An Interview with Mark Ruwedel

Photo: David Nelson

After 25 years of capturing American deserts, barren landscapes and remote locations, photographer Mark Ruwedel is still drawn to their stark beauty. Born in Pennsylvania, Ruwedel studied photography at Concordia University in Montreal, later teaching there. Now a full-time professor at California State University, Long Beach, Ruwedel won the 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award in late April, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this year. In announcing Ruwedel as the winner of the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award, Award co-founder Edward Burtynsky called Ruwedel “a master of seeing and printing who has inspired countless landscape photographers. Mark’s eye for detail and his subtle perceptions about the intersection of—and commentary upon—the historical versus contemporary in landscape photography remain matchless.”

Ruwedel’s work can be found in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Tate Modern, among other institutions. He currently splits his time between California and coastal British Columbia.

Mark Ruwedel recently spoke with NGC Magazine about his work and the new directions he is keen to pursue.   

NGC Magazine: Describe the type of cameras you use, and why you like to work this way.

Mark Ruwedel: My major camera is a 4x5 view camera. It’s an old-fashioned way of saying it’s a plate camera where you look through a big black cloth over your head. It’s a kind of modern version of a very old idea. Maybe, more importantly, it’s not roll film. It’s one sheet at a time. It’s the only kind of camera that allows for full perspective control, so you can make buildings look like buildings—rectangles instead of trapezoids. You can actually adjust the “parallel-ness,” if you will, of whatever you’re looking at. You can move things around a bit, shoot around parking meters, and still centre the image. It’s a little bit slower, and makes you think a bit more before you push the shutter. The big negative also gives a lot more detail.

NGCM: People often remark that you used to be a painter, and you always correct them. Why?

MR: I studied painting as an undergraduate. In my third year, I started to get interested in photography. I had no interest before. Unlike a lot of photographers, I wasn’t a high school hobbyist. When I graduated, I stopped painting; so, if pushed, I would say I was a student painter. After school, photography just gradually consumed my interest to the expense of everything else.

Mark Ruwedel, California Valley #4 (2006). © Mark Ruwedel 

NGCM: What initially attracted you to landscape photography?

MR: When I went to graduate school and decided to pursue photography, my pictures were urban landscapes: edges of cultivated land in cities, mostly where I lived—either in Pennsylvania, or Montreal where I was going to school. But the work that I do comes out of awareness and interest in the work of a previous generation of photographers. Plus, my life started to include a lot of travel across the continent. I also grew up with cross-country vacations. The photographers [who particularly interested me] were referred to as “the new topographical photographers.” That kind of work suggested that landscape was a kind of venue in which one could think about social and cultural classes, rather than just make pretty pictures. There was this group of artists one generation before me that resuscitated that and said, “this is important and it’s contemporary”—particularly Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams.

NGCM: Describe what types of landscapes you’re drawn to.

MR: I have an affinity for a minimalist aesthetic, so ultimately the desert became my prime field of inquiry—for a couple of reasons. One of them is the light. Because of the lack of moisture in the atmosphere, the edges are a lot sharper. I like landscapes where I can really see what’s there. A lack of trees! [laughs]. I still really love looking at really old landscape photographs that are basically dirt, horizon and sky. That horizon where the dark meets the light is just really exciting to me. There are a couple of pictures by a Canadian survey photographer, and all he did was level the horizon. They’re always so simple that they’re almost funny, but I really like those pictures.

Mark Ruwedel, Panamint Mts rock alignment (2000). © Mark Ruwedel   

NGCM: What are you looking to accomplish (address, reveal or document) with your photographs?

MR: I think maybe it’s presumptuous for an artist to say “I wish to accomplish . . .”. I’m just following my interests at present, which developed out of reading and my respect for lots of other artists’ work. Most importantly, all of my work develops out of other work. I sort of think I’ve been doing this 30-year project, and that project has something to do with thinking about history and suggesting maybe that landscape is important, and that one could learn something about being in a situation by studying landscapes. I’m not sure that is an accomplishment. I work in a kind of documentary mode; but I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer, because I don’t have that sense of purpose. I’m trying to engage both with place and histories the place represents, but also the histories of picture-making. I think, to some degree, all my work includes those two overlapping ideas.

NGCM: The National Gallery more than 100 of your photographs in its permanent collection. How has your worked evolved from some of those earlier pieces to some of the more recent ones?

MR: It’s changed in the idea of a subject, but it’s an evolution. It’s not radical in any way. I think there’s a really gradual honing of interests that I think became a lot more clear in the mid-nineties, which is where I think I set the groundwork for what I’m doing now. There also seems to be a trend towards simplification. I had a slightly different notion about composition when I began than I do now.

NGCM: What is it about photography that you find “odd”?

MR: I’m surrounded by other kinds of artists, and they’re out there hammering and slathering stuff on surfaces, and I’m going out recording. At the most basic level, that’s what I’m doing. Everything in my pictures exists in the world. It’s a bit odd in that sense. But of course a photograph of a tree is very much not the tree. That’s the oddness. I’m interested in the difference. It’s also a problem with photography, because often people see a photograph and all they see is the tree. They don’t see it as a picture—they see it as a reference to something. Photography’s blessing and curse is that relationship to the actual world.

NGCM: You once said that you spend a lot of time fussing in the darkroom. What did you mean?

MR: I put a lot of care into the printing. I spend a lot of time messing around, working with different papers. The darkroom work isn’t just to get it in focus. I really think that I am crafting an object, and I’m often dissatisfied and tearing them up the next day.

Mark Ruwedel, Canadian national #5 (2002). © Mark Ruwedel 

NGCM: Do you have a daily routine?

MR: My daily routine is to get up, have coffee, and work. Because I’m still a full-time professor at California State University, my daily routine really is to work seven days a week. That’s the only way you can be an active artist and a teacher. So every day is different, but every day is a really long day of working. I started teaching a year out of grad school and haven’t stopped, so that kind of dance between those two things was integrated into my practice from quite early on.

NGCM: What would you like to do next?

MR: I’m very hesitant to talk about things I haven’t done yet. My short snarky answer is, “I would like to continue.” But I’m also getting back into photographing within urban areas. So what I would like to do next is do some more photography within the Los Angeles area that I started a few years ago, but which keeps getting pushed aside. I’m also going to do a short photo trip to a certain desert country on another continent—which will be the first time I’ve gone abroad to make work, because my work is really North American.

NGCM: What advice would you give to an emerging artist?

MR: When I’m teaching, my advice is probably not so broad and all-encompassing. It’s more like “Make more of these” or “That’s not a good idea.” Or even “What were you thinking? Are you nuts?” That kind of thing. When I won the Scotiabank Photography Award [April, 2014], Concordia Alumni called me, and one of the questions they asked was, “What advice would you give to a young photographer?” And I said, “Work your ass off for 30 years.” They didn’t print it. But I really mean it. Get in it for the long haul, and be a long-distance runner. [American conceptual artist] John Baldessari said, “You have to be obsessed, and you can’t will that.” Without the obsession, it’s just not worth it. Don’t expect stuff to happen instantly. I had this double whammy this year—winning the Guggenheim Fellowship and this huge [Scotiabank] prize, but there are also decades where there’s nothing like that in my career.

Click here to view photographs by Mark Ruwedel housed in the National Gallery of Canada's permanent collection.

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