‘Where you go to fill up your tank and shut off your brain’: America as seen at the Pump

Like many photographers, David Freund was attracted to photography at a young age. As a boy in Iowa during the 1940s, he would take his Brownie camera and hunt for images. But as the child of a man who operated a  Sinclair oil station in Ottumwa, Iowa, Freund would soon realize he didn’t have to look far for his first subject.

Nowadays, some 70 years later, Freund estimates he has photographed thousands, if not tens of thousands, of gas stations across America.

“Nobody goes to a gas station to take photos,” he says. “That’s where you go to fill up your tank and shut off your brain.”

Freund’s new Tritone entitled “Gas Stop” released by Steidl this year showcases more than 500 of these gas stations in 47 states from 1978 to 1981. The project consists of four volumes — divided regionally — each featuring around 150 images, while at the end of each volume — Freund prefers the images be digested first — includes an analysis  of the American zeitgeist as seen at the pump.

Freund writes, “Gas Stop depicts, perhaps contrives, a largely sympathetic view of the gas station as ubiquitous, accepting place. Its larger ambition, however, is a visual aggregation of themes which add up to a layered interconnected view of America, as seen at the American commons.”

While this subject fascinates Freund, he is astutely aware he is asking a lot of an audience to browse through hundreds of photos of gas stations.  As he writes: “The narrative Gas Stop proposes is modeled less on stories than on the common experience of how unfamiliar territory takes shape in our minds. With time and repetition, initial feelings of lostness transform into comprehension, even belonging, as the foreign evolves into known space.”

“What I want people to do is sit back and take a glass of wine and go through each volume spending 15 seconds per image — the length of movie — so the whole thing comes to about 2 and half hours,” he told In Sight. This, he feels, will give the reader a full and deep understanding of not only America’s relationship to filling stations, but of the reader’s own understanding.

Or as he says: “Everybody’s got a gas station story.”

More on In Sight:

‘I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy.’ The photographs of Henryk Ross.

These photos show what the U.S.-Mexican border looked like about 80 years ago

‘Everybody was a dandy then.’ These portraits of celebrities in 1920s Paris launched Berenice Abbott’s career.

Looking back at American dog shows in the early 1900s