If Los Angeles is a beating heart, Sunset Boulevard is its artery. The 22-mile road stretches from the sun-splashed Pacific Coast Highway to the skyscrapers of downtown. Drive the boulevard and you’ll pass sprawling homes with green lawns, iconic nightclubs, glass high-rises, Latinx, Armenian, and Thai neighborhoods, and enclaves filled with family-owned restaurants and nondescript apartment buildings. Its simultaneous glamor and grime have transfixed authors, filmmakers, and artists for decades. But few have documented its ebb and flow like artist Ed Ruscha.
An “Angeleno” since he moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 1956, Ruscha found inspiration in staples of L.A. life others might find banal, carving out a niche photographing and painting buildings like gas stations and apartment complexes. In 1965, he turned his camera to Sunset Boulevard.
This ever-evolving street should be “nailed down and captured,” he once said; its gleam, grit, and continuous metamorphosis is a porthole into Los Angeles’ decay (or development, depending on your view) over time. Ruscha made multiple trips across Sunset Boulevard over 50 years, meticulously taking photos of every business, house, lawn, and even parking lot he saw from his truck.
While photos from his trip down Sunset in 1966 were published in the artist’s book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, the thousands of images Ruscha and his team took over the next five decades remained mostly unseen—until now.
In 2012 the Getty Research Institute acquired Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard archive, and since then, has digitized large portions of the collection. To make these previously-unseen images accessible to the public, the team at the GRI recently launched 12 Sunsets, an interactive website that allows anyone to explore Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard archive. (The archive is also housed on Getty’s Research Collections Viewer, a website that serves as an access and discovery tool for scholars.)
12 Sunsets features a street map which you can move across using your mouse or left and right arrow keys. As you move, you’ll see Ruscha’s corresponding photos of the street above and below the map. It’s a virtual tour of Sunset Boulevard as seen through Ruscha’s watchful lens.
Since Ruscha and his team documented Sunset many times over 50 years, you can explore the archive from twelve different years: 1965, 1966, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1985, 1990, 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2007. Click on the year in the upper left corner to change it, or click Add Year to compare photos from two different years. You’ll notice that the row of photos underneath the map, oriented upside-down, corresponds to the opposite side of Sunset. Click Flip, or tap your space bar, to flip them right-side-up. Quickly zip over to another part of Sunset Blvd. by clicking on the map pin icon on the left to bring up a map overview, then clicking on the spot on Sunset you want to visit.
To organize the more than 60,000 images on the website, each has been tagged with a few words that describe it (for example, “garden,” “highway,” and “skateboarding”). Find images within a particular category by clicking Sort, then fill in the blanks with the year and tags you want to search for. You can also narrow your results by excluding certain tags.
Now that you’ve learned the “rules of the road,” head over to 12 Sunsets and start driving! Search for a favorite Sunset Boulevard business, take a drive down the street and marvel at how much Los Angeles has changed (or, in some cases, not changed!) in the last 50 years, or peruse images tagged within a category that intrigues you—might we suggest, “street art?”
To help you get started on your Sunset Boulevard journey, we’ve created a “scavenger hunt” of things to look for as you explore the famed road. See if you can find each one!
- Drive to Pacific Coast Highway, the westernmost point of Sunset Boulevard. Choose a year and experience the quintessential Los Angeles drive to PCH, the famed highway that runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean. What did drivers see as they approached PCH from Sunset?
- Now check out the easternmost point of Sunset Boulevard. Now that you’ve checked out the west side, drive east to explore Downtown Los Angeles. Hint: to travel over to the east side faster, click on the map pin icon on the left side of the map and then click on the eastern side of Sunset.
- Find a photo with an X through it. Ruscha marked photos he didn’t like with an X. Drive along Sunset and see if you can spot some X-ed out frames.
- Search for Sunset and Vine. Compare the years 1965 and 2007. How has the famed intersection grown from its quaint beginnings?
- Discover how billboards have evolved in the last 50 years. Click Sort, then show images from all years tagged with “billboard.” Notice how not only the fonts and designs have changed, but also the advertised products. Goodbye, cigarette ads…
- Compare the cars on the road. As you might expect, photographing a road means lots of images of cars made it into Ruscha’s archive. Check out what cars people were driving in 1965, 1985, and 2007. What makes and models seemed to be the most popular?
- Click Sort and then Surprise Me. You’ll be shown a random selection of images from a given year with a particular tag; for example, images from 2007 with the tag “skyline.”
- Discover which movies were playing at the time of each year’s photo shoot. Pacific Theatres’ Cinerama Dome was built in 1963 near the Sunset and Vine intersection, and first makes an appearance on 12 Sunsets in 1973. For close to 60 years the theater has been home to movie premieres and the latest blockbusters. Find the Cinerama Dome in each year and peek at the movies advertised on the marquee.
- Find an example of Art Deco design. Los Angeles is home to a melting pot of architectural styles, with Art Deco among the most iconic. The geometric patterns and streamlined style exploded in popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s, and many Art Deco buildings remained standing into the 1960s (some even still exist today, although their numbers have sadly dwindled). Can you spot an example of Art Deco style among the buildings on Sunset?
- Search for Hotel Angeleno, and compare the years 1974 and 1997. Can you figure out what’s “missing” from the 1974 photographs? (hint: check the hills!)
Discover more about Sunset Boulevard. Explore 12 Sunsets here.