I recognise these images, or at least I think I do. The photographs in Mark Ruwedel’s Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles (MACK, 2020) have the same evocatory effect as Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills – nonspecific, but poised on the edge of recognisability: something you think you might have seen before. It’s not just the formality of Ruwedel’s style (the spareness and austerity of even his most richly detailed images) that lends the work this timeless quality. It’s also played out in the profound sense of anachronism that runs through these photographs. Are we looking at contemporary scenes, or images from a recent past? There are few clues in the images themselves: the cars, the occasional advertising sign, the clothing worn by one of the infrequent pedestrians. For the most part, though, Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles depicts a city composed of familiar, enduring themes – desolate stretches of asphalt punctuated by strip malls, gas stations and intersections, the looming columnar shapes of palm trees, long-bodied 1970s sedans, and the ubiquitous California bungalows. The images bleed off the edge of the page and onto the next, just as one neighbourhood merges seamlessly into another. Perhaps it’s Los Angeles itself that is the anachronism. The city that architectural critic Reyner Banham praised for its modernity in the 1970s seems not to have changed much since that time. Ruwedel’s photographs tell the story of a metropolis that has not so much failed as stalled: neither renewed nor ruined, it simply endures.
Curator Simon Baker has described Ruwedel’s oeuvre as ‘made in the shadow of other projects’ – channelling the work of nineteenth century expeditionary photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, as well as the more recent concept-driven practice of artists like Robert Smithson and Ed Ruscha. Here, the suburban iconography in his images follows a pattern set out in the work of the archetypal New Topographics photographers – Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Joe Deal, and Henry Wessel Jr.. But Ruwedel’s gaze on Los Angeles is neither nostalgic nor imitative. Instead, the photographs in Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles are an invitation to think about the relationship of his work to the reality it records, and to the recent history of photography itself.
Ruwedel’s preference for working according to certain protocols or frameworks has earned him the label of ‘conceptual’ photographer in some circles. Rather than being imposed before the fact, however, these frameworks usually emerge organically: ‘I’m not sure at what point in the progression of a work it comes into play,’ he remarks; ‘I don’t start out with preconditions, I develop parameters as I go along. Sometimes it’s not until the final editing.’ Ruwedel had been living in Los Angeles for ten years when he began photographing Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles, and he’d already spent some time thinking, without much success, about how to approach the city as a subject. Eventually, it was a project by writer and historian Nigel Raab that provided the strategy. In 2009, Raab walked across Los Angeles, from Westchester to the San Bernardino Metro station. His route took him away from the tourist clichés that construct Los Angeles in the popular imagination – Hollywood Boulevard, Venice Beach, the Sunset Strip – and along a different route, through Inglewood, South Los Angeles and Bell Gardens, north to El Monte and then eastward through Baldwin Park, Claremont, and Fontana. Raab deliberately chose a path that would cross as many social, cultural, and economic boundaries as possible. It also led him through some of Los Angeles’s most anonymous stretches – places that have been passed over by the large scale investment projects that transform downtown districts and financial centers. Change takes place slowly in neighbourhoods like these.
The photographs in Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles begin down the street from Raab’s home and end at his final destination. Though they’re presented in narrative form in the book, they weren’t made that way. Instead, Ruwedel spent three years (2011-2014) working in a relatively unsystematic way, moving back and forth across the city on foot and by car, photographing whatever caught his eye. To judge by the images, however, there wasn’t much to attract the eye. The diversity that both Raab and Ruwedel encountered on the ground gives way, in the latter’s photographs, to an almost overwhelming sense of spatial and visual homogeneity. This is not to suggest that every photograph in the book is the same; they’re not. But Ruwedel’s eye is drawn less to the specificities of place than it is to certain archetypal forms, and to a historically specific way of seeing these forms. To put it another way, Ruwedel’s photographs suggest that the aesthetic filter through which the New Topographics photographers perceived Los Angeles has become so bound up with the reality of the place itself that it’s no longer easy to separate the two.
The outward objectivity of Ruwedel’s photographs tends, however, to conceal the choices that went into making them. This includes some important formal decisions. A significant number of photographs feature large sections of empty asphalt, usually in the lower part of the image: roads, parking lots, intersections, even the concrete watercourse of the Los Angeles River. The road, as Ruwedel remarks, is a detail that has to be incorporated into the frame, and this requirement ‘has a set of precedents. … It’s okay that two thirds of my picture is going to consist of featureless concrete.’ The license to include a feature that is structurally critical to the image, but that appears to ask so little of the eye, is one of the most enduring legacies of the New Topographics exhibition.
The grid system of streets is an abstraction imposed on the landscape of Los Angeles, and on cities and suburbs across the country – ‘the triumph of geometry over topography’, in the words of geographer J B Jackson. In the popular consciousness, the road is a symbol of freedom; as a photographic sign, it’s more equivocal. For the New Topographics photographers, the photographic language of sprawl was rooted in conceptual art’s fascination with the serial forms of vernacular architecture; for Ruwedel, this language has less to do with the individual identity of the homes and businesses on either side of the road than does with the homogeneous surface that links them together. Rather than movement, the road, for Ruwedel, is an embodiment of inertia.
Beneath the deadpan surface of the New Topographics work was the suggestion that modernity had failed to live up to its promises. Four decades on, Ruwedel’s photographs document the persistence of this failure – not just what might have been, but what wasn’t and may well never be. And Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles is a portrayal not just of one city, but of cities all across America – places whose identity is so attenuated that the image itself is called upon to give them a complexion, to provide a framework through which they become visible. We might ask to what extent even a photographer of Ruwedel’s talent is indebted to this framework – not the sort of structural protocols that drove conceptualism, but a mode of photographic seeing, a rhetoric that has itself acquired the force and authority of a concept, conditioning both the photographer’s encounter with space, and the images that they make of it.
— Eugenie Shinkle