus: Ed Ruscha, was held at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 2013. It included the slender, pocket-sized volumes that he began publishing in 1963 and his extensive documentation of Los Angeles streets, beginning with Sunset Boulevard in 1965. Many of these photographs became source material for paintings. Both featured in Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, which closed in October at San Francisco’s de Young.

Ruscha says: “I did use a camera back then [in the 1960s] and I’m not sure that I ever reckoned on the combination of photography and painting, so I never really mixed them together like some artists have done—pretty successfully, too. I more or less kept it separate, not for any strategy. But I couldn’t combine the two.”

In 1963, Ruscha made the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, which features photographs of petrol stations along the highway between his home in Los Angeles and his parents’ residence in Oklahoma City.

“I saw photographs as an end [for] the concept of a book. So I needed almost an excuse to make a book, specifically Twentysix Gasoline stations,” he says. “The photos of the gas stations became a reason to make a painting of that…so it goes photograph to painting, but the two don’t meet. So photographs were kind of a process tool for me.” And does Ruscha ever look through a lens now? “Occasionally I use a camera to take an isolated picture,” he says.