David Campany’s Gasoline is a great book, and something of a masterclass in sequencing, pacing, and overall book/zinecraft. The project collects photographs of gas stations Campany acquired over several years from newspapers as they sold off their archives in the conversion to digital, and Campany makes them into a tale of the long-term disaster that is/was the American love affair with internal combustion.
I have an appreciation for Campany and his work, and pick up pretty much anything with his name attached, A Handful of Dust and The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand being two examples that spring immediately to mind.
Gasoline is similar to, but different than, Dust, in that it’s mostly found photographs around a theme, though there is very little text, no essay at all, and just a brief conversation between Campany and George Kaplan, and Gasoline is much more a sort of story or novella, where Dust is a sort of alternative history.
Gasoline also bears some resemblance to the Winogrand book, in that the images were selected and sequenced by Campany, much like an exhibition, though, again, Gasoline has very little text.
The first half of the book shows the verso of all the prints, one or two to a spread, and sequenced to show the slow arrival of gas stations, as they sort of emerge from the empty countryside, then various natural disasters and accidents occur—earthquakes rip up parking lots; cars crash into the pumps and knock down signs; a pipe burst, flooding a distribution facility with gasoline; a tornado destroys a Mobil station—and then there’s the gas crisis of the 1970s. The images are slightly more uplifting, sorta, once the crisis ends: in West Germany, gas is $1.35/gallon while somewhere in the US its 5 Gallons for a buck 25. But all is not well: glum people pump gas under a sign for HELL; a young man smiles contentedly as he reclines on a bus bench barely inches above a flooded station; a smiling attendant washes the windshield, while a caucasian, knife-wielding arm threatens an African American attendant who holds out a wad of cash. And then we’re back in the gas crisis for a bit, cars lined up waiting for their allotment. The sequence ends with five pictures: an attendant sips coffee and reclines by a pump; an older man pumps fuel into a large gas can; a young female attendant in a bikini, hastily retouched, fills a 5 gallon can; a man’s hand, gripping a pump handle from which fuel dribbles and squirts and sprays across the width of the image, recalling Lichtenstein’s brush stroke and splatter paintings and sculptures—I have a specific one in mind, but can’t find it—as well as, well, Murakami’s my lonesome cowboy; and a Standard Oil station in Germany that was bombed during World War II.
Overall, it’s not a pretty story Campany tells. There’s none of the open road, nothing of the pleasure of driving, nothing of the banality or beauty of the stations themselves (think Ed Ruscha or Stephen Shore or, especially, David Freund, whose Gas Stop is an incredible document). For Campany, sequencing these photographs in the early 2010s, when Climate Change really started to rear its head—and people really started to believe it and take it sorta seriously—there doesn’t seem to be much beauty around, though here I am talking about what’s seen in the pictures, rather than the pictures themselves.
And, believe, it’s more about the photographs as objects, rather than what they depict, and if what they depict is mostly disasters, well, that’s what sold newspapers…
The images almost universally contain grease pencil or paint markings, indicating various crops from various users, and also show some retouching, thereby betraying and reinforcing their status as physical objects rather than images. And Campany continues to point to the object-ness in the second half of the book, where he shows the verso of every image, with their handwritten or typed or stamped inscriptions, titles, categories, the newspaper publisher, maybe the photographer, a date, and, often, a snippet of the article where the photograph appeared.
The backs are nearly as interesting as the fronts, really.
Between the two sections lies an interview between Campany and George Kaplan, in silver text on black paper. The interview doesn’t add much: some of the questions seem sorta “by committee” and some are sorta nonsense, like “Who is your book for?” and “Is this book a celebration of the analogue era?” Campany gives largely brief, sorta curt and dismissive-sounding responses, but I’m probably reading too much into it. Mostly, the interview section serves as a helpful halfway marker, and that’s about it.
If I wasn’t so interested in Campany’s (rather obvious) structure and pacing, and if the backs weren’t so prominent, then, well, it wouldn’t be a Campany book, and I wouldn’t be as impressed with it. Gasoline really is a great book.
Gasoline is available direct from Mack, and Campany has a long page about it on his website, with a preview of the interview, and a much more interesting conversation with Stanley Wolokau-Wanambwa. Aparently, there is (or was, the publisher’s website is now defunct) also an ebook version as well that may or may not be of interest.