In 1963, Ed Ruscha published Twentysix Gasoline Stations, an artist’s book composed of photographs of 26 gasoline stations along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. The book follows, more or less, the journey he made several times a year to visit his parents back home.
Ruscha’s little book—it weighs in at a modest 48 pages—has attained iconic status and inspired a ton of imitations. (cf., Twenty-Four Former Filling Stations (Frank Eye), Thirtysix Fire Stations (Yann Sérandour), 26 Charging Stations (Ginger Burrell), 26 Gasoline Stations in Grand Theft Auto V (M. Earl Williams), et al.)
Living, as I do, in Wawa Country, I am particularly taken with the latest riff on Ruscha’s book: Twentysix Wawa Stores, by Eric Weeks. (Wawa is a Pennsylvania-based chain of convenience stores concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic states and, for some reason, Florida.)
I saw this work recently at Street Road Artists’ Space in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. The photos are pretty much as advertised—black-and-white shots of 26 Wawa stores—although the exhibition includes a 26-minute video, one minute for each store.
Like Ruscha, Weeks makes a regular journey, his between Lancaster and New York along a stretch of the Old Lincoln Highway.
Also like Ruscha, Weeks uses grab shots. Ruscha described his pictures as “readymades,” and they are crappy snapshots rather than high-art photographs. As for Weeks, the pictures in his book are screen captures from videos he made at each site. But in both cases, the flat affect of the photographs is belied by the attention lavished on the book itself. Neither would do time on your coffee table, but Ruscha was meticulous in the oversight of design and printing, and the look and layout of Wawas follows Gasoline Stations almost exactly.
“I have no social agenda in my work,” Ruscha has said. “I’m deadpan about it.” Although, given that he describes the gas stations as “cultural belches in the landscape,” you have to wonder whether there’s not just a tad of social commentary lurking in the deadpan.
Weeks, though, is explicit: “I am making a political statement, but I'm making it with a very soft voice," he told the Lancaster County News. “I’m not interested in condemning anyone, because we’re all part of it.”
That “we” points to another difference between the two approaches to what is, after all, not very interesting subject matter. Virtually uninhabited, Ruscha’s gas stations seem to exist in a dystopian world straight out of Mad Max.
By contrast, Weeks’ Wawas, although shot during the pandemic—a real-life dystopia if there ever was one—are full of life. Just how lively becomes evident when you sit down to watch the video. I expected to sit through maybe a few minutes: How interesting could a bunch of convenience stores be?
The answer? Pretty darn interesting. People head to the door, remember they’ve forgotten their masks, walk back to car. One guy thwacks the bag of ice he’s just bought against a metal pole. Another, not batting an eye, walks straight at the camera. Someone drags a hand truck, loaded with two boxes, along the road. A train passes by in the background. Kids ride by on their bikes.
I sat through it all, mesmerized by the extraordinary theater of people going about their ordinary lives.