Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: I understand you’ve been making handmade books since the 1990s—what sorts of works do they comprise? What sorts of books are they? Do they have any bearing on your published works?
Mark Ruwedel: I love books, large and small. When I received my BFA (Painting!) in 1978, I bought Evans’ American Photographs and Emmett Gowin’s first monograph as graduation presents to myself, and I have been collecting ever since. So, I live with books.
The handmade books fall into two broad categories: they are either composed with images from my archive, or photos I make specifically for the possibility of a small book. Some are very small indeed, sometimes only two pictures and a title. Physically, there are also 2 categories: they are either made by altering commercially made blank books or I fold some paper and sew the sheets together. In addition to my own images, I sometimes use found pictures, stuff I pick up in the field or material I find on eBay and other sources. I also make what I would call “albums”, works that are collections of photos without narrative or a significant structure.
One example of how this may work: I noticed on some contact sheets that I had three images of palm trees that had been chopped down along the LA River—three different trees cut to stumps of different heights. In sequence in a book, where the viewer can only see one at a time, there’s the illusion that it’s the same tree being repeatedly hacked away, or that the tree is further from the camera in each succeeding photo. I put the 3 photos in a book last weekend and called it Palm, Receding.
As for their relation to my published works, with one exception they act as an antidote. The books allow me to conceptualise and realise an idea (sometimes a very small one) quickly.
The published works represent years of research, image-making, editing, etc. The exception mentioned is 1212 Palms, which is essentially a commercially produced version of a handmade book. In that case, the “original” was a spiral bound sketchbook containing 9 silver prints with titles set in press-type, in an edition of three. Very old fashioned. On a camping trip in the desert, I was perusing my road atlas to find somewhere to go the following morning: I noticed that I was close to Seventeen Palms Oasis, and then saw that nearby was Five Palms, and so on. Over the course of a year or so I visited all the places in the California desert named for a number of palms. When I finished, I added them up: 1212.
I love 1212 Palms. I found it on a windowsill in Claire de Rouen books and bought it before I went to graduate school in 2012, of all years! But the way you make these books brings to mind your interest in, and influence by some of the tenets of Conceptual Art. On the one hand, you work in series, which are repetitive, categorical and often open-ended engagements. On the other, you work from premises that can be enumerated by arbitrary data, like the number of palms in the titles of desert sites in California… Could you talk a little about your attraction to the kind of thinking about art-making that flows from broadly ‘Conceptual’ roots? Are you drawn to the inherent unpredictability that comes with working in this way?
Much of my work evolves from some sort of structure, or originating concept. But I also allow for improvisation, accident and surprise. Since we have mentioned 1212 Palms, in that work I knew that I would go to these places and make a photograph, but I did not know what would be there to photograph, except, of course, the obvious palms. For Pictures of Hell, I photographed almost 200 places named for the Devil or Hell. The idea was to go to those places and make a picture, but what that picture would show, and how, became an improvisation with the syntax of my equipment and the particular physical qualities of the place. I should add that the idea itself usually comes from a response to something seen, either in the field or in work already completed. Or perhaps from looking at a map or book. Another example: I did not sit in my studio and say, Aha, abandoned dog houses! I came across a few and became interested in the possibility they represented in terms of my overall interests, So I started looking for them on my working trips to the desert.
A few years ago I did a project called Following Nigel: 72.5 Miles. Nigel Raab, an ardent urban hiker (and Russian professor) walked across Los Angeles, following a route he composed that would cross as many borders as possible: economic, geographical, social, etc. He asked me if I would be interested in photographing it and I spent about 2 years on that, using the Google map of his journey. When I began, I tried various conceptual strategies (only looking east, only photographing at intersections and so on) but finally, none of those were satisfactory. What I ended up doing was photographing whatever was interesting or characteristic of the neighbourhood I was exploring, from the point of view of a pedestrian. So, it was a subjective survey, yet all of the pictures had to be made along a route that I did not choose. I organized the work by trying to have a successful photo for each mile.
I am attracted to art that is broadly termed Conceptual but if my own work is conceptual, it’s with a small “c”.
Your Following Nigel: 72.5 Miles project brings to mind something I’m intrigued about in your work, which is your attraction to/interest in the traces of human motion, and even (im)migration (in Pictures of Hell and Crossing for instance). Where did that interest originate, and how has it developed?
To understand where interests originate is difficult. I see something “out there” and ask, is this place, building, object, etc. of use to me in terms of exploring my interests. Sometimes this process takes a long time to come to fruition, or even begin in terms of making pictures.
I drove through a place called Wonder Valley for many years on my way to photograph somewhere else in the desert. There are hundreds of abandoned houses there, and as I would register them in my peripheral vision I would think there’s something there for me, some possibility, which I finally began addressing with the camera in 2003 or so.
The Crossing photographs were also a response to something I came across while working on another idea. I was walking in the desert near the international border, looking for pre-Columbian evidence and in particular, a very special geoglyph of a horse. I noticed a lot of trash, which isn’t so unusual in the California desert, but this trash was unusual in that it included a lot of water bottles and inner tubes: I finally figured out that it was related to border crossing, as the border there is an irrigation canal. I had some colour film with me and made a few photos which really intrigued me when I later printed them. So I went back several times to pursue that idea further. Incidentally, I did find the horse intaglio.
I think that, early in my work, I was drawn to the landscape as something designed or planned, and to those neglected spaces between the designed. As the work evolved, I found myself becoming more attracted to the evidence left behind by the human use of place and space.
Another thought comes to mind: in Westward and Following Nigel, I was photographing Lines (although of course, each single image represents a singular spot) while with, for example, Pictures of Hell, I was photographing Points.
All spreads © Mark Ruwedel 2016 courtesy MACK
That notion of Points also brings to mind your most recent work, Message from the Exterior, in which you’ve photographed those abandoned homes you mentioned earlier. These seem to represent points of return (as homes), points of departure (as abandoned homes), points of emigration (toward these homes from elsewhere) and points of disappearance (as the plots lapse entropically back into the desert). How did your work with these houses develop over the past thirteen years?
As I mentioned, I had been noticing these houses for many years before I began photographing them. In 2003 I had a residency in Joshua Tree National Park. I found little that interested me within the park’s boundaries but just beyond were these houses. So I had time to explore and began, somewhat casually, to photograph them. And gradually I began to investigate other areas of the desert where, as it turned out, there were many more abandoned houses in various stages of neglect and decay. Most often I would make several pictures of a particular structure, but ultimately I was most pleased with the views that suggested a portrait of the house. And, like other subjects I have pursued, this became somewhat of an obsession and it seemed very important to present many examples of this phenomenon. Lewis Baltz said something about having many pictures of the “same” thing, likening it to scientific work: an experiment gains validity if the results are repeatable. (He said it better but I trust that you will know what I mean).
I am very clear on what I think the real subject is of works like Westward and Hell and can be fairly articulate about those works and their potential meanings. With the houses, my interest, my motivations, seem more mysterious to me. There is tragedy in the work, and sadness and maybe madness as well, along with some humour, I hope. And mystery: I don’t have a clue about the people who once lived in them, why they left, who vandalized the sites and so on. They might also represent a kind of revenge on my own suburban upbringing. I hope that my detached, forensic approach tempers some of these more subjective potential readings.
One thing that interests me greatly about this work is the location: for the most part, the houses are only a few hours drive from the Los Angeles metropolitan area, yet they appear to be in the middle of “nowhere”. This brings up the whole mythology of the frontier in terms of the development of the American West and what that might mean today.
That proximity to Los Angeles is interesting in the sense of how quickly some place becomes nowhere, which is a process that the houses themselves are also going through: they’re moving from something (inhabited, individuated, personal) to nothing (vacant, forgotten, decayed). It reminds me of the line a little after the Joan Didion quotation you use in the book, where she writes of those drifting adolescents in Slouching Through Bethlehem as “sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins.”
Simon Baker wrote about “entropic power” in your work, and I note in the structure of Message that there’s a temporal trajectory in the concluding phase. How did you approach structuring the work into book form? How are you thinking about endings in terms of the series as it’s staged in the book? Is it done?
I remember writing something about “entropic narratives” years ago, in relation to a much earlier series of photographs of the abandoned Expo 67 site in Montreal. That said, it was not my intention to “tell a story” with Message. Almost all books have a narrative structure, as they all have a beginning and an end. I wanted to end with something that felt right in terms of the specifics of certain images without, hopefully, suggesting a conclusion. To some degree, the structure of the book as a whole led to a logical “ending”.
I work best within limits, either of my own device or those imposed from without. For Westward I devised a symmetrical structure of three equal parts, with the “V” shaped railroad cuts as the center. The third section was then subdivided into equal parts. For Hell, the conceptual aspects of the project determined the structure of the book. (This book relied more on sequencing than editing as it was Simon Baker’s reading of the work as being encyclopedic that led to the inclusion of so many of the pictures). Message is also structured in three “movements,” although the structure is less rigid than Westward. And the flow from Part 1 to Part 2 is more subtle than what happens with the third section.
When Michael Mack and I spoke about what this book could look like, he suggested a certain number of plates—this gave me something to work with in terms of both structure and selection.
“Is it done?” For me, there are always good pictures that don’t survive the edit for a book. I am probably finished making those photographs but as I continue to exhibit them, I will use images from the archive that do not appear in the book.
I’m intrigued by the single photograph that appears before the title page of your book, which shows a house on which have been painted the words “ALPHA” and “OMEGA.” The words invoke an epic scale, but the photograph is also a very tightly composed photograph (as are the others). It made me begin to wonder whether you think of these photographs as portraits in a way? Perhaps as individual members of a family of homes?
Yes, portrait is a word I have used before to describe my house pictures. I hadn’t thought of “family”: maybe “extended family”?
If you look again, you will see that its spelled ALFA, not ALPHA, which echoes the Didion quotation, in which she mentions the “misplaced” words scrawled on abandoned homes.
I have quite a collection of spelling errors that I record with a snapshot camera on my explorations. Vanderlizm is a favourite. In Mark Hayworth-Booth’s text, he mentions seeing a licence plate on one of our outings together: EXPLOSE.
All photos courtesy Mark Ruwedel