File Under Nowhere: The Photo Albums of Rudy VanderLans
By Kenneth FitzGerald
This essay was first published in 2004 in the Various Types catalog.
These books, like many of the locales they picture, occupy places in between recognized and well-traveled routes. They are real places noted on maps. But they are known more as areas that you pass through - or pass by, away from development. If you want to be somewhere, you keep moving. If you decide to stop and set up shop, expect people to roll past, convinced they’re nowhere.
Rudy VanderLans’s books inhabit an interzone of publishing. They’re very real books, yet difficult to quantify easily, or shelve. To give them their due, these books must be regarded as compound entities whose ultimate subject is what books are, and can be. Though primarily photographic in nature, the books are far more than the standard collection of prints. You could call them “vanity monographs,” yet they are intensely personal; the result of a singular vision. The books reside somewhere between mass market and artists books: more eclectic and personal than the former and more accessible (and affordable) than the latter.
In varying degrees across his six productions, VanderLans’s books combine images, sound, text, typography, and layout to make their impact. He calls upon other artists for the music and some of the text; however, their contributions are usually commissioned for the project and sharply focused. From a graphic design perspective, we’re in the realm of “graphic authorship.” As denizens of that indeterminate domain, these books are model citizens. Though admittedly, it’s pretty open country.
An analogue for properly considering these volumes is albums - but phonographic, not photographic. Record albums originally served as simple, straightforward collections of individual songs. They were live performances consigned to vinyl, attempting to replicate the live experience. You gathered together enough tunes to fill out two sides, put the hit single first, then got back on the road.
It was Brian Wilson (arguably) who changed all that in 1966 with Pet Sounds. The milestone Beach Boys album was conceived as a concept album, its individual tracks outlining a rough portrait of a young man’s emotional and physical journeys. With the record, Wilson raised the stakes of what pop music records could be, including indelible melodies and stunning arrangements.
The metaphor of the record album is apt for all six books, particularly the first three. Music is a literal aspect of the Palm Desert/Cucamonga/Joshua Tree trilogy, and its motivating and defining element. It plays a lesser role in Supermarket, and is absent in VanderLans’s most recent works, Pages from an Imaginary Book and Bagdad, Californie. These latter volumes are more “bookish,” more conspicuously in the codex tradition. They are the “concept albums,” where a coherent story is announced up front, and played out across the songs.
Though simple in intent and approachable in execution, the music trilogy is the most perplexing for the typical reader (or bookstore owner) to locate. These books can be categorized with traditional photo collections, artist books, special edition music CD releases (e.g., R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-fi, with its ambiguous landscape pix by Michael Stipe), and renown author/photographer collaborations, such as James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men. The trilogy books have elements of all of these, yet swerve off to make their own trail.
The individual photographs have occasionally been separated from the book context and appraised as discrete prints. Within the context of the books, the images are by turns landscapes, snapshots, cinematic stills, and indices. They serve as part of a dynamic that has elements playing off and reinforcing one another. While the photographs can be presented on their own, they resonate more in concert with the typography and when activated by the page layouts. The visual elements are like the instrumentation within a song - with the images playing lead.
Other productions outside the graphic authorship circle can claim to engage the book as book as fully as VanderLans does. These productions range from children’s books (e.g., Eric Carle) to anything with a CD included in the package. What sets these books apart is the sophistication of the effort (often, the confluence of media and techniques in those other books fails to rise above gimmickry), and the mastery of its producer. No ingredient of VanderLans’s books is “default.” He is keenly aware of the rhetoric that even paper stock provides. This is, of course, the discernment of the designer, but made metaphorical. The maker of these books loves books.
An obvious, readily acknowledged influence on VanderLans’s work is Edward Ruscha. Ruscha’s book titles told you everything you needed to know about the contents: Some Los Angeles Apartments, Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Ruscha’s first, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1962), introduced a deadpan humor combined with respect for the mundane buildings it documented.
But the “artlessness” of Ruscha’s books was carefully composed and the blatancy guileful. His books are artifacts of their time, both as artworks and documents of an era. The sixties were marked by the artistic reaction to the dominant esthetic of the time: heroic, process-oriented, abstract expressionism. Ruscha, like his pop contemporaries, was deliberately debunking many of expressionism’s artistic claims. The subjects of his art are casually rendered banalities.
In the four decades since Twenty-six Gasoline Stations and its sequels, the “typological” photography project has become a cliché. Aspirants seem determined to blandly record every category of thing produced by humanity - a case of repeat-until-profound. As is often demonstrated, these artists neglected the historical moment that brought the books into being. Ruscha’s wit and personal connection to the subjects (they were chosen not on some esthetic rationalization but because he passed them in his travels) has also been overlooked and difficult to match.
While Ruscha’s influence is prominent, VanderLans is making his own way. Ruscha designed his books to achieve an “instruction manual” look, evincing a refined sensibility. VanderLans’s designs also employ the rhetoric of design, but to a different end. The choice of materials is intentionally evocative of publications from an earlier era, yet is not slavishly imitative. While indulgent in detail, they skirt preciousness by their consistency with the overall intent.
Our historical moment also defines these books. They would not exist without the technological developments that made bookmaking possible on this scale of detail. The “D.I.Y” impulse that is manifest across the arts - bringing forth ‘zines, independent record labels, myriad web logs and other sites, and much more - is also significant. Our society is open as never before to individuals being relevant cultural participants. In addition, there is an acceptance of personal narrative in the public literature. The memoir has supplanted fiction as the ascendant literature.
An extensive library of works concerning the Southwest and the desert already exists. VanderLans acknowledges this by including a photograph of some of these books as a frontispiece in Bagdad, Californie. As a photographer, he is haunted (in Supermarket) by numerous renowned precursors: “And when I look into the view finder all I see are Ruscha and Baltz and Baldessari and Hockney and Frank and Friedlander and Misrach and Deal and Evans and Owens and Lange and Wessel and Weston and Adams (Robert and Ansel).” Is there anything new under the burning sun?
Producing three books of homage to obscure musicians seems a thin premise. But it’s certainly no worse than photographing gas stations. However, as with any number of creative works, the subject is just a trigger, a starting point for a personal meditation. This basis for making art has existed for a long time, and has included high and low sources. To “read” the book literally is to be obtuse. A criticism of Palm Desert was that it failed to provide a well-rounded portrait of Van Dyke Parks. Such a complaint misses the point entirely.
Though these books are a testament to VanderLans’s commitment, he shows a lack of direction: he has the desire to create books but is uncertain as to what they’re about. This is demonstrated in Supermarket ("He...asked what I was photographing...I told him I’d find out as soon as the photographs were developed.”) and in Bagdad, Californie ("One of the guys wants to know what purpose it serves to make a small book about a non-place like Bagdad, and I have difficulty answering the question. I mumble something....”)
This is a long-standing, pressing existential question for the creative actor: how do I make a subject mine? VanderLans’s answer is in his manipulation of the physical and conceptual elements of the books. Rather than “popularizing” his subjects, his approach is as individual as the places and people he depicts. The books become “true” to their sources by being determinedly true to VanderLans’s distinctive imagination. And also, by his indirect presence in many of the photos: the frequent shots taken in his car’s windshield and mirrors, or in his hotel rooms.
Supermarket expands upon the music trilogy. But instead of using the musicians to frame the geographical exploration, it’s a travelogue on its own terms. Like the areas it traverses, the book is sprawling, taking us from city streets around Los Angeles then out into the desert. Images are set with text, VanderLans’s observations about the scenes.
Pages From an Imaginary Book spins an offbeat cover story to (re)contextualize its coarsely rendered, monotone landscapes. It claims to actually be a poor copy of a lavishly yet unproduced tome called Desert Rhymes - making it a Borges picture book, with “real” pictures and places. Spreads with pairs of place names ("Sunflower Wash,” “Mescal Range") are alternated with pages having a single, coarse-resolution, monochrome landscape photo. Every item, whether image or name, is assigned a “Figure” designation number. And while the book is not the lavish production desired, it’s a limited edition of 250.
Bagdad, Californie is the simplest and briefest of the books, a photographic survey of a map location with no “there there.” Monochrome images are paired with a diary-like exposition. As with the numerous signage studies in Supermarket, Bagdad seems to exhibit a particularly graphic designer regard in its photographs of “souvenirs.” Many are typographic in their form. But this interpretation may be determined by my knowledge of VanderLans’s “day-job.”
The author’s voice is a vital element, though it is often uncertain (as is some of the photography). The unassuming nature and directness of the commentaries match that of the images. Subtlety is paramount in every aspect of the books. No message or interpretation is forced into the book or onto the locations. VanderLans, in the manner of Stanley Kubrick’s film making, seems to be perpetually “Finding his book,” having meaning arise from the process, with only a few boundary stakes planted to anchor himself.
If anything, I wished at times that there was a firmer intention in the books. VanderLans’s restraint seemed to blur into passivity when confronted with the West’s expanses - and the abundant desert literature. The books became exercises in how to (re)package an assortment of essentially similar images of nothing in particular. But the criticism is likely invalid as it doesn’t consider the role of the text and design, which promotes (re)viewing from different perspectives things that may be dismissed after one look.
This may be the ultimate correlation between the geography and the books: both resist easy definition and delineation. Containing the land is futile; you can only impose arbitrary frames. The desert breaks down signposts. Its rhythms are different from those of well-trod areas. You must situate yourself, look closely for a long time, all while awed by an enormity. You have to recognize that you’re not nowhere, give up searching for something that isn’t there, and surrender to what is.
Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers, essays by Marc Freidus (curator), James Lingwood, and Rod Slemmons, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Rizzoli, 1991.
Visions of America: Landscape as Metaphor in the Late Twentieth Century, Denver Art Museum and Columbus Art Museum, Harry N. Abrams, 1994.
More writing on the photography of Rudy VanderLans can be found here: