In the back of a Hudson Gasoline station, Uninon Avenue, Bakersfield CA

Gas Station Asses

He got a hot rod ford and a two dollar bill
looking for a spot right over the hill
where the engines roar with the smell of gasoline

[Gasoline by Slim the Drifter]


My father-in-law once asked me:”why do you love to photograph gas station asses so much?” To be honest, I didn’t really have a reply. Looking back over decades of making pictures, I can indeed verify that I have photographed many gas station asses over the years. My first exposure to the aesthetics of gasoline stations was a book by Ed Ruscha called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Thanks to Harry Wilson, a photography instructor at Bakersfield Community College, the reserved reading section had it and several other books by Ruscha– including the infamous fold out, Every Building on the Sunset Strip.

I first saw the books in 1977, but long after I dropped out of college, I continued to go back and look at the reserved books in the library to refresh myself, and I continued to check in with Harry for years after taking his classes. Around the same time, my high school photography instructor Chris Burnett took a sabbatical to complete his MFA at California State College (soon to be California State University at Bakersfield). In the mid eighties, it hosted a wide variety of up and coming artists of a particularly conceptual variety, and Lewis Baltz’s New Industrial Parks Near Irvine was another book I viewed often, and repeatedly as well after seeing his work at Cal State. I think what drew me at the time wasn’t the intellectual side, but the visual elements that were so near to my daily experience of the world living in the Southern San Joaquin Valley; it seemed to me a way of making sense of the landscape in isolated rectangles.

It’s amazing how living long enough makes you aware (retrospectively) of details that feed your own conception of a life narrative. These pictures were “true” to me in a way that the dominant California school (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, et. al.) were not. I loved modernist photography as I got started, but it was like visiting a foreign country– attractive but strange. A transcript of an interview with Lewis Baltz sounds like something I would say, but I haven’t read it until today:

MR. WITKOVSKY:  What changed when it became your work?  I suppose everything changed, but do you feel that the subject matter changed more, or was it an approach to how you make a picture or how you make a print?

MR. BALTZ:  It was about subject matter.  Photography had a very rigid hierarchy of subject matter, very much like the 19th-century French salons.  If you look at photography from the ’50s, even in the ’60s, and you begin to think about all the things in the world that were not photographed, were not even acknowledged, [it] was staggering.  The list goes on forever.

It dawned on me when I was living in Monterrey that serious photographers – the Edward Westons, the Wynn Bullocks and the Ansel Adamses, would go to some special, privileged “natural” place to work.  It was an article of faith – in this case the faith of American Transcendentalism – that to commune with nature was the sign of A Great Soul, no amount of the evidence to the contrary withstanding.  The corollary of that attitude was that the rest of the time – when not in the privileged world of pure nature – one might as well be dead to the world.

Unfortunately, my life very rarely involved going to Yosemite [National Park, CA].  My life was about going to shopping centers, being in a town, an urban situation, which seemed to me was also a landscape but one that no one had any interest in looking at.  But I was interested in looking at it.

[Oral history interview with Lewis Baltz, 2009 November 15-17]

Another aspect of the New Topographics photographers like Baltz and artists like Ed Ruscha that mattered to me was that they had a sense of humor completely lacking in “art” photography. It might be deadpan, but there is a humor to digging through the world’s rubbish. I disliked some often included in the group (like Robert Adams) because they seemed too judgmental. I just wanted to make sense of the things that were there, not pass judgment on them. They were beautiful to me.

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I don’t usually remember to photograph anything that might actually identify the place, or the moment in time, but in the case of a group of pictures I recently unearthed it wasn’t too difficult to track down some interesting details. Sometime in 1982 or 1983, a new capacious gas station opened up on Union Avenue in Bakersfield, California.

From the sign, it’s clear that this is a Hudson gas station. The striking feature was an array of billboards that reminded me a lot of Soviet propaganda, proclaiming its mastery through its presence in 36 states, from coast to coast.

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There is a story to be found about this particular chain. Most of the press from a few years later lists them as having stations in 34 states, but it seems that inflating numbers is nothing new for this company. From August 11, 1983:

One of the nation’s wealthiest women–and the only woman to head an American oil company–has been fined $500 and sentenced to 200 hours of public-service work for personally ordering the rigging of gasoline pumps to shortchange customers.The sentencing of Mary Hudson Vandegrift came Tuesday in an Olathe, Kan., circuit court after the 70-year-old chairman of the board of Hudson Oil Co. pleaded no contest to the felony-theft charge. She also was sentenced to two years’ probation. She could have been sentenced to up to five years in jail.

Vandegrift, of Mission Hills, Kan., was listed last year by Forbes Magazine as one of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals.Court records said Vandegrift ordered one of her Kansas-area marketing managers, Robert Monroe Neuffer, to break the state seals on pumps and then readjust the pumps so that customers received eight to nine cubic inches less than they deserved on a five-gallon purchase.

[Washington Post]

A Kansas City history web site lists the number as 35 states, and suggests that Mary Hudson, a  “vinegar and velvet” woman was considered a role model by many. In fact, I found a reference to this short-change artist on a motivational speaker’s web site:

But don’t be overly influenced by negative thinkers. Just take their viewpoints into consideration. There’s a famous story of Mary Hudson, who started off with 200 dollars in the middle of the Depression and leased a gas station that two men had gone broke running at two different occasions. And from that she built a company called Hudson Oil, which is now the biggest independent distributor of gas and oil in the United States. From a 200 dollar investment, even though everybody told her she would fail. So remember, listen to negative thinkers, but don’t necessarily accept their advice.

[Brian Tracy]

Brian Tracy should do more research. The company went bankrupt in 1984, due to Arab nations flooding the world with cheap oil and no doubt some shady accounting practices. But I loved their optimism in 1982, and their brightly lit and huge station on Old Highway 99. It may have been crooked, but it was still “true.”

Writing about Ed Ruscha in 2009, Mary Iversen attempts to address the question of why photograph twenty-six gasoline stations?” In an interview with John Coplans for Artforum in 1965, he remarked that the work began as ‘a play on words’: he liked the word ‘gasoline’ and the specific quantity ‘twenty-six’. It seems to me that my friend Slim the Drifter’s song “Gasoline” exists for pretty much the same reason. The words just sound good together, and the story feels real. Iverson makes a good case that Ruscha’s book works can be thought of as “rule-based” art making, where you propose a theorem of a sort, and then fulfill  it with visual or tactile evidence. It’s a form of proof that these things can actually be made into books, and that they might be interesting to look at.

According to Iverson, the roots of this practice can perhaps be traced to Marcel Duchamp’s readymade 3 Standard Stoppages.  As the MOMA web site describes it:

To make 3 Standard Stoppages, Marcel Duchamp dropped three one-meter-long threads from the height of one meter onto three canvas strips. The threads were then adhered to the canvases, preserving the random curves they had assumed upon landing. Cut along the profiles of each fallen thread, the canvases served as templates for three draftsman’s straightedges—wood tools that retain the length of the meter but paradoxically “standardize” the accidental curve.

Duchamp’s deliberately useless toolkit subverts standardized units of measure, while simultaneously poking fun at the scientific method. Though he glibly referred to 3 Standard Stoppages as “a joke about the meter,” his description of its outcome reads like a mathematical theorem: “If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases [it] creates a new image of the unit of length.”

I find myself thinking that one day gas stations, which have been a commonplace unit of urban architecture will take their place alongside shopping malls as rare curiosities, replaced by occasional charging stations without any of their unique, and often humorous character. Unlike Ruscha, rather than being drawn to the strong diagonals and graphic fronts of the Standard Station, I like the messy butts with their rubbish piles and awkward integration into preexisting landscapes. They don’t all look alike to me.