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New work! Visualizing fifty years of automatic photographs of LA by Ed Ruscha for the Getty

I’m beyond excited to be able to share that we’ve been working with The J Paul Getty Trust on visualizing the extraordinary work of the artist Ed Ruscha and his team on and around Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles for the last fifty years. The work is online at http://12sunsets.getty.edu/, is live as of today, and you can read about it on the Getty’s blog and on stamen.com.

It’s well known (in the art world) that Ed took photos of both sides of the Sunset Strip from a moving car in 1966 and made a book featuring a series of collages titled “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” What’s less well known is that he didn’t just take photos of the Strip. In fact he and his team took photos of the entire length of Sunset Boulevard (about 22 miles) and some other streets in Los Angeles. On top of that, he didn’t just do this in 1966, but he did it more than a dozen times, every couple of years from the ’60s to today. The Getty acquired the archive in 2012 and turned it into something else; something different; something every bit as astonishing: a digital archive of vast conceptual and digital spatiality that we’re honored to be playing a part in helping to make public.

The archive is an extraordinary historical and artistic work that contains over three quarters of a million(!) mechanically captured images of Los Angeles over almost fifty years. Ed’s team set up (in different ways in different decades) mechanical means (which is to say, they hung a wheel out of the back of a moving truck and rigged it to trigger the shutter of a camera mounted on the flatbed of a truck, which is so awesome) to capture the streetscape of major boulevards in Los Angeles while driving along it, predating the idea of Google Street View by many decades. Each of the images has been geotagged by the Getty, run through optical character recognition software (so we can read the signs!), and had machine vision analysis done on it. We’ve designed a series of interfaces that let the public explore this archive, many of which will be seen by the public (and Ed!) for the first time.

It’s hard to overstate the love I feel for this archive. I’ve been looking at it every day for months now, and I almost never come away without discovering something new and unexpected. When we launched maps.stamen.com/watercolor my productivity declined precipitously, since I just spent every spare minute looking at new places rendered as watercolor paintings; I’m having similar feelings now. Don’t expect much from me for the next couple of weeks, please!

Much of what has informed our work on the project is that it’s about the archive itself, every bit as much as it’s about Ed Ruscha’s work, or about Los Angeles, or about cities. The idea that each of these photographs exists in the real world, in an archive, and that the Getty knows exactly where they are, is just astounding. There’s also something wonderfully human about the roughness around the edges that comes from seeing a person’s hand held above the photographs to keep the sun out of the lens. Or the photos of Ed’s son holding up paper signs to mark transitions between film rolls. The photographs taken in different years in the archive have different focal lengths, and are taken at different spatial intervals along the street, which you can see when you compare several years in a single view. All these things add up to a view of an archive that’s vast, but also deeply human, personal, and idiosyncratic. It’s what makes the archive so unique and so different from anything that’s come after it.

The discoveries we’ve made are almost always accidental, and I love that about the work. It’s easy enough to search for and find Whisky-a-Gogo or the Cinerama Dome (in 1973, 1974, 1985, 1990, or maybe you want to look at three or four years at once? That’s cool). It’s pretty incredible even to search for things we know are physically still where they were, and learn new things about them by looking. We know, for example, that the Whisky A-Go Go was still closed in 1985, even though the LA Times article about the closure says it reopened in 1982. We have a giant truth machine that Ed Ruscha pointed at Sunset Boulevard for fifty years.

But it’s the serendipitous discoveries that I’ve made that are even more meaningful to me. For example, I recently discovered that almost every image in the archive that contains the word DONT in it is a photograph that has a DONT WALK sign in it, and that you can hop from major intersection to major intersection by skipping from DONT to DONT. Ed & his team, aided by the Getty, have “accidentally” mapped all the crosswalks with stop lights on them, without explicitly meaning to. I love that! I love what happens when you just keep the cameras rolling!

I found that I could track what kind of car the team was driving year over year by watching the reflections in big panes of glass along the Boulevard (here’s another, and you can browse through all the images tagged with “window” here and find your own). We’ve had great fun finding phone numbers and using them to map all the bus benches along Sunset Boulevard. It’s an engine for discovering sublime bits of history lost and found; a tool for eliciting delight and wonder; a kaleidoscope of light over time reflected off changing urban infrastructure.

This is why we’ve designed and built the interface the way we have. We certainly wanted to make something that paid homage to Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and in our conversations with Ed along the way that project came up a lot. In fact the reason that we kept the bottom images upside down was directly stolen from that book! But we also wanted to make something that was new and different, something that would live on the internet and invite people into contemplation of the whole scope of the archive in all its human glory. This is why we’ve built an interface that’s about being able to see all the images of Sunset Boulevard, even (perhaps especially) the ones that were left out of the original shoot, and why the images overlap with one another in the Drive interface. We wanted to embrace the sprawling, messy, exuberant, hyperabundant nature of the archive, and bring it into the 21st century.

It’s not a strip of images seamlessly stitched together, as the original (amazing) work was. It’s something new, something that could never have been imagined when the project was first initiated in 1966 by a visionary Los Angeles artist. The archive (and the original project; they’re different) are a lot of things, and there are teams of scholars engaged in figuring out just what they are. One of the joys of the project has been to realize what a rich source of artistic meaning, contradiction, ambiguity, intentionality Ed and his team have created with this work. It’s a stupendous pile of artistic images, mechanically generated and processed, meticulously scanned and analysed by the Getty, and visualized by us. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants who are standing on the shoulders of giants. Turtles all the way down! It’s truly an honor to have been asked to be part of making this work available to the public.

The project’s live at http://12sunsets.getty.edu/. I hope you’ll have half as much fun playing with it as we have had living with it and building it. We’ll be telling stories about LA with this for some time—that’s what the interface is designed to allow—so stay tuned!

Published: 10.06.20
Updated: 11.30.21

About Stamen

Stamen is a globally recognized strategic design partner and one of the most established cartography and data visualization studios in the industry. For over two decades, Stamen has been helping industry giants, universities, and civic-minded organizations alike bring their ideas to life through designing and storytelling with data. We specialize in translating raw data into interactive visuals that inform, inspire and incite action. At the heart of this is our commitment to research and ensuring we understand the challenges we face. We embrace ambiguity, we thrive in data, and we exist to build tools that educate and inspire our audiences to act.