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Ruwedel’s Photographs Find Home In D.C.’s National Gallery Of Art

Published: June 17, 2013

Ruwedel's landscape photograph
PHOTO BY MARK RUWEDEL

Art’s Mark Ruwedel recently saw the acquisition of 26 of his photographs by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. An important addition to the gallery’s holdings of contemporary landscape photographs, Ruwedel’s photos examine the barely visible grades of now defunct 19th-century railroad lines running across the western United States.

Ruwedel’s photos also were exhibited by the National Gallery of Canada during its fall biennial show.

A member of the university since 2002, Ruwedel photographs the sites of 19th- and 20th- century railway lines in the American and Canadian West using a large-format view camera. The collapsed tunnels, deteriorating trestles and eroding cuts and grades of more than 130 abandoned railroad lines are documented in photographs taken between 1994 and 2006.

The National Gallery of Washington, D.C. selected its photos from Ruwedel’s collections “Westward the Course of Empire,” published by the Yale Art Gallery in 2008, and “Dusk.” “Westward” inventories the residual landforms created by the scores of railroads built in the American and Canadian West since 1869. The grades and cuts depicted in Ruwedel’s photographs speak to a past triumph of technology over what was often perceived as hostile terrain, as well as to the desire and struggle to create wealth and power from the land. Long abandoned (and in some cases never completed), the railroads also evoke the futility of the enterprise, Ruwedel said.

Some of the “Westward” photos were selected for acquisition but were unavailable. “These were limited-edition prints and some had been sold,” Ruwedel said. “My representatives at Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica arranged for a few private collectors who had bought those pictures to donate them to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It’s a combination of purchase and donation.”

In his collection portraying abandoned desert homes titled “Dusk,” Ruwedel presents eight black and white images that capture the degraded, fringe spaces of the high desert in Southern California. The photographs describe a landscape of simultaneous development and decay. Photographed at dusk, the images record an atmosphere that is melancholic and sublime. “They were taken just after the sun set so they have an eerie look to them,” Ruwedel explained.

Travel played a big part in the photos’ creation.

“From 1994 to 2008, I walked and drove four-wheel-drive vehicles all over the American desert,” he said. “The abandoned railways seemed to be everywhere and you have to learn how to find them. But once you knew how, there was more to be found than you might imagine in this rich landscape. Some railways I just stumbled on because I knew what they look like. At other times, I used U.S. Geological Survey maps which mark abandoned railroad grades, then I would cross-reference them with historic maps to discover the name of the railroad that abandoned the pathway. If I didn’t know what railroad it was, it was useless to me.”

The Kettle Valley Railroad in British Columbia was one of his favorites. “It is a completely insane engineering feat that crosses three mountain chains on the scale of the northern Cascades. At one point, my wife and I drove across an abandoned trestle lined with planks,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it except that I was just standing there looking at a dead end when I saw a full-sized pickup truck loaded with loggers cross the trestle from the opposite direction. I figured I weighed less than a truck full of loggers, so I did it. It was so scary that my wife closed her eyes on the way across. We stopped to catch our breath and a minute later, a bear walked in front of us. It was quite a day.”

Ruwedel was especially pleased by the National Gallery of Canada’s Biennial recent exhibit from November to February titled “Builders” because it was the first important museum to collect his work and currently has one of the two largest collections. “I lived in Canada for 20 years,” he said. “Exhibits like this are some of the fringe benefits of being a dual citizen.” “Builders” presented more than 100 recent and significant acquisitions by emerging and established artists instrumental in shaping perspectives in Canadian art today.

Ruwedel earned his MFA at Montreal’s Unviversite Concordia, where he then taught photography full time from 1984-2000 and for three years was chair of its Department of Photography. Among the museums which have acquired Ruwedel’s work are the Getty Museum, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Fonds Nationale d’Art Contemporain in Pairs and the National Gallery of Canada. He received his BFA from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in 1978. He received CSULB’s Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award in 2010.

Ruwedel has been doing this kind of landscape photography for 20 years and sees the acquisition of these photos by the National Gallery in D.C. as a midway mark in his career. “These photos are all about the relation between history and landscape. History is inscribed there,” he said. “The detailed gelatin silver prints record the ruins of railway networks as well as evidence of industries that moved in after the decline of the railroad such as uranium-claim markers, mine entrances and bomb craters at abandoned army fields. I think I’m a ruin photographer, which is a noble enterprise.”