Sure, lots of movies have captured the glamour of Tinseltown. But a treasure trove of never-before-seen photographs captured the actual Sunset Strip in all its groovy glory.
The collection of 60,000 photos are newly available through an interactive experience called “12 Sunsets: Exploring Ed Ruscha’s Archive,” launched by Stamen Design and the Getty Research Institute. The photographs were taken by Ruscha between 1965 and 2007. Ruscha’s style was flat, straight-on documentary photography that’s largely absent of people; he documented his cityscape as if it were a set. That’s because Ruscha wasn’t interested in human interest. The treatment “allows people to chart the enormous social and architectural changes over the past several years,” according Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the archive who oversaw the project.
The collection has been years in the making. The Getty Research Institute acquired around half a million photographs in 2012 that Ruscha shot around L.A.; over the past eight years a team of 50 people has been digitizing and cataloging them. (The 60,000 photos in this showcase were just taken on Sunset Blvd.—and even then, they only digitized streets Ruscha shot multiple times.)
Now, these photos are available to the public. Using the interactive website, you can cruise down Sunset by dragging Ruscha’s yellow pickup along the map and see photos of the buildings that exist on either side. You can also search for particular landmarks, like the Whisky a Go Go, or even compare the same location years apart.
Ruscha’s photographic treatment challenged the way people thought about Los Angeles, art, and photography, according to Perchuk, who is also an art historian. “That was an era where everyone thought that L.A. was an ugly, uninteresting city compared to places like New York, Chicago, or Paris,” says Perchuk. “Ed’s work really showed it was worth documenting. This kind of deadpan photography was a new mode of photographing a city.” Perchuk claims Ruscha’s style helped usher in a new genre of conceptual art that was less focused on aesthetics and more interested with information—a shift he calls “hallmark.”
The effect was that the city itself looked like a set piece, which Perchuk says was Ruscha’s intention. “One of the things that Ruscha wanted to do was show L.A. as a flat plane, like one of those flat Hollywood backlots, where there’s nothing behind the facades,” he says. It was so unusual that, “when Andy Warhol first saw the images, he called Ruscha and said, ‘How do you get all these photos with no people in it?'” The answer was quite simple really—he shot at 5 a.m. on Sundays.
Perchuk hopes people will compare their own photographs to Ruscha’s and notice how the city has changed; that people will reminisce about the place they went on their first date, or their first concert. So jump in the truck and cruise down memory lane. Thanks to Ruscha and Getty, you don’t even need to leave your apartment.