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Rivers Run Through It: Reviewed by Brian Arnold

Book Review Rivers Run Through It Photographs by Mark Ruwedel Reviewed by Brian Arnold "I first encountered Mark Ruwedel’s work 10-15 years ago at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York. It was an exhibition of Westward the Course of Empire. The show was remarkable..."

Rivers Run Through It. By Mark Ruwedel.
Rivers Run Through It
Photographs by Mark Ruwedel
MACK, London, England, 2023. 136 pp., 12x9½".

I first encountered Mark Ruwedel’s work 10-15 years ago at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York. It was an exhibition of Westward the Course of Empire. The show was remarkable. It was a marathon day spent visiting galleries in Chelsea with a group of students. Ruwedel’s small, exquisitely crafted black-and-white Western landscapes seemed so much more heartfelt and innovative than the flashy color work we’d seen previously. Ruwedel’s technique was mesmerizing (I can think of few black-and-white photographers of that caliber, but Andrea Modica and Mark Steinmetz come to mind). The images were deceptively simple, and somehow managed to be reminiscent of both Carlton Watkins and Bernd and Hilla Becher, exemplifying a deep understanding of the Western landscape.

Perhaps surprisingly, after this first experience with Ruwedel’s work I’ve had little engagement with it since. Certainly, I’ve known about his prolific output of photobooks, but I never really sat down with one until getting a copy of his newest book with MACK, Rivers Run Through It, a collection of photographs made along the Los Angeles River, the first in a series of four called Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.

I think of particular locales as photographic genres in and of themselves, like New York City street photography and Los Angeles landscapes. There are so many photobooks about Los Angeles and its environs — Los Angeles Spring by Robert Adams, ZZYZX by Gregory Halpern, and Ecology of Dreams by Ewan Telford all come to mind, as well as works by Catherine Opie, Lewis Baltz, and Anthony Hernandez. Los Angeles, the city of dreams, represents some of the most complex issues and histories that define America. It epitomizes Manifest Destiny and colonial expansion; as the second largest American city, despite such few resources for water, it represents American ingenuity; and as home to Hollywood, it embodies lush dreams of fame and fortune.

Rivers Run Through It
is photographed in a style reminiscent of the New Topographics, scrutinizing the margins of Los Angeles and highlighting the environmental issues (water and waste) that define the city. Ruwedel has spent decades documenting the landscapes in and around the city. The pictures in this book focus on the Los Angeles River Basin, looking at mud-caked wastelands, trickles, streams, and the river flowing in and out of the city. The complex issues of water in Los Angeles and, more generally, the American West, are common knowledge, but Ruwedel finds interesting ways to document the landscapes defined by this precious resource. His photographs are beautifully visualized — really photographer’s photography, using a simple but incredibly refined approach to the medium — and traverse a vast array of landscapes around the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. Ruwedel both embraces tropes of the American West — seen with the horseback riders in cowboy hats along the riverbeds also romantic pictures of a heron nesting along the banks — and the incredible corruption and pollution that are consuming these landscapes.

Anyone interested in the American West, New Topographics, or classic, well-executed black-and-white photography will find a lot to love in Rivers Run Through It, but I will confess that I wasn’t quite as mesmerized as I’d been by my earlier experiences with Ruwedel’s work (this feels like a genre work, nothing groundbreaking in how he pictures the landscape). Early in the book, there is a lovely picture that for me clearly defines Rivers Run Through It. In the background we see the mountains that surround Los Angeles, hazy and majestic in the distance, but most of the picture shows an arid and harsh landscape. In the foreground are two sun-drench boulders — glowing with beautiful tones of white and grey — which I see as a reference to a famous picture of paint-stained rocks in Robert Adams’ book Los Angeles Spring. Rather than paint, however, Ruwedel’s picture shows a plastic water bottle subtly positioned between the rocks. It’s one of those cheap, disposable bottles purchased from convenience store, with just a little water remaining in the bottom. The picture captures so much of what is at stake in Los Angeles, a beautiful landscape crippled by its need for water.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.