The history of the settlement of the United States and Canada is psychologically invested with colonial ambitions—to penetrate a fertile wilderness that lies beyond settled borders. For many North Americans, the idea of the frontier still holds a sense of unlimited opportunity. The American deserts are perhaps the last vestiges of this territory: mostly arid land that is home to social outcasts and jaded opportunists who cling to the idea of a bygone frontier.
Mark Ruwedel’s photographs of shelters in the American desert bear witness to the failed optimism of those who have built homes in isolation. His straightforward black-and-white photographs show the decay of abandoned homesteads and makeshift shelters that seem steeped in lost hope and careless destruction, yet exhibit surprising resilience within a hostile environment. Curtains rot in the windows of a modern bungalow in Wonder Valley. Shade beckons from the entrance of a simple tent made from discarded mattresses. The horizon of Antelope Valley is framed by the picture window of a whitewashed stucco house whose rear walls have collapsed. Ruwedel exhumes fragments of interwoven stories—a collision of cultural, social and geographical narratives—insinuated by human traces slowly eroded by nature.
In another image from Antelope Valley, a house framed by overgrown cacti is peppered with bullet holes—testimony to the violent potential that lies dormant within boredom and a landscape removed from civilization. The desert hovers at the intersection of entangled tales, between promised land and foreboding place of danger. The ideal of the heroic pioneer coexists with the conflict and lawlessness that are part of the mythology of the Wild West and that, here, conjure up redneck stereotypes of rural poverty in contemporary America. The series recalls Walker Evans’s Depression-era black-and- white photographs of American homes and storefronts. Like Evans’s work, Ruwedel’s images exist as destabilized historical moments that carry an anachronistic quality.
Niland Bunker (2004–06) tracks the accumulation of graffiti and soot stains on a structure’s facade over three years, culminating in a burnout akin to that of an overloaded resistor. Like the other desert structures Ruwedel has photographed, the bunker is marked by evidence of a complex and turbulent history set within a landscape that is the antithesis of picturesque, but hardly devoid of life and roguishness.