Ed Ruscha and the future of maps

I think my wall needs a map. 

It's got a big empty space all over it's sad magnolia face, just crying out for a nice chunky frame and something from my big box of old maps. I have multiple plans of London, York, New York, Ankh-Morpork, all waiting patiently to be unfolded and appreciated again. They serve little function these days, all static, vast and fragile. Whilst hibernating under my desk, they've long since been obsoleted by technology. But I keep them, because I like looking. They like being looked at. They have become art. 

It's unlikely that the walls of tomorrow will appreciate the maps of today. Having migrated from paper to screen, they're hyperactive and helpful and sit excitedly in our pockets. They connect and predict and take over. They talk. This isn't the sort of thing that sits well in your finest Habitat Aluminus. 

But that's not to say there's no art about them. Quite the opposite in fact. Google/Apple/Other Maps didn't just appear out of nowhere, nor were they simply torn straight from the pages of the London A-Z. Behind all the futuristic shimmer and zoom that we're now accustomed to lies a visual language that’s been churning in galleries and artists' studios for decades.

There's Richard Long and his carefully annotated long walks, essentially microblogging his geometrically precise adventures (A Hundred Mile Walk, 1972); there's Hermann Bollmann’s obsessively detailed axonometric plan of Manhattan (3-D Litho Map of New York City, 1963), a kind of proto-SimCity that toys with the traditional rules of displaying cartographic data; there's Charles and Ray Eames, zooming in and out of the city, taking the scale from cosmic to atomic (Powers of Ten, 1968). They're all in today's maps, tucked away somewhere. 

Dodger Stadium, in Thirtyfour Parking Lots, 1967

Dodger Stadium, in Thirtyfour Parking Lots, 1967

And then there's Ed.

Primarily a painter, Ed Ruscha is perhaps best known for juxtaposing single words and fragments of rhetoric over empty landscapes and mountains and suchlike. He recreates and abstracts the imagery of advertising and packaging, his work conveying little profundity other than the occasional OOF or SCREAM. He's been doing this for over fifty years, yet his whole body of work remains contemporary. It's striking and instant and typographically playful – basically the sort of stuff that web was made for (in fact, he even has the decency to have his own site: www.edruscha.com.)

It's off-canvas that he really explored his surroundings – the sprawling urban mess that is Los Angeles – in the most interesting way. Arriving there fifty years ago from small-town Oklahoma, he had an outsiders view of the place, describing it as an "accelerated culture". In the 60s and 70s, he published various books of photography, each containing a series focussed on a particular facet of the young city. They documented and classified and identified patterns; repetition through observation. And they look just like Google Maps.

One series in particular foreshadows the imagery we're familiar with today. Early one Sunday morning in 1967, Ruscha hired a helicopter and a photographer, Art Alanis, and took to the sky to document the city's parking lots. The resulting book is a thing of Ballardian beauty (so much so that Ballard even had a word to say about it: “Ruscha’s images are mementos of the human race taken back with them by visitors from another planet”. You don't get much more Ballardian than that).

The aerial photography of Thirtyfour Parking Lots is equal parts mundane and stunning. Black and white shots of concrete emptiness; awkward negative shapes between buildings; patterns unrecognisable at ground level. All marked with the white line criss-cross of parking spaces, herringbone tarmac. 

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1969

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1969

It's when you look at this series alongside others, shot at street-level, that the echo of today's digital-photographic cartography makes itself apparent. Books like Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1969) are quite brazen in their simple objectives: photographs, taken from the roadside, of those buildings. They are essentially the StreetView equivalent of the Parking Lots series. Except these are analogue and chemical and ink. 

In 2006, conceptual artist Hermann Zschiegner made the link between Ruscha’s work and the burgeoning form of webular mappery, publishing Thirty Four Parking Lots on Google Earth. Printed in an identical format to the original, it's an update and tribute to Ruscha’s work. However, this time neither a helicopter or photographer were required – using the coordinates from the original, Zschiegner simply took a screenshot of each location as Google presented it.

Looking at the two books side-by-side, it's a fascinating study of how the city has grown and mutated in some ways, stayed the same in others. Gone are the expanses of undeveloped land and leftover bits of desert, but familiar architectural shapes remain, like the great crab-like outline of the Dodgers Stadium or the the vast swathes of freeway. Sometimes the location is unrecognisable, sometimes it's virtually unchanged. 

Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966

Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966

There is one important difference between Zschiegner and Ruscha’s versions though, and not just time or colour or property development. Something isn't quite right. There is uncanniness afoot. You can look at the originals for ages before it hits you: hang on, where's … us?.

Ruscha achieved something that Google and friends haven't, something they've had to fudge with a bit of smudge: his photographs contain almost no trace of humanity whatsoever. No pesky people wandering through the shot, wrecking the desolate beauty of it all. No cars, not even parked. It's as if the photographs have been abandoned by their subjects. This emptiness brings Ruscha’s work closer to cartography than anything shot by Google or Apple: it's just habitat, not inhabitants. Stillness, nothing to blur.

What with flying and photography being rather fashionable in the twentieth century, cities had been shot from above countless times before Ruscha got in on the act. But they had been done so with very clear intentions, be they military or scientific or exploratory. His photographs had no such goal. He had an artist’s eye.

He was just looking.

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Originally published in the January 2014 issue of MacUser. Further reading: Ed Ruscha, Photographer and The Map as Art.