Most photographers and just about anyone who makes photobooks today will at some point reference Ed Ruscha’s 1963 book production Twentysix Gasoline Stations. The majority will have never held a copy in their hand or have even seen it in reality. In fact the majority today will only know the book through its documentation, principally made available through the Internet. With an original edition of only 400 copies, the now iconic photobook exists for the most part as information rather than object.
Gregory Eddi Jones’ Another Twenty-Six Gas Stations takes Ruscha’s original publication as a starting point for what is a contemporary and complex redefinition of American social and visual culture. It is by no means a pun, or a simplistic appropriation for the sake of it, rather it is a sharp and quick witted interrogation of what is the prevalent Western culture – one that uses fear, threat of violence, paranoia and systematic surveillance not only in the control of its citizens’ actions but also in how it feeds, clothes, entertains and motivates those same citizens.
Jones first appropriates Ruscha’s subject, then his method of documentation and finally his delivery of artwork and recontexualizes it, updating each element to fit our present-day Internet Age and what Lance Speer who has authored a fine essay accompanying the book calls the ‘Surveillance Age’. As Speer points out, the gas station of the 1960s was the natural home of America’s then obsession, the automobile.
But if America was in love with the car in the 1950s and 60s, what is it now in love with? Following the many decades of broken promises, Kennedy assassinations, wars (cold, invasive and terrorist alike), high school massacres and continued racially motivated social unrest (at the time of this article being written, protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are rioting over the decision not to indict the police officer who shot black teenager Michael Brown) it seems America has replaced the automobile for the automatic, the car for the gun. Gas stations are no longer a mom-and-pop owned store, they are mechanisms of vast multinational franchises, and they are no longer a thankful oasis but a bountiful target. Route 66, the iconic highway on which Ruscha photographed his gas stations has since become the Information Highway and the gas station billboards have become algorithm based clickable adverts on the surveillance videos subsequently uploaded to YouTube for their shockingly violent content.
Jones has used screen grabs from the CCTV footage freely available on the video sharing website, picking very precise images that he has then edited into a flowing narrative of criminal escapade that can be simultaneously heinous and hilarious. He uses irony to slow the narrative by deliberately including screen messages such as ‘press esc to exit full screen mode’ while we see a POV image from the knife wielding robber attempting to hold up a ‘feisty convenience store owner’ who stands at his counter prepared with a bat. In another image two men are frozen in an embrace while at the bottom of the screen is a Google ad for ‘Geek online dating’. The embrace of course is one between attacker and victim, and the Google ad is there due to certain keywords associated with the video such as ‘embrace’. In one of the more outrageous scenes a blur of bright orange flames blazes at the bottom of a dark grey forecourt in what could easily be a set from a science-fiction film. We only know the grim reality by the screen tag reading ‘woman set on fire by assailant at gas station (surveillance video)’. The horror of this image is offset by yet another Google ad placement for a company called Fanatics which sells licensed sports merchandise.
This choice of image of the woman on fire defines the book, and indeed the resolute clarity of Jones’ editorial intelligence. In many ways he has mastered the layering of appropriated image with art historical context and multiple socio-political association beyond visual information alone. This image is grotesque in subject yet aesthetically it possesses a strangely alluring beauty separate from that terrible underlying narrative. At the same time it refers to American domestic violence and the ‘Crime Porn’ that Speer speaks of in his essay, while also referring to American foreign violence in oil producing countries where the US military fights genuine fanatics intent on crippling the West (think of the burning oil fields in Iraq post-Desert Storm). Yet another association is the (in)famous photograph of the burning Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, by American Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Malcolm Browne. This photograph of self-immolation as protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government was taken, and subsequently won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963, the very year Ruscha produced his Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations book.
To consider Another Twenty-Six Gas Stations as merely a subversive update of Ruscha’s original book is quite frankly an erroneous assumption to make. It is far deeper than that, and when considered with the everyday surveillance of us all both online and in these banal non-places such as gas stations or convenience stores, combined with the omnipotence of the glamorized violent act and religiously defended right to bear arms of America’s gun culture, Jones has created a well-crafted, worthwhile and valuable addition to the photobook genre.