Book Review Mark Ruwedel Photographs by Mark Ruwedel Reviewed by Allie Haeusslein As the winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award — a prestigious honor celebrating achievement in contemporary Canadian photography — Mark Ruwedel received a $50,000 cash prize, an exhibition at the Ryerson Image Center in Toronto and a publication produced by Steidl.
Reviewed by Allie Haeusslein
Photographs by Mark Ruwedel. Text by Grant Arnold. Contribution by Gaëlle Morel and Paul Roth.
Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2015. 228 pp., 12x10".
As the winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award — a prestigious honor celebrating achievement in contemporary Canadian photography* — Mark Ruwedel received a $50,000 cash prize, an exhibition at the Ryerson Image Center in Toronto and a publication produced by Steidl. The first book to assess the photographer’s entire career, Mark Ruwedel includes sixteen bodies of work and a section dedicated to selected bookworks, spanning the 1980s through 2010s. Steidl beautifully translates the lush tonality and tactile quality of his black-and-white (and occasional color) photographs to the printed page, employing a straightforward layout that echoes the work’s minimal aesthetic. Presented individually and in chronological order, Ruwedel’s projects become more resonant when viewed within the context of his vast and tightly coherent oeuvre, marked by consistent formal, aesthetic and conceptual interests.
Ruwedel primarily focuses on the American West and Canada, examining these areas with a stripped-down, deadpan clarity that references the approach of New Topographics photographers such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. For over thirty years, he has reflected on the intersection of place and human beings, producing images of this omnipresent interaction — manifested in forms both conspicuous and imperceptible. He explains, “I just don’t see [nature] as being understandable outside its relationship to the human, and I also don’t see the idea of ‘pure nature’ as being a viable subject at this point.”** This perspective distinguishes him from contemporaries considering similar subject matter, such as Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach. Ruwedel is discreetly political, motivated by the need to highlight the profound impact of technology, human activity and natural forces on the land and the way history is inscribed in the contemporary landscape.
Westward the Course of Empire (1994–2006) — one of Ruwedel’s most emblematic and ambitious projects — surveys sites where railway lines were constructed during the nineteenth and twentieth century in the American and Canadian West; these monumental feats of engineering were, however, ultimately abandoned with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Now, tunnels, trestle bridges and other structures exist in varied stages of deterioration. Deep cuts are carved from mountain ranges for paths to nowhere that fade around bends or into the distance. Though these industrial vestiges are easily identifiable in the landscape, they appear dwarfed by their surroundings, controlled by the natural world rather than vice versa. Nevertheless, narratives of expansionism, exploitation, Manifest Destiny, industrialization, and technology are woven through these fractured terrains, even as the surrounding environment slowly begins to engulf these artifacts.
Ruwedel has also investigated desert houses and shelters — often abandoned and vandalized — which take on a more contemporary tenor and relevance. Recalling the work of Hilla and Bernd Becher, his photographs of these dwellings are a taxonomy of haunting relics, a stark contrast to the idyllic notion of home. Situated in isolated, barren landscapes, these structures eerily hover between timelessness and ephemerality, construction and deterioration, presence and absence, eliciting more questions through their ambiguity than the photographs can answer.
At times, the human impact documented is more firmly rooted in the context of the sites depicted than in the imaged subject matter. In Pictures of Hell (1995–present), Ruwedel visits places where the word “hell,” “devil” or some variation thereof appears in the names given to these sites by Euro-American explorers in the nineteenth century — Devil’s Lookout, Arroyo Seco del Diablo, Hell’s Canyon Creek. While some terrain may seem a bit more treacherous than average, the landscapes themselves often belie their nefarious names. Ruwedel highlights the power of naming as a means of not only controlling land, but people and their perceptions as well.
Together, the works surveyed in Mark Ruwedel advance the possibility of a balance between the natural world and the inevitability of the manmade. Whether we like it or not, landscape’s history is inextricably linked to human progress. By approaching this subject from an alternative perspective, he creates photographs that engage and challenge us to freshly see our environment and impact — past, present and future. —ALLIE HAEUSSLEIN
* I struggled to understand how Long Beach based and American-born Mark Ruwedel received an award for excellence in Canadian photography. He is a Canadian citizen by marriage.
** Mark Ruwedel, “Mark Ruwedel in conversation with Paul Roth and Dr. Gaëlle Morel.” In Mark Ruwedel. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2015.
ALLIE HAEUSSLEIN is the Associate Director at Pier 24 Photography, an exhibition space dedicated to the presentation of photography. Her writing has appeared in publications including American Suburb X, Art Practical, and DailyServing.
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