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March 21 to October 20, 2019

Westward the Course of Empire

In his series Westward the Course of Empire (1994–2008), photographer Mark Ruwedel (born 1954) documents the physical traces of abandoned or never completed railroads throughout the American and Canadian West. Built in the name of progress as early as one hundred and fifty years ago, these now defunct rail lines are marked by visible alterations to the landscape. Ruwedel catalogues eroding cuts, disconnected wooden trestles, decaying tunnels, and lonely water towers in quietly powerful images that point to the contest between technology and the natural world. Using a large-format view camera, Ruwedel treads the same territory as nineteenth century survey photographers, but his contemporary perspective brings a sense of loss to landscapes once viewed as exploitable resources.

Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire

In his series Westward the Course of Empire (1994–2008), photographer Mark Ruwedel documents the physical traces of abandoned or never completed railroads throughout the American and Canadian West. Built in the name of progress as early as one hundred and fifty years ago, these now defunct rail lines are marked by visible alterations to the landscape. Ruwedel catalogues eroding cuts, disconnected wooden trestles, decaying tunnels, and lonely water towers in quietly powerful images that point to the contest between technology and the natural world. Using a large-format view camera, Ruwedel treads the same territory as nineteenth century survey photographers, but his contemporary perspective brings a sense of loss to landscapes once viewed as exploitable resources.

“It is an honor to have my work shown as part of the California Historical Society’s exhibition about the first transcontinental railroad and its lasting impact,” said Ruwedel. “This will be the largest exhibition of the Westward series which catalogs the remains of the hundreds of railroads built in the West following the completion of the first transcontinental line.”
Mark Ruwedel is an artist based in California, currently living in Long Beach. He is represented in museums throughout the world including the J. Paul Getty Museum; Los Angeles County Art Museum; Metropolitan Museum, New York; Yale Art Gallery; National Gallery of Art, Washington; National Gallery of Australia; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Ruwedel recently had a solo show at the Tate Modern in London as well as published his seventh art book. In 2014 he was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Scotiabank Photography Award and has been short listed for the Deutshe Borse Prize for 2019.

“Ruwedel’s photographs ask us to consider the imprint of history on the land, even as nature takes its course, gradually erasing human alterations,” says Erin Garcia California Historical Society’s Managing Curator. “Where nineteenth century railroad photographers celebrated the triumph of civilization over what was perceived as hostile land, Ruwedel’s work suggests that the path forward for people and the land we live on is much less certain.”

Presented in conjunction with Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad.

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