JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 30×24 cm, 136 pages, with 79 black-and-white reproductions. Includes essays by Chris Balaschak and the artist, as well as an image listing and a map. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: As we step further into the 21st century, and in particular continue to wrestle with the realities of pervasive climate change, we are also being forced to ask ourselves hard questions about what it means to be an American landscape photographer in this new age. What are the “new” or changing subjects that should now be photographed? What vantage point or perspective should be applied to what we “find” out there in the “wild”? And what stories (or histories) of the land need to be told?
In one way or another, most contemporary landscape photographers still set their roots in the rich soil of the artistic past. Some look back to the intrepid 19th century photographers, like Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and others, who ventured out to the American West and made memorable photographs of the bigness and grandeur to be found there. Others celebrate the technical precision and the compositional majesty of Ansel Adams, in images that mixed unabashed natural beauty with environmental awareness. And many find their bearings by following the conceptual path of the 1970s New Topographics photographers, who looked at the ecological degradations of the suburbanizing American West with a much more caustic and unforgiving eye. In a sense, being a contemporary American landscape photographer requires an awareness of and appreciation for all three of these aesthetic modes, this varied history then providing an aesthetic foundation on which to build something new.
For the past two decades, Mark Ruwedel has been charting his own course through the American West, drawing on the lessons of the past masters and methodically teasing out the narratives embedded in various Western landscapes. He has memorably followed the paths of obsolete rail lines, documented abandoned desert houses (in his 2017 gallery show, reviewed here), and used words like Hell and Palms (in his 2019 photobook, reviewed here) as keywords for finding commonalities, all the while creating categories and taxonomies that have added further layers of rigor and order to his precise large format photographs.
Along the way, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship kicked off what has now become an ambitious four-part project documenting his hometown of Los Angeles. Rivers Run Through It (subtitled Los Angeles: Landscapes of Four Ecologies, Volume I) is the first portion of the project to surface in photobook form, gathering together photographs Ruwedel has made in and around the Los Angeles River watershed between 2015 and 2022. The other three parts will apparently cover the western edge of the city (where the land meets the ocean), the transverse ranges and canyons that bisect the city, and the transition zones in the east where the milder Mediterranean climate meets the desert. When he’s done, the four parts will create a hybrid landscape portrait of the city, interweaving alternate vantage points on the unique intersection of nature and humanity that occurs in Los Angeles.
The story of the Los Angeles River is more complex than we might expect. Water (and the lack of it) has always been a central concern for the growing metropolis, and by the 1930s, the meandering movement of the river between the dry and wet seasons (particularly during floods) was becoming a problem. The solution to controlling the river was a concrete channel built in 1938 by the Army Corps of Engineers, which later became the setting for various famous film scenes and wild car chases. In other sections of the river, walls, dams, and spillways enclose and manage the water in different ways. With the river dry in many places for much of the year, only to be dangerously inundated when the biggest storms come, the ecology of the surroundings is marked by this variability. Set between the freeway and an industrialized rail corridor, the Los Angeles River now sits in uneasy coexistence with its increasingly developed urban surroundings, the tensions between man and nature in a constant state of flux.
Ruwedel’s multi-part portrait of the river starts in the dry headwaters of the river (in the Big Tujunga Wash), wanders through the Sepulveda Basin, shoots through the Glendale Narrows, takes detours to several tributaries, and finally finds its way to the estuary in Long Beach at the coast. And at each point along that journey, Ruwedel documents the subtle differences in the river environment, each a distinct facet of a more layered ecological personality. And while Ruwedel’s black-and-white photographs are consistently measured and attentive, the visual story he tells isn’t entirely optimistic; in fact, the push and pull between beauty and ugliness that underlay the work of many of the New Topographics photographers is undeniably present here, in scenes that highlight the many challenges the contemporary river faces as it winds its way to the ocean.
Dry rocky hills falling down into washed desert valleys provide the jumping off point for this narrative, where scraggly plants, stunted trees, and cacti scratch out a marginal existence in the cracked soil. Dirt, sand, and mud seem to go through endless cycles of sedimentary flow and erosion here, leaving behind curves etched in the crust and larger rocks stranded where they lay. But soon the river actually fills out, the river banks choked with trees and scrub leaning outward toward the water. Ruwedel carefully observes nearly lovely trees and patterns of young trunks, but it’s hard not to be pulled into the relative grimness of the trash and debris washed into eddies, rocks with graffiti tags, plastic bags caught in trees, and other tangles of palms, grasses, and muddy flats. In some cases, the hand of man is more visible, in almost encampments featuring scavenged blankets and shopping carts, or in floating junk like old tires and lost rafts that choke the water near sandy embankments. Even the Sepulveda Wildlife Refuge has its fair share of this kind of human intrusion, with tire tracks in the dirt, carpet remnants, a makeshift wooden lean-to, and some faint pathways and hollows in the tall grasses alluding to presences beyond simply the birds and animals. It’s clear from these images that many of the human intrusions in the river were far from good for the existing natural ecosystems, with native trees and plants seemingly overrun by both man-made litter and invasive species.
Ruwedel’s river tour continues through the famous concrete channel, with the water flow down to a thin strip down the middle. Freeway overpasses and electrical towers now fill the skies, while sandbags choke the channels and pockets of nature make an effort to survive along the sides. Again, stray clothing, fabrics, and plastic bags hang from high up in the scraggly trees, providing reminders of where the floodwaters once roared, and as the waters narrow, the thick grasses and undergrowth along the banks shelter a small heron, who seems bemused by Ruwedel’s attention. The photographer then ventures up the tributaries of the Arroyo Seco and the Rio Hondo, where he finds more of the same, in terms of trickling waters flanked by rock walls and concrete separation. In one memorably idyllic scene, a solitary figure sits atop one of these man-made dividers, watching the slow rumble of the passing river like a scene out of a romantic novel. Underneath the massive struts of the overpasses, the ivy takes over and small trees try to benefit form the overhead protection, but when the dryness comes once again, it leaves behind its disheartening mix of muddy embankments, a roughly cut trunk in the middle of the water, and a sagging left over mattress.
As Ruwedel reaches the end of his downstream trip, the river widens out a bit and the now-brackish water starts to flow with more speed. The banks are still man-altered, either covered by concrete or heavy gravel, and a few persistent trees linger in the soft-bottomed areas, tenaciously hanging on against the forces that would push them under. A sludge of toxic muck still interrupts the view here and there, with rusty shopping carts, traffic cones, construction materials, and other junk mixed into a gruel, but the shore birds don’t seem to mind, and the wide flat land catches the sun with ease. The photobook ends with a single abandoned chair set up in the weeds, seemingly implausibly inviting us to sit down to watch the river drift by.
Like much of the work of Robert Adams, there is a quiet understatement in Ruwedel’s photographs that allows us room to patiently engage with the pictures. The unassuming air also reserves some of the judgement that might be otherwise obvious from the often charged content; there is a collision taking place in these pictures, and Ruwedel certainly shows us that man’s attempts to control the river haven’t been entirely successful.
In the end, Ruwedel seems to have taken the position of a concerned witness, documenting the truths of what is largely hidden, and encouraging us to draw our own conclusions. It’s a vantage point that allows for a heady and intentional mix of both admiration of natural beauty and critical thinking, in a sense, finding a middle ground between the artist’s many historical influences. Perhaps Ruwedel has even crafted for himself a new (and likely continuously evolving) definition of an American landscape photographer, one who actively takes on the 21st century failures of the hybrid landscape by balancing his instincts toward sensitivity and horror. At least in this first part of his epic project, Ruwedel seems to be saying that the river was not saved, but he also offers plenty of hints of nature’s undiminished resilience, which is where we might find a few points of forward looking hope.
Collector’s POV: Mark Ruwedel is represented by Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica (here), where a show of this body of work was on view in 2018 (here). Ruwedel’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.