Mark Ruwedel talks to Ayla Angelos about a selection of photographs from his four-part in-progress epic Los Angeles: Landscapes of Four Ecologies
The landscape has been an enduring muse of yours; why so?
When I was a graduate student, I moved from Pennsylvania to Montreal. My subject up until that point had been the people I knew. I started photographing the edges of Montreal as an island, and gradually I became more interested in the urban landscapes – what some people would call wastelands, the edges. They’re the buffer zones between the wild and the urban. This is what drives my current work.
Twenty years ago, I moved to Southern California. Then, in 2014, I started concocting this landscape project of Los Angeles, a location which – at least in North America – has the largest wild urban interface of any city. I devised this one-year project in preparation to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship, and I received the fellowship in 2015. When I started working, I realised it was going to be more like 10 years. So, I devised this four-part epic.
It’s interesting that you’ve described it as an “in-progress epic” – you’re setting yourself up for a long photographic journey; will it ever finish?
There’s been a lot of terrific photography made about Los Angeles over the decades, but there’s been very little that’s tried to be comprehensive. I’m modestly attempting to do that. I’m just trying to cast a really wide net and see what I can pull in.
Los Angeles is widely depicted in the media, so you’d think that the world has a fairly good understanding of it as a city. But through your imagery, you present a different – a deserted, intricate and fragile – side of it. Is this intentional?
Part one focuses on the Los Angeles River and its major tributaries. You think about what the Los Angeles River looks like from movies, and it has this concrete channel with a trickle of water in the middle. There’s car chases and the Terminator goes down there, and so on. But in my photographs, the Los Angeles River is made to look more natural. You think you know what the real Los Angeles River looks like, but you would never associate it with what I’m showing you.
When I plotted the project, I was thinking about these epic places that would define the relationship of Los Angeles to the natural world. I found that, over time, more of my pictures were about these little secret places, so that’s really interesting to me. Los Angeles includes, for lack of a better word, nature. The land has been abused, as you’ll find with the orchards; they’re disappearing faster than I can make pictures. They’re being bulldozed for housing developments and warehouses.
Climate change goes hand in hand with the natural world; is that something you try to address in your work?
I’m not deliberately trying to make a statement about that. There’s a fairly large group of pictures that I’m not quite sure which part of the epic they fit into, because they fit all of them – it’s the burned landscapes. There’s an interesting set of contradictions, because fire is a natural part of the ecosystem here. There’s always been fires. But now, of course, they’re hotter, they’re bigger, and they last longer. They’re both expected, and at the same time, they’re a prophecy of future horror. I’m not trying to say, ‘Look at these pictures and stop driving.’ The works are not didactic in any manner; people can look at this work and make certain assumptions or draw certain conclusions, and I’m fine with that. I don’t want to tell them what to think about it.
How important is the sequencing and structure to your work?
People have asked why I don’t make really big prints, like a lot of my colleagues. It’s because of the way I think about photography and the way I work; I would rather have 12 or 15 small pictures together that are talking to each other, rather than one big one that tries to sum up something. It’s not that I’m a traditionalist, but I think there’s something unique about photography that allows for that voice. I’m not against other people doing things differently, of course, but that’s my position for my own work now. In my epic, especially by contemporary standards, the pictures are really, really small.
What can we learn from these photographs? Is it the changing landscape in LA, the ecology, the nature? Or are your pictures made purely for aesthetics?
I don’t have a main goal, but everything you just said is okay with me. Obviously I’m interested in aesthetic issues – I’m interested in the histories of art, in terms of how this place is pictured. I’m interested in pop culture and the way that Los Angeles is portrayed through various media, especially film and television. I think what I’m trying to do is add to that history or complicate the reading of that history, or probably both. But I’m not trying to tell somebody something – that’s not of interest to me. What I’m trying to do is make some sort of contribution to the history of pictures about this place and, by extension, the history of the place itself.
All photography courtesy Mark Ruwedel
This article is taken from Port issue 30. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here