Thursday, October 24, 2013

Gasoline by David Campany

My review of David Campany's Gasoline (MACK, 2013) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

Gasoline consumes us as much as we consume it. As we race forward and pass peak oil, the iconic and ubiquitous gas stations that litter the US landscape serve as a glaring reminder of our increasingly dangerous addiction. Through their association to cars, gas stations and gas signify freedom, the possibility of reinvention and the romance of the road. Perhaps they are just an inconvenient stop on the way somewhere else. In the early 21st century, they are also a reminder of our own exhaustion. We've painted our self in the corner. What was once cheap and inexhaustible is nearing its end and killing us in the process. In Gasoline, David Campany gathers thirty-five archival press photographs from the mid-40s to the mid-90s that depict the humble gas, gas station and the surrounding landscape. Elegiac, humorous, tragic and pointed, Gasoline is an astute and poignant reminder of the iconography and architecture of our lingering addiction.

All images © David Campany and MACK, 2013

Collected from deaccessioned newspaper archives, the photographs represent a bygone era when the physical print was the default. Moving from the darkroom to the picture editor's desk to print, the images were cropped, annotated and labeled. In presenting both sides of the images, the photograph's materiality is foregrounded. Bends, torn edges, wrinkles and grease pencil marks offer a glimpse of the image's history. The black and red colored marks also have a beauty all their own. Signs, people, cars and banal buildings all sit outside the colored lines, or are crossed out, and suggest that the cropped images have much more to tell than their editors allowed. Like most archival press images, the photograph's backs reveal the photo and reproduction credits, signatures and captions. For historians, this information is invaluable. As all images become digital, this wealth of information has rapidly disappeared. Although metadata often holds similar information, the impersonal data fields lack the richness of hand-written notes and tell their own story of use and circulation. 

All images © David Campany and MACK, 2013

For a book on gasoline, the images themselves are quite varied. They show gas stations from their birth shortly after Eisenhower inaugurated the Interstate Highway System in the late-40s through the oil embargo in the late-70s to the mid-90s. Vernacular architecture is mixed with shots of signage, explosions, destroyed stations or men and women pumping gas. The book's most iconic image is on the cover and shows a woman slumped over the wheel. Resembling a Richard Este's painting, the photograph was taken during the oil embargo in the late 70s. Taken at a time when gas lines often stretched for blocks, it perfectly captures the crushing frustration of being trapped in a car. The woman, like most of us, is a slave to gas and her car. As a vehicle of freedom, being trapped and immobile in a car seems tantalizingly cruel.

All images © David Campany and MACK, 2013

The book is divided into two sections containing the front and then backs of the images. In between the two sections is a short, but fantastic, conversation between Campany and George Kaplan. Always smart and accessible, Campany offers wonderful insight into the project, his motivations and what such archival images say about our current moment. Although a cliché, all history is as much a mirror of the present as it is about the past. Our concerns, hopes and desires constantly filter and shape the way we read the past. While the book is ostensibly about gasoline, gas stations and energy consumption, it also speaks powerfully about the role of vernacular images in our lives and the evolving nature of the medium. In some ways, it is easy to conflate the nostalgic lament for the passing of analogy photography and its attendant materiality with the waning subject of the book. Nevertheless, the book reveals a world when gas was cheap, although sometimes scarce, pollution was a distant dream, gas stations were just a tank away and the open road promised a new life or just an exhilarating ride out of town.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photo-eye on October 21st, 2013. You can get the book here.