David Freund‘s Gas Stop: the Gas Station in American Life and Landscape: 1978-1981 was a long time (and a lightning strike) in the making. He made the photographs over a 3 or 4 year period 40 years ago, and only a chance, fairy-tale-type meeting with Gerhard Steidl brought the project to light, in the form of an impressive four volume set, 574 photos over 720 pages, with short essays by Feund at the end of each, in the quality that we expect from Steidl productions.
For Freund, Gas stations, those he photographed over the Carter Administration and into the beginnings of the Reagan years anyway, are the great democratizing force, something like Jury Duty, or the post office, the DMV, but far more regular and intimate. Almost everyone visits a gas station several times a month, and back in the day, you had to get out of your car, that solitary kingdom, and actually interact with other humans: the attendants at full service stations, the cashier inside. You were likely to see and interact with people like you and not like you, and maybe subconsciously recognize a shared humanity, at least a shared need for auto fuel.
Nowadays, in the reign of self-service, pay at the pump, it’s far more likely that you fill up without even noticing other people, and you have to make a special effort to go inside and interact with someone, and our opportunities for encountering otherness have shrunk dramatically.
Freund makes this point explicitly in “Gas Stations” (the short essay included at the end of Book 2: West):
Besides a welcome, stations… might offer directions, maps, car maintenance, tires, even newspapers and magazines. And bathrooms. Now its kind have been supplanted almost entirely by self-service stations with credit-card activated pumps where one can purchase gas without encountering another human.
Once, station owners might be on site, oil-stained work clothes signaling capable assistance in things automotive. Or, spiffy uniforms at upscale brands announced efficiency and clean bathrooms. For emergencies there would likely be help or at least a telephone. A paperboy or girl could borrow space to fold papers for his or her route.
Customers satisfied day to day needs, unconcerned with the corporate web of petroleum refining and distribution within which gas stations existed. Stations also extended the connective tissues of the electrical grid, the postal service, the telephone system, and supported the auto parts and tire industries. Thus, when stations vanished it was not just their physical buildings which were lost, but their connection to all of these, as well as the skills, resources and culture they sustained.
Gas Stop depicts, perhaps contrives, a largely sympathetic view of the gas station as a ubiquitous, accepting place. Its larger ambition, however, is a visual aggregation of themes which add up to a layered, interconnected view of America, as seen at this American commons.
Self-service was a godsend for introverts. I remember riding in the car with my dad in the early 1980s. He was running on empty, but passed up a few gas stations. I kept pointing them out, excitedly, and remember him replying that those were full service. Perhaps they were more expensive? I don’t recall, but at self-service places, he didn’t have to talk to anyone or endure being talked to by anyone, and I sympathize. In fact, I regularly find myself at gas stations where the pay-at-the-pump feature is broken, and I almost always drive to another station rather than going inside and interacting with the fellow humans there, and may Allah guide me to better. I think this focus on solitude and avoiding others is the locus of so much of our social and political problems these days.
I think Freund has some of this in mind, a sort of lamentation of things we’ve lost in this race to convenience (and corporate profits). Self-service gas was just a gateway to those self-check out kiosks at grocery stores. The more corporations convince us to perform parts of their jobs for them, the fewer people they have to employ and the more profit they make. It’s a total win for shareholders, and for introverts and impatient people too, but it’s a loss for our sense of connection to other humans.
Back to the books.
I don’t pretend to have fully digested all of the photographs in Gas Stop, but Freund has an excellent sense of framing and front-to-back arrangement of forms. Many of his photographs have frames within frames, pumps that divide the scene neatly in two, groups of pairs or triples of things (two pumps, two telephone poles, two houses, two commercial structures, two trees, all neatly arranged), meditations on circles or rectangles, and other stylistic decisions that show a great sense of composition. And the fact that he pulled these off, time after time, over and over again, over nearly 600 photos is an impressive feat.
I was born in the year of the earliest photographs in this book, and turned four just after Freund finished photographing the series. In looking at these, I recognize the cars, clothes, signage, open spaces, roads, just about everything, and I feel a sense of nostalgia. As I drive back roads now, nearly 40 years later, I see many of these buildings, boarded up, abandoned, or converted to random things: farmers markets, antique stores, sign museums, title loan places, etc. etc. A few still remain in operation. There are a couple of gas stations in Oklahoma that have been there since I remember and they remain today, mostly with new pumps, but some still have the old style where you go inside to pay first, then lift the lever on the side and watch the analog numbers tick over. Many customers avoid these stations now: the bathrooms are filthy, the snack aisle and soda fountain offerings paltry. I don’t often stop at these old stations, but I look at them as I speed by and remember when that was all there was.
I mentioned $0.53 ice cream cones at the QT not long ago. Quick Trip is a marvel, and they (and similar corporate chains) are taking over the highways and byways now. Even 7-11 and On The Run stations that are just a couple of decades removed from their heyday seem dingy and almost dangerous by comparison. But they’ve got nothing on those old gas stations in small towns that the Interstates left behind years ago.
And here I am, back not talking about the pictures again, and I think this is the mark of a really great photobook. Gas Stop has me remembering the old days, wondering about the future, and pondering this present social moment all at the same time, and there are few books that do that for me. That Gas Stop is four incredible books in one is even more amazing, really.
Overall, Gas Stop earns 4.5 stars. It’s highly recommended for anyone who appreciates beautifully composed, sharp, Leica and Tri-X, social landscape photography, or has some nostalgia for the (good? bad?) old days of American automobile culture.
Gas Stop remains available direct from Steidl and at fine booksellers elsewhere. If you’re not convinced by my thoughts, Blake Andrews has a review of the book (and an earlier hunt for more information about Freund) that convinced me to buy it, and a reprint of the catalog essay for Freund’s retrospective at Ramapo College is available at ASX. The Guardian has some pictures and quotes from the book, and The Washington Post has a brief review with many pictures too. Hopefully one of them will sway you. Gas Stop isn’t cheap, but what it offers is worth the price of admission.