I had little to no interest in photography when I went to college in the mid-1970s. I was a painting major, and introduction to photography was a required course. The rest, though, is history. Ultimately, being in the world with a camera was more attractive to me than being in a studio with a canvas.
Later, through my graduate studies in Montreal, I began to define my practice as landscape photography. I was both influenced and inspired by the New Topographics photographers, particularly Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, whose art looked at landscape as a place we actually live in, rather than an academic construct. I was also inspired by what was then known as Photo Conceptualism, where the picture is evidence, a document of an artwork that was elsewhere.
For the past 30-plus years, the majority of my work has been made in decidedly non-urban locations: the American West, especially its deserts and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific Northwest of both the US and Canada. A few years after moving to Long Beach, Los Angeles County, I began to consider how to photograph within the city.
As an undergraduate, I had been fascinated with the idea of “artists’ books” and was particularly taken with the ones that Ed Ruscha had made in the 1960s; driving around my new home, I recognised buildings that appeared in his. When a colleague gave me a camera of the same type that Ruscha had used, I embarked on what became a trilogy of works based on his books: We All Loved Ruscha. The project presented a method of navigating the city by following prescribed paths, a technique for making art which inspires me.
Nigel Raab’s epic four-day walk across Los Angeles provided another path, or map, 72.5 miles in length. Nigel, a transplanted Canadian and an avid urban hiker, wanted to see Los Angeles up close, rather than from the car, as most Angelenos do, so he mapped a route from his house in Westchester to the Metro station in San Bernardino that crossed as many geographic, economic, political and cultural boundaries as possible. It also avoided the parts of LA most familiar to those whose understanding of the city comes from movies and television.
After his epic trek, he asked me if I would be interested in photographing his route. Although I began with some hesitation, I soon became addicted to following his map, a designed path through the city that left me with questions of what and how to photograph, rather than where.
His four days turned into a two-year project for me (mostly by car). The photographs represent two overlapping visual conceits: views and sites. Some depict the route itself. The others show things that he might have noticed.
Readers of the book may spot that there are few images that include people, but many with cars: that is not a strategy on my part but rather the reality that is Los Angeles. (Almost) no one walks.
I always use film; I do not care for the “instant feedback” digital cameras provide and prefer the distance between the experience of working with the camera and evaluating the results as pictures.
In 2014, I received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a charitable grant for artists and academics, to begin work on a series of landscapes within Los Angeles. As I worked, I gradually identified four overlapping landscape “systems”: The Rivers, The Western Edge (the coast), The Hills and Canyons, and The Eastern Edge (transitioning from basin to desert).
The images presented at Large Glass Gallery were selected from The Western Edge and include landscapes of recent fires, which contribute to all four parts of my epic. Fires, floods, earthquakes, landslides — the landscape of Los Angeles is dynamic: it has agency, it does things. These are landscapes of tension, where the natural meets the social in dramatic fashion, where the land is an active determinant in the history of the city.
Although many of the depicted places seem “wild”, they are all within the megacity commonly known as Los Angeles. Most “wild” spaces here exist either because the city is designed to include them or, more likely, because they do not yet have commercial value. There are a surprisingly large number of such spaces. And that’s part of what the work is about.
Los Angeles enfolds wild terrain in a complex fashion; it is a place where, as Mike Davis points out in Ecology of Fear, natural history and social history can sometimes be read as inverted images of each other. Culture’s relationship to the land is complicated and contradictory, and my work has always attempted to address this: the land is both a stage for human endeavour and an agent of historical change.
“Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles” by Mark Ruwedel is published by Mack. “Mark Ruwedel Los Angeles” runs at Large Glass in London from December 11 to February 19 2021
Photographs: Mark Ruwedel, courtesy the artist; Large Glass, London; Mack Books
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