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Interviews / May 7, 2014

Q&A: Mark Ruwedel on the Analog-Photo Advantage

Mark Ruwedel’s win of the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award in Toronto last week could be viewed as a triumph of classic, old-school, analog photography over more flashy, in-your-face digital work. Since the late 1970s, Ruwedel has worked with black-and-white film and delicate, subtle grayscale printing techniques to document subjects including Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the BC Coast, North American railways and the California desert. And it’s not just the SPA jury that has taken notice; earlier in April, Ruwedel earned a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Here, Ruwedel—who is also a professor at California State University, Long Beach—talks about the importance of maintaining a daily photo practice, the way his dual Canadian-American experiences have shaped his work, and the fact that his latest desert shots may hit too close to home.

Leah Sandals: Congratulations on your award wins. What are your plans given the recent turn of events?

Mark Ruwedel: To have both of these things [the Guggenheim and the SPA] two weeks apart is mind-boggling. I hadn’t thought that this would happen, so I don’t have a lot of plans yet.

I do have some things in progress. I have a book that’s under production right now and with any luck will be launched at Paris Photo in November. And of course, I now have this like breakneck schedule to produce a Scotiabank Award book in something like 10 months. So that’s a bit frightening. And I’ve been invited to photograph a certain location in northern Africa.

I also have a show in September at Loyola Marymount University, and now I have a [SPA-related] show in May in Toronto, too.

It’s all just a coincidence. I have a lot of stuff to think about.

I also work on a daily basis. So I photograph wherever I am, which right now is Los Angeles. Whether or not I’m teaching, if I’m in town, I either photograph or print or do something related to that activity every single day of the week. Because that’s my life.

So I could easily fill this coming year without adding anything to the plate, you know? I could spend the next two years just catching up, in fact.

LS: I’m intrigued about what you said about your daily process, which perhaps is related to the analog process that you’re engaged in. Can you talk a bit about why analog process is important for you to maintain—or not?

MR: It is important.

It’s important partly because I’ve established a way of working—whatever it is that I’m doing, I’ve been doing it for about 30 years.

And I’m very conscious that I’m making an object as well as an image. Material considerations are part of what I think about. I notice that some of the younger generation doesn’t have that concern, so maybe it’s worth saying because it represents a point of view or a way of thinking that maybe is on the wane.

My colour pictures, which are a small percentage of my total output, are now all digital prints. But they’re from film negatives, and I don’t make those prints—I work with a printer on those.

So the idea of the daily practice is more important than the fact that it’s analog.

Still, in my graduate class we recently read some writings by Tacita Dean. One of them is a very short statement that speaks about how analog is embodies this notion of drawing and the body and continuous signal.

[That Dean text] really resonated with me. I mean, the idea of the photograph being an analogue for something that exists in the world is also really important to my work, and my interest in photography in general. Maybe in some sense this reflects my thinking from when I was much younger and decided to work with photography rather than painting, which was my original field of study.

My primary camera hasn’t changed since about, like, 1988! So I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the tool when I use it. I feel like if I did anything in the digital realm I would be much more self-conscious; it wouldn’t be an extension of my body like my old Linhof is. So that’s important too, because that allows me to think about other stuff.

LS: A lot of your recent work focuses on the desert and structures found there. What drew you to this subject matter?

MR: Somebody asked me recently about Westward the Course of Empire, a project that looked at abandoned railroads [and was created between 1994 and 2006]. I can go on and on and on about that project—I have very clearly articulated notions of what that work’s about.

When we get to some of the more recent work, I think maybe there’s a little bit more of a psychological dimension that I’m hesitant to explore—at least in an interview situation.

I do think the abandoned [desert] houses may be an inverse version of the subject I’ve been pursuing much longer—and that is the kind of material residue or evidence of massive invisible forces at work on populations.

Like with the railroad, you’re talking about nation-building, because that’s what the railroad was in Canada and the United States. In Europe, when a railroad was made, it connected existing places. In North America, it created places.

The houses—and the potential abandonment and a sense of violence and everything else that I think is involved in those pictures—that’s also the result of these other massive unseen political forces. But what we’re seeing is the results on individual and anonymous people, rather than on whole societies.

Sometimes, too, I think I’m at war with my own upbringing—growing up in a new suburb on the edge of what was farmland. So there’s all these different dimensions.

LS: You grew up in Pennsylvania and are currently based in Los Angeles—but you lived in Montreal for 20 years and you also spend time in BC. What are your views on the differences between being an artist in Canada and in the US?

MR: Well, I think there’s an East Coast–West Coast thing that is much more pronounced, in my experience, than Canada-US differences.

But, I mean, any Canadian knows that climate is an issue! One of the greatest things about being in California now, at least during the academic year, is that I can photograph every day of the year. It sort of sounds a bit silly, but after 20 Montreal winters, that means a lot, you know?

[The climate] also allows me to do more modest work and pursue ideas more freely, because the time that one could photograph [outdoors in natural light] is less precious.

A lot of my previous projects developed because of the lifestyle my wife and I had for years, which was summering in British Columbia and teaching at Concordia University in Montreal during the school term. Those annual migrations by car got longer and longer, and more and more circuitous, as I developed an interest in pursuing subjects that in some sense were between Montreal and Vancouver.

So that was the deal; I would take 5 or 6 weeks to get [to BC] and photograph on the way. And then, when I got more interested in particular geographies, that would be a destination for winter break or reading week.

Doing this, I’d show up in Montreal [each fall] with 500 or 600 sheets of undeveloped film. And at some point that work [photographing] the West became so consuming that I more or less stopped photographing the Montreal area. I just couldn’t keep all the balls in the air, you know?

LS: What art and artists have been most influential on your work?

MR: Well, Walker Evans is a really key figure for me. He was the subject of my masters’ thesis. He actually made some of his most iconic pictures in the town I grew up in.

Beyond that, the New Topographics photographers—Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams in particular.

Formative artists in a non-photographic way would be Robert Smithson, in particular.

Another big thing for me starting out, of course, was 19th-century expeditionary photography, both American and European stuff. Some of my earlier projects were loosely modelled on that, just using that form to talk about something that’s contemporary. Like all the British photographers that did work in Egypt—using that particular history to talk, for example, about the nuclear reactors on the Columbian River.

Overall, I’m a great admirer of a lot of stuff, and I’m a modest collector. But it gets more difficult to single things out beyond the formative.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via