Anyone who’s driven through wide stretches of the country knows there are still quirks if you dig hard enough and drive far enough from the main road.
Ed Ruscha published the artist’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations in 1963, modestly documenting stations between Texas and California. Photographer David Freund’s door-stopping Gas Stop is a massive expansion of that vision. Consisting of photos made from 1978-1981, the four-volume set numbers 574 black-and-white images (made in 40 states) of the American service station in all its mom-and-pop and corporate glory. Much as road movies dramatically map out this vast nation, Freund’s project, although it looks at just one seemingly ordinary piece of the American puzzle, addresses its varieties and similarities at a time when road trips were more varied than the monotonous sea of big chains that dominate the 21st century highway.
Freund describes this everyday place as “a nation-sized fountain from which gasoline flowed to all on equal terms.” Some of these stations benefited from distinct designs that stood out in this landscape: a Kelly proud of his Irish heritage emblazoned shamrocks all over his shop. A fiberglass dinosaur rose in the distance behind another. Bob’s Place, a Denver station that was built in the ‘30s and lasted into the ‘90s, beckoned with a neon “Howdy, FOLKS!” and a tuxedoed cat mascot.
You can find all of these in Gas Stop, but it’s not just a book of quirky roadside attractions. This democratic book is just as full of utilitarian designs that went no further than bare, minimal poles and pumps that dotted the barren landscape with a geometric simplicity that, in the context of these photos, look like electric oases.
Of course, there’s an element of nostalgia here. It’s easy to look for obsolete soft drinks in vending machines and obscure, defunct chains like the aptly ironic Time. And if these photos are not highly populated, people often partially obscured behind pumps and cars, there are fleeting glimpses of fashions past.
But these photos work not only on the level of nostalgia but also on formal terms. Freund lends a compositional elegance to quotidian locations, pulling together elements that on their own would be the height of banality (which has its aesthetic pleasures as well). In one image, the ribbed siding of a mobile home echoes a plain, dark fence, this conglomerate of straight lines broken by sprawling leaks of oil and other mechanical liquids on hot asphalt. Tying it all together? An American flag, striped and rippled as it waves above this commonplace but uncommonly designed tableau.
The photographer was working on an unrelated project when he made these pictures, and he hadn’t looked at the results for decades. These seemingly casually shot images came together with a harmony that surprised the artist himself, an inadvertent recording of transactions to which we usually don’t give a second thought. But as details emerge from these images—brief interactions among customers and station owners, the occasional animal wandering into the frame, the encroaching appearance of bigger and bigger chains—it’s clear that Freund’s camera captured the kind of casual historical moment that historians don’t bother to capture themselves.
There is a personal history behind Gas Stop; Freund’s father ran an Iowa gas station in the ‘40s. As the author puts it, small towns that had no grocery store or gathering place would have a gas station, which served multiple purposes, providing fuel for those simply passing through and serving as a hub for the local community. In these images, Freund documented his own itinerant stops, happening upon a modest drama on the local and national level as the mobile populace converged to refuel.
Anyone who’s driven through wide stretches of the country knows there are still quirks if you dig hard enough and drive far enough from the main road. Gas Stop is more than a catalogue of industrial variations like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s studies of water tanks; and it’s not exactly a study of humanity like August Sander’s portraits of the German people. But Freund’s project is as essential as either of those, a record of a time when design idiosyncrasy was more common, when a cross-country trip, even at its most mundane, still had the promise of aesthetic surprise around every corner.