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Photobooks: The Contemporary Democratic Multiple

This paper and digital project were completed to fulfill partial requirements for the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information graduate class 17:610:586: The History of Books, Documents, and Records in Print and Electronic Environments


Updated April 25, 2018 by Lauren Bell


You can download a PDF version of this paper here:


            Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations is considered to be the first artists’ book and is categorized as a “democratic multiple”. This paper aims to prove that despite book scholars’ conclusions that the democratic multiple no longer exists, that it survives today as what we consider to be the “photobook”. The fluidity of artists’ books, democratic multiples, and photobooks is discussed. Twentysix Gasoline Stations is analyzed in terms of Robert Darnton’s communications circuit, scholarly research is examined to place Ruscha’s work in context, and a survey conducted by the author is analyzed to prove that photobooks are more well-known as a book format than artists’ books and democratic multiples.


Abbreviated Timeline

1937: Ed Ruscha is born

1963Twentysix Gasoline Stations, first edition

1967Twentysix Gasoline Stations, second edition

1969Twentysix Gasoline Stations, third edition

1977: Lucy Lippard quote regarding democratic multiples

1995/2004: Johanna Drucker publishes The Century of Artists' Books

2013: Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin receives archival collection of Ed Ruscha

"One day I’d like to see artists’ books ensconced in supermarkets, drugstores and airports and, not incidentally, to see artists able to profit economically from broad communication rather than from lack of it."

--Lucy Lippard, 1977

Abbreviated Timeline

[1] Ruscha is pronounced “Roo-SHAY” not “Russia” as noted in Andrew M. Goldstein’s Artspace article.

[2] American Surfaces and the Photobook, curated by Philip Parente, MoMA Library Collections Coordinator

[5] Magnum Photos is an international cooperative of documentary and fine art photographers whose main goal is described on their website by notable founding member, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.”

[7] From Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.

[9] As part of Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books in the chapter titled Books by Artists and Books as Art.

[12] This ad and original letter has been digitized by the University of Texas’ Ransom Center as part of their archive of Ruscha’s work.

[15] This quote first appeared in Henri Man Barendse Ed Ruscha: An Interview.

[16] The prices in this paper for Twentysix Gasoline Stations were gathered from on April 14, 2018.

Photobooks: The Contemporary Democratic Multiple

          Since the onset of artistic expression, artists have dabbled with displaying their work in the book or codex format. However, the first artists’ book, as classified by book scholars such as Clive Phillpot and Johanna Drucker, was created in the 1960s. The book referred to is Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha. [1] This work is composed of twenty-six black and white photographs of gasoline stations and includes very little textual information on each page. Twentysix Gasoline Stations will serve as a case study throughout this paper. Sections of this paper include: Theoretical Focus and Rationale for the Study, Historical Context, Methods of Data Collection, Analysis and Discussion, and Summary. Appendices are included at the conclusion of the report which includes various photographs, tables, and figures.

          Photobooks: The Contemporary Democratic Multiple attempts to enhance the conversation around the photobook and prove how those books classified as photobooks can be considered a modern or contemporary reincarnation of the democratic multiple artists’ book. With my research, I try to prove this classification and highlight the fluidity that exists among artists’ books, photobooks, and democratic multiples. Throughout this paper, I will analyze a small study I conducted related to the book as artform, highlight scholarly research based on existing conversations, and analyze a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) [2]. Historic literature is analyzed and discussed including works by Johanna Drucker, Lucy Lippard, Martin Parr, Ian Walker, Clive Philpot, and more, to place the conclusions within historic context. These different methods of research will aid in analysis of the classifications given to Twentysix Gasoline Stations by various institutions and individuals, helping to prove that photobooks can be considered the “new” democratic multiple based on the photographic format utilized by Ruscha in the 1960s.

Theoretical Focus and Rationale for the Study

          Previous scholarly research and conclusions have been drawn regarding the status of Twentysix Gasoline Stations as a democratic multiple, photobook, and artists’ book. The goal of this paper is to compile many of those studies and works into one document so that an analysis and conclusion can be made regarding the work’s status in the present context, as well as the status of other photobooks and artists’ books which are considered democratic multiples.

          A list of resources consulted can be found in the paragraphs below, along with the Bibliography found at the conclusion of this paper. Many of the sources consulted for this study included those of notable scholars in the artists’ book field including Johanna Drucker, Lucy Lippard, and Clive Phillpot. It also draws on the information gathered by experts of the photobook including Martin Parr and Stephen Shore. The Museum of Modern Art was consulted due to its recent exhibitions regarding the photobook and photographer Stephen Shore.

          The goal of this paper is to prove that the democratic multiple still endures, rather in the categorization as photobook due to the plethora of technological advances that exist today to print cheap books with photomechanical reproduction techniques. Many articles were consulted to understand the fluidity among the categorization of artists’ books and photobooks. Those which proved most useful include Lucy Lippard’s Artist’s Book Goes Public (1977), Mary Tasillo’s Context is King (2009), Tony White’s From Democratic Multiple to Artist Publishing: The (R)evolutionary Artist’s Book (2012), Johanna Drucker’s The Myth of the Artist’s Book as a Democratic Multiple (1997), and Clive Phillpot’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations that Shook the World: The Rise and Fall of Cheap Booklets as Art (1993). Other articles consulted include Douglas Crimp’s The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (1989), Brandon Graham’s Shifting Artist Book Distribution Models (2010), and Kevin Hatch’s Something Else: Ed Ruscha’s Photographic Books (2005).

          Due to the abundance of information that exists for a seminal artist such as Ed Ruscha, it was important to focus only on his bookwork Twentysix Gasoline Stations rather than his other artworks or artists’ books. Many of these articles categorize Ruscha’s work as an artists’ book or democratic multiple, while few consider it to be a photobook.

          Another goal of this study is to analyze Twentysix Gasoline Stations in terms of Robert Darnton’s communication circuit. Ed Ruscha was vocal about his use of the book to garner a larger audience to interact with his work outside the gallery setting, debunking the myth of artists’ book functioning as livre d’artiste or as what can typically be considered “art”. [3] Ruscha has been quoted in many of the works that I analyzed, as well as much of the information became repetitive as I expanded my search for resources. I hope that this paper will enhance the study of Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations by presenting a succinct account of how the work proves democratic multiples are still in existence today as photobooks.

Methods of Data Collection

          I first became aware of the term “democratic multiple” while reading Johanna Drucker’s book The Century of Artists Books. Chapter 4 of this book discusses democratic multiples as a categorization for artists’ books, the technology typically used to print these types of cheap books, and examples of works that can be considered democratic multiples. Drucker mentions the scholarship of Clive Phillpot when she talks about Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations being the first book created by an artist to be considered an artists’ book, but is further classified as a democratic multiple because the first printing of this book had 400 copies and used photomechanical reproductive processes. I decided at this moment that the focus of this paper would be on democratic multiples and placing it in the context of Lucy Lippard’s notable quote [4], “One day I’d like to see artists’ books ensconced in supermarkets, drugstores and airports and, not incidentally, to see artists able to profit economically from broad communication rather than from lack of it” (6541). In further focusing my research, I decided to use Twentysix Gasoline Stations as a case study that the democratic multiple existed in contemporary times as what many people know as the “photobook.” This conclusion is evident based on the documentary style photographs that are included by Ruscha in his seminal bookwork, as well as the photographic sources which conclude similar findings.

          After defining the type of artists’ book I was focusing on, as well as a case study, I researched articles to find anything related to “democratic multiples” and Twentysix Gasoline Stations using the online Rutgers University Library database. This search resulted with seven articles, many which needed to be requested and digitized by librarians for use with Rutgers Interlibrary Loan and Article Delivery Services.

          Once I consulted the articles, I did a general internet search for anything related to democratic multiples or Twentysix Gasoline Stations.  While conducting this general search, it was necessary to search multiple times using different formats for the number “twentysix” including: 26, twenty-six, and twenty six. Though the cover of Ruscha’s book clearly spells the number as one word, not each source which includes information written about this book follows the written or numeric format. This difference is evident in how Drucker writes out the term in her work as “twenty-six”.

          Through this internet search I discovered that the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center received the archive of Ed Ruscha in 2013. This material is different from Ruscha’s graphic archival material that was acquired by the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 2001. The Ransom Center Magazine hosts an online blog where they posted three articles related to the Ed Ruscha archive with specific information related to Twentysix Gasoline Stations. One of these blog posts included a digital image surrogate of an article promoting Twentysix Gasoline Stations and stating that it was published by Wittenborn & Company of New York. Knowing that the Museum of Modern Art holds the George Wittenborn, Inc. papers, I made an appointment to see the information that sounded relevant in accordance to the finding aid. The information held in their archive was not helpful or specific to the topic I was searching as I anticipate the material in Texas would be. One shortcoming of this paper is that I could not physically visit or see the material in Texas aside from what was highlighted on the Ransom Center Magazine’s blog.  

          When I concluded that the archival information I was searching for was located in Texas, I expanded my research to other books which may have included information related to Ruscha and photobooks. A general book search lead me to find three notable books which included information about Twentysix Gasoline Stations. The most illuminating was Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson, and Shamoon Zamir’s book of essays titled The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond. An essay in the book by Ian Walker was most helpful in placing Twentysix Gasoline Stations in the realm of not just democratic multiple, but photobook. Other books which supported the idea of democratic multiples as photobooks were found in The Photobook: A History by the notable Magnum Photos [5] photographer Martin Parr and Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books by Clive Phillpot and Cornelia Lauf. It should be noted, ironically, that a bulk of my findings in Parr’s book were found in a chapter titled Appropriating Photography: The Artist’s Photobook.

          Book research was further enhanced by finding two other works which included information regarding the artists’ book as democratic multiple. These included No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980 by Betty Bright and Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook edited by Joan Lyons. Bright’s work included specific mention of Twentysix Gasoline Stations, while Lyons’ work included two seminal works by Lucy Lippard and Clive Phillpot.

          In order to enhance my idea that the democratic multiple style of artists’ book can be considered the contemporary photobook, I conducted a small, voluntary survey from March 24-April 21, 2018 to see how people would respond to questions related to this area of study. The full survey can be found in Appendix A of this paper. The questions prompted respondents to define the terms democratic multiple, artists’ book, livre d’artiste, and photobook. Respondents also gauged their knowledge of various scholars and artists in the field including Johanna Drucker, Lucy Lippard, Ed Ruscha, and George Wittenborn. The results of this survey can be found in Appendix A.

          The survey can present bias as I posted it to my personal social media pages in order to garner responses. The social media outlets included Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Many people who interact with my LinkedIn account and Instagram account include professional coworkers who work in the arts and library fields. On the opposite spectrum, my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts include acquaintances who may not have any prior knowledge of this specific area of study. One respondent commented that they felt like a loser on a Jeopardy! episode. On the contrary, someone commented that based on the individual scholars and artists mentioned in the survey questions, it was “an amazing look into publishing and dissemination of art and print production.”

          Finally, as an intern at the Museum of Modern Art in the archives department at the time this paper was written, I had the ability to visit the museum frequently. At the time of my internship there were two exhibits occurring in the museum and education buildings which enhanced my understanding of photobooks and helped me to conclude that there is fluidity among the terms “artists’ book,” “democratic multiple,” and “photobook”. These two exhibits were titled Stephen Shore and American Surfaces and the Photobook which was a supporting exhibition to the main Stephen Shore retrospective. The Stephen Shore exhibition included the photographer’s own photobooks which he created using print-on-demand technology, while the photobook exhibition included many of Shore’s other photobooks, along with supporting works such as Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Photos of American Surfaces and the Photobook can be seen in Appendix B. Photographs of inner content of the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations are not included in this paper as the work is still under copyright.

Historical Context

          It is important to both identify Ed Ruscha as a working artist as well as identify the genre of democratic multiple within artists’ books. Ed Ruscha is a visual and book artist who dabbles in printmaking, photography, painting, and filmmaking. Ruscha was born in in Nebraska in 1937 and was heavily influenced by the Pop-era artists of the time. In Bello, Wilson, and Zamir’s book The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond[6] Ian Walker identifies artists who highly influenced Ruscha as being Pop artist Andy Warhol, Conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, photographers Walker Evans and Robert Frank, along with other pop and conceptual artists.

          This work also notes an important essay written by artist Sol LeWitt [7] in 1967 which identifies conceptual art as a practice: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art” (2012, p. 114-5). Ruscha is quoted in multiple sources as saying that the title and idea for Twentysix Gasoline Stations came to him prior than taking the photos or devising the book.

          The photographer Martin Parr wrote a book in association with Gerry Badger which discusses the history of the photobook. In volume II, Parr discusses how Ruscha was considered a Pop artist, but that categorization was always “dubious, telling only part of the story, and the artist’s books also gave critics some difficulty” (2006, p. 133).  Parr also notes that Ruscha had a “throwaway approach” which did not appeal to the “art photography clique” due to his treatment of photography as an artform, not a documentary or technical tool. Either way, Ruscha can be included in a group of vernacular photographers known as the “New Topographics”. The work of the New Topographics was a photographic movement which focused on banal subjects and documented everyday life.  

          Ruscha used his books as “anti-art” as described by Lucy Lippard in her seminal essay The Artist’s Book Goes Public [8]: “The new artists’ books, however, have disavowed surrealism’s lyrical and romantic heritage and have been deadpan, anti-literary, often almost anti-art. Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) … initiated the ‘cool’ approach that dominated the whole conception of artists’ books for years” (1977, p. 46). Johanna Drucker, another book scholar stated in her work The Century of Artists Books, that due to the cheapness of Ruscha’s bookwork—$3 at the time of the first printing—he was able to circulate his work to a far greater audience. Drucker places this concept within the idea of the Fluxus artists of the 1950s and 1960s “which allowed art pieces to be staged anywhere, anytime, and by anyone” (2012, p. 77).

          Drucker classifies and explains Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations in her chapter on democratic multiples. The chapter starts out by saying that “it would be a mistake to ascribe a deterministic role to technological changes… But it is still essential to take into account the greater availability of inexpensive modes of reproduction … in the United States and Europe in the period following World War II” (2012, p. 69). Due to the abundance and variety of photomechanical reproduction and printing tools, the democratic multiple was able to reach a larger audience and rid the artists’ book of its typical precious and expensive ideal.

Analysis and Discussion

          In order to start the discussion of democratic multiples and analyze the resources found for this paper, it is important to note that the democratic multiple was a direct response to the precious artists’ book known as the “livre d’artiste”. Clive Phillpot’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations that Shook the World defines exactly what is meant by livre d’artiste within the artists’ book genre:

Until about 1970 the term ‘artists’ books’ was used as a synonym for, or a translation of, the phrase ‘livres d’artiste’, or more precisely, ‘livres de luxe’, luxury editions. It was frequently understood to mean books containing pre-existing literary texts that had been illustrated or embellished by artists. These expensive books were published in signed and numbered, limited editions. The first time the term ‘artists’ books’ was used to include, modest, cheap, unlimited, booklets conceived by artists, was probably the occasion of the exhibition Artists Books, at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia in 1973. (1993, p. 4)

          It is evident that Ruscha’s work Twentysix Gasoline Stations fit the concept of democratic multiple long before the concept of livre d’artiste was debunked. Ruscha’s work was published in 1963 and was considered to be the “paradigm” for cheap and accessible bookworks as art. Phillpot points out that Ruscha had not solidified his stance on livre d’artiste works prior to publishing the first edition of Twentysix Gasoline Stations: “Ed Ruscha numbered each of the 400 copies of the first printing! Here was the last hangover of the tradition of the luxury edition” (1993, p. 7). Phillpot goes on to state that Ruscha knew he made a mistake by 1965 and signed few of his bookworks after that one instance.

          In a later work by Phillpot [9], the author continues this assessment of Ruscha’s bookworks functioning as democratic multiples due to their open-edition, however “cheapness and numbers do not necessarily guarantee public access or public interest” (1998, p. 37). This thought is further compounded by Mary Tasillo’s article Context is King from 2009. Tasillo emphasizes that just because an artist produces a cheap and accessible book that is available in an open edition, it may not be of interest to the reader. Tasillo continues: “… if the content is impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t like conceptual art games or Dada narratives, then you’ve killed whatever democracy you’ve built into the project” (p. 28). As mentioned previously, the idea of the democratic multiple was to get artists’ books produced cheaply so that they could be available to a wider audience. In a 1997 article, Johanna Drucker states that “26 Gasoline Stations … would never leap to the eye and hand of the casual shopper with the same easy rapidity as the National Enquirer” (1997, p. 11). This idea of the democratic multiple may underestimate the education and interest of the general public outside of the museum and gallery setting, but it also discounts those who may be interested in democratic multiples due to the process of their creation, such as the use of photographs, reproduction techniques, and inherent cheapness which makes them distinct from other types of artists’ books, artworks, or bookworks.

          The hierarchical classification of a book, particularly an artists’ book, can be quite murky. Jacqueline Muñoz brings to light this difficult categorization in a blog post on the University of Texas’ Ransom Center’s website by quoting Johanna Drucker stating that a distinction of an artists’ book includes: “books made as direct expressions of an artist’s point of view, with the artist involved in the conception, production, and execution of the work.” Furthermore, one would need to define their own acceptance and rationale for classifying an artists’ book. Is “artists’ book” an overall category with more specific classifications such as “democratic multiple,” then “photobook” being the final, micro categorization? Or is “photobook” considered the macro category and the item further classified as an “artists’ book”? Is a photobook even an “artists’ book”? These are all thoughts that one needs to think about when classifying in the realm of artists’ books as defined by publication process [10].

          Martin Parr has been a vocal critic of classifying books as artists’ books, rather than photobooks. In Parr and Badger’s The Photobook: A History Volume 2, Parr includes an essay in which he describes democratic multiples, specifically referring to them as photobooks: “These small, cheaply produced, roughly printed books, promising exactly what they say on the cover … contain the driest, most calculatedly sophisticated photography. They deliver (like all the best photobooks) a complex polemic on the nature of the medium and its dissemination, using the most economical and minimal of means, and have been immensely influential” (2006, p. 132-3). Parr’s classification, written plainly in this book about photobooks defines a moment in which we can definitively classify Twentysix Gasoline Stations as a photobook, without the allusion that it is also an artists’ book.

          This brings us back to the root of this study in which we are trying to prove that the democratic multiple still exists today in the form of the photobook. At its core, we have ascertained that a democratic multiple is a type of artists’ book which is produced cheaply and made available widely, whether or not the public has the ability to consume the product at this digestible level. Twentysix Gasoline Stations, considered to be the first artists’ book, also classified as a democratic multiple by Drucker, is our link to proving that the democratic multiple exists contemporarily due to how we define the photobook by process, access, and format.

       In her book, No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980, Betty Bright makes note of the ways in which photography was used in the book format:


At the beginning of the 1970s, the photobookwork in the United States was dominated by a restrained Conceptual agenda that used photography in two ways: to document an ephemeral event, or, in the books of Ed Ruscha, to refuse any fine art appeal. Following in the wake of Ruscha and others, Conceptual photobookworks quietly multiplied into an undeniable presence, confirmed by the exhibition Artists and Photographs, at the Multiples Gallery in 1969. (2005, p. 212)

          It is important to focus on Bright’s mention of photography used to “refuse any fine art

appeal”. At the time that Ruscha had published Twentysix Gasoline Stations, photography was shifting to be a fine art medium, while also remaining documentary and illuminating the work of photographers during the Photo-Secession [11] movement promoted by Alfred Stieglitz. Martin Parr touches on this again in his 2006 work:


…it should be noted from the outset that this seminal work, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, published in 1963, was a photobook. This point is most relevant when considering the artist’s book, for in a recent essay on the subject Anne Thurman-Jajes estimated that half of all artist’s books published are photobooks. This makes the artist’s book—not just in terms of volume, but also of ambition and achievement—a crucial photobook genre, and indicative of the large and extremely varied field… (2006, p. 132)

          Considering the contemporary classification of the democratic multiple as a photobook, we can look at the recent exhibition mounted at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in conjunction with the retrospective Stephen Shore. In the education building of MoMA, Philip Parente, Library Collections Coordinator, has mounted an exhibition titled American Surfaces and the Photobook to support the photographic works of Stephen Shore. This photobook exhibit included many of Stephen Shore’s own photobook publications, but was enhanced by other historical examples such as Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Please see Appendix B for photographs of this exhibition. This exhibition is a prime example displaying how many people view works which could be considered democratic multiples as photobooks.

          In conjunction with this paper I conducted a study in which I gauged the knowledge of an anonymous group of voluntary respondents. It is very obvious when looking at the results that many people know what photobooks are and equate them to what we would classically consider the democratic multiple. Similarly, people did not know what a democratic multiple was. One respondent of the twenty-eight total respondents defined democratic multiples as “previously a handmade or small run press publication/book made by an artist. Superseded now by on-demand digital printing”. Though I will not discuss on-demand digital printing, this can be an easy way for artists and photographers to self-publish their work in the present day, thus making it cheap and accessible by removing the need for a publisher or printer. Only one person did not respond to the required question “How would you define the term ‘photobook’?” while sixteen respondents abstained when asked how they would define a democratic multiple. We can conclude, from this short analysis of the study, that many people today are more familiar with the photobook, even in a historical context, than they are with the term “democratic multiple,” though we can consider the photobook as a contemporary rendering of the democratic multiple.

          When discussing book history, it is important to discuss works in terms of Robert Darnton’s communications circuit. A graphic depiction of the circuit can be found in Appendix C. It is obvious that many of the characteristics seen in the example of Twentysix Gasoline Stations rely on the center functions of Darnton’s communications circuit. These central functions include: intellectual influences and publicity, economic and social conjuncture, and political and legal sanctions. Given the disparity among potential readers of photobooks or democratic multiples, intellectual influences are the most important factor in the acceptance of Twentysix Gasoline Stations as a successful democratic multiple or photobook. It is clear that Ruscha published his work using the typical model relayed in Darnton’s communications circuit given that the time period was the 1960s and that his work is made up of photo-mechanically reproduced photographs. However, it is important to note that there was pushback from libraries. According to an ad [12] for Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the Library of Congress rejected the copy that was sent to them for inception into their collection stating that the book had an “unorthodox form and supposed lack of information”. This rejection from a national repository for various types of books further places a divide between artistic expression and libraries.

          An example of the divide between artistic expression in the book format has been highlighted by Ruscha and can be seen by the classifications given to the work by museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art [13] has an object record that can be viewed for the work Twentysix Gasoline Stations which places the book in the general museum collections rather than the library collection, as is also the case with the Museum of Modern Art [14]. In Bright’s book, No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980, the author quotes Ruscha which illuminates this discrepancy further:


Every year I have at least two shows of my books in galleries and they put [the books] on the walls, because that’s what they want. Though it’s ok by me, it’s not the same thing. They’re easy to see, easy to accept because of the context they’re in—you know what to think, everything’s spelled out for you. It’s been on a gallery wall so it must be art. The way they’re supposed to be seen, of course, is when someone hands someone else just one book at a time and place where they don’t expect it. (2005, p. 120) [15]

          This disparity is unfortunate since many artists chose the book format to escape the utilitarian format of their artwork hanging on a wall, rather letting it be consumed individually by the viewer on their own time. This thought process presented contemporarily by Ruscha is exactly what was meant in terms of the democratic multiple as stated by Lucy Lippard in 1977.


          In this paper, I discussed the democratic multiple, compared it to livre d’artiste and artists’ books, and tried to conclude that the photobook format can be considered the contemporary version of the democratic multiple. Through a study I conducted, voluntary respondents tried their best to define various terms related to this paper so that I could gauge the knowledge of the general public in this very specific area of study. After consulting many published studies, books, and articles related to Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha, I found that there is fluidity among the terms “artists’ book,” “democratic multiple,” and “photobook”. Book scholars classify Ruscha’s work as an artists’ book and occasionally as a democratic multiple, while photographers and photography scholars classify the work as a photobook. There is further division between bookworks such as Ruscha’s which exists between the museum and library communities.

          There are many limitations to his paper which should be noted. I started out with a very expansive goal of trying to prove that the democratic multiple exists as the photobook in contemporary times. I attempted doing this while looking at a very popular and widely known example, Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations. There is a lot of scholarship regarding Ed Ruscha, especially Twentysix Gasoline Stations, which I hadn’t fully realized at the start of writing this paper. I fear that my paper is just another compilation of the widely-circulated interviews, books, and articles which exist and already support Ruscha’s work.

          Another limitation which was previously mentioned briefly is the price of Twentysix Gasoline Stations. When it was first published, the first printing cost $3. The book has since acquired cult-like status due to its limited printings and prestige as an art object rather than a photobook or democratic multiple. Though it is considered an open edition, there is a finite number of books in existence as Ruscha has not begun a fourth printing of the work. Currently, Twentysix Gasoline Stations is available to collectors on with the lowest price [16] for a Third Edition copy being $750 US Dollars plus $5 shipping. This highest price on the site for this work is $20,000 for a First Edition printing that is number 141 of 400 printed copies. This copy includes free shipping.

          Ruscha was quoted in Ian Walker’s essay by saying he wanted to “get the price down, so everyone can afford one. I want to be the Henry Ford of book making” (2012, p. 125) [17]. While this thought directly supports the definition of democratic multiples, Walker states the irony of this case study by concluding that Twentysix Gasoline Stations is just as valuable as livre d’artiste works now. I didn’t fully realize how the case study of Ed Ruscha would nearly disprove my goal of classifying the photobook as a contemporary democratic multiple.

          In the future, it would be necessary to analyze print-on-demand technology and the circulation of zines. Other areas of focus could include the Printed Matter Art Book Fair which presents a venue for artists to sell their bookworks directly to the consumer. According to their website [18], Printed Matter states that the focus of the Art Book Fair, held in New York and Los Angeles annually, is to provide “an important platform for artists and publishers to connect with audiences and circulate their work in a dynamic environment”. This could prove to be an even better example of the democratic multiple in existence today rather than Twentysix Gasoline Stations.


[3] Phillpot, C. (1993). Twentysix gasoline stations that shook the world: The rise and fall of cheap booklets as art. Art Libraries Journal,18(1), 4-13.

[4] Lippard, L. R. (1977). Artist's book goes public. Art In America, 6540-41.

[6] The essay in this book was written by Ian Walker, pages 111-128.

[8] As quoted from Lyons’ edited work Artists Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook.

[10] By “publication process” I mean determining if the work includes any unique or monographic work within the book. Are all the images and text reproduced photo-mechanically? Does the author sign and number their books in an edition or are they all identical to one another?

[11] Alfred Stieglitz coined the term “photo-secession” in 1902 in order to make the work of American fine art photographers relevant to similar movements of the time in Europe. The style of many photo-secessionists is called “pictorialism” which gives a paint and pastel feel within the photographic medium. 

[13] Met Museum accession number: 1970.90.6

[14] MoMA accession number: 706.2011

[17] Bello, P. D., Wilson, C., & Zamir, S. (Eds.). (2012). The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and beyond. NY: I.B. Tauris & Company, Limited.


Theoretical focus and rationale
Methods of data collectin
Historical context
Analysis and discussion


Twentysix Gasoline Stations is still under copyright since it was published in 1963. Typically works are available via public domain 70 years after the death of their creator. Ruscha is 80 years old and still living.

Appendix A: Survey Questions and Responses

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Appendix A

Appendix B: Photographs of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition American Surfaces and the Photobook

This photo gallery is interactive. Please click on an image to see its title and description.

Appendix B

Appendix C: Robert Darnton's Communications Circuit

Appendix C
Robert Darnton's Communications Circuit
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