Last month, organizations throughout the West celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the first transcontinental railroad in North America. The California Historical Society commemorates this historic event with an exhibition featuring a contemporary photographic study of railroad landscapes by artist Mark Ruwedel (b. 1954). His series Westward the Course of Empire (1998–2004) documents hundreds of abandoned or never-completed lines throughout the US and Canadian West. Rather than chronicle the achievement of laying tracks across the frontier, the expansive survey asks us to consider the legacy of a technology that once promised to (and in many ways did) change the world.
The triumphant joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, marked the beginning of a period of prolific railroad construction. Short lines built for specific purposes crisscrossed the West. By the mid-twentieth century, redundancy, lack of demand, financial mismanagement, consolidation, and the rise of automobiles brought about an industry-wide decline. Ruwedel’s Death Valley #16 (2001), for example, shows us the remnants of a trestle that once carried trains full of borax from mines in Ryan, California, over a moon-like landscape. The narrow-gauge Death Valley Railroad (1914–31) was a feeder for the larger Tonapah and Tidewater (1907–41); both railroads closed when mining operations moved closer to better deposits, making them unprofitable.
For the series, Ruwedel used a large-format view camera and printed in gelatin silver—analog equipment and materials similar to those of the first railroad photographers. Westward the Course of Empire even takes its name from nineteenth-century images—specifically, a widely reproduced lithograph published by Currier & Ives and photographs by Alexander Gardner—that visualized US territorial expansion as iron horses crossing the frontier. Their purpose was to celebrate modern civilization’s ability to reach across the continent and its corollary conquest of hostile land and native peoples.
|Mark Ruwedel, Spokane Portland and Seattle #35, 2001, gelatin silver print
Ruwedel trod much of the same physical territory, often photographing features of the Western landscape that earlier photographers made iconic, but his images suggest hubris rather than victory. In Spokane Portland and Seattle #35 (2001), a craggy mountain cut opens to a view of distant hills, and we can practically envision a locomotive chugging through the pass, but there is no train here, and the tracks are nothing more than a pile of wood on the side of the road. In Central Pacific #51 (1994), railroad ties vanish in the distance—not into the horizon but into tall grass and dirt. The road takes on the character of something archaeological, an ancient path of a culture that no longer exists.
|Mark Ruwedel, Central Pacific #51, 1994, gelatin silver print
In a recent talk at the California Historical Society, Ruwedel described the “land as a stage for human activity,”1 a notion that echoes ideas introduced in the 1970s by the New Topographics photographers, including Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their work marked a decisive shift away from heroic views of pristine nature (or exaltations of technological achievement) in favor of human-altered landscapes that they presented with a distinct lack of artifice and near-scientific objectivity.
|Mark Ruwedel, photographs from Westward the Course of Empire on view at the California Historical Society, 2019
Ruwedel made the views for Westward the Course of Empire with a similar precision and formal rigor, using what he describes as “consistent camera syntax.” He photographed each site from a similar perspective and isolated it from its context or the full length of its original road. He then compiled the photographs into an inventory organized by type: cuts, grades, tunnels, water towers. (Only his pictures of trestles—best seen from distances or angles—deviate from his usual vantage point.) He presents the series in grids that suggest rationality while pointing to the scale and disorderliness of the railroad-building enterprise.
As though cataloging unique specimens, Ruwedel carefully handwrote the name of the rail line in pencil below each photograph. These names, he says, were aspirational in that many of the lines never reached their intended destinations. Tonapah and Tidewater, for example, did not meet the ocean. Nevertheless, he notes that “the caption implicates the picture in a historical drama.” These are not empty landscapes to be filled with human ambitions but evidence of what happened, the imprint of history on the land.
In many ways Ruwedel’s photographs are neutral documents that simply bear witness to the contest between nature and technology. Yet by showing us sites we would typically overlook and treating them like monuments elegantly rendered in gelatin silver, Ruwedel makes his point. The impact of our collective social and economic goals on the land deserves our attention.
Watch footage from our April 24th artists talk with Mark Ruwedel below:
1. This and all subsequent Mark Ruwedel quotations are taken from his April 24, 2019, talk at the California Historical Society.
Written by Erin Garcia, Managing Curator of Exhibitions