The big open landscapes of the American and Canadian West suit Mark Ruwedel’s large-format camera. From his travels over 12 years along the sites of 19th and 20th-century railway lines, Ruwedel creates topographical studies, archival files, but he also captures the luminescence of countryside that’s been passed through. These are ghost pictures, where the land seems better off for being left behind.
Mark Ruwedel’s book, Westward the Course of Empire, accompanies his solo show now on view at Yossi Milo Gallery, New York (through March 14, 2009). Ruwedel was born in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1954. His photographs are held in numerous collections, including The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Mr. Ruwedel currently teaches at California State University, Long Beach, Ca. All images © Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.
For many of us, traveling across the western U.S. and Canada is done by plane—we don’t see the paths you’ve recorded. What are we missing out on?
The details. The weather. Getting off the Interstates, far from fast food stops. Discovery, disappointment, getting lost, the occasional bear or coyote. Being alone. A sense of the histories inscribed on the surface of the land.
There’s a pioneering feeling in the pictures, especially when viewed together. Is that something you experienced, something you wanted to express?
Of course. Walking or driving for several hours, and then coming upon something amazing, like a derelict trestle standing in the bush… Making these photographs was hard work. “Expression” is not something I consciously think about.
Grouping the picture together became a way of suggesting the scope of the project, both the original “project” of railroad building, and my project of studying the railroads’ remains.
As someone who’s worked so much with the railroads, do you hope to see American train travel restored?
It would be great to have restored efficient passenger service. (This is based more on my experiences with California’s freeways than on following abandoned railroad lines.)
What are you working on now?
As most of my photography requires extensive travel and time “in the field,” I tend to pursue several ideas at once, over periods of years. My main interest now is in abandoned houses in California’s desert regions, a more contemporary ruin than that of the railroads.