Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mark Ruwedel at the Peabody Essex Museum

Chocolate Mountains/Ancient Footpath, Towards Indian Pass
Mark Ruwedel; 1996; Gelatin Silver Print; Collection of the artist, courtesy of Gallery Luisotti (Santa Monica, CA)

I recently had the privilege of attending a preview of Mark Ruwedel’s new show at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), Imprints: Photographs by Mark Ruwedel, and hearing the artist speak about his work. The exhibition is comprised of 41 images, the majority of which are black-and-white, of dinosaur tracks and ancient footpaths in the American West.

I immediately noticed that the prints themselves are gorgeous, as Mark is a master printer. All of his images are made with a large-format camera which he caries to remote locations in search of paths and tracks. I made my way around the exhibition to take note of what was on display, but the images contain too much to absorb in one pass.

Purgatoire River Site, #2
Mark Ruwedel; 1996; Gelatin Silver Print; Collection of the artist, courtesy of Gallery Luisotti (Santa Monica, CA)

Visually, many of the images share a similar framing: a worn path or imprinted track leading directly up the center of the frame to a peak or valley, implying not so much a destination but rather suggesting the passage of time and the movement of living beings. Through his composition, Mark places the viewer firmly on the path themselves and asks them to be a participant rather than a casual observer.

The work came alive for me when I went back to look a second time and to hear Mark speak about his images. Photographing in the American West has a long history that Mark is undoubtedly a part of, but his images are transcendent of the traditional expectations associated with such imagery. Mark spoke of reading the landscape like one would read a historical archive, mining it for clues about a time gone past. His photographs aren’t one-liners; they’re meant to be studied, and they become infinitely more poignant upon close (and repeated) examination. The photographs are layered, both visually and conceptually, so that the more you view them and think about them, the more aspects you begin to see and understand.

Chocolate Mountains/A Ceremonial Trail on an Ancient Terrace
Mark Ruwedel; 2001; Gelatin Silver Print; Collection of the artist, courtesy of Gallery Luisotti (Santa Monica, CA)

Upon entering the exhibition at PEM, the viewer immediately sees the introductory wall text describing Mark’s work, but otherwise there are no labels or titles on the walls. Mark writes his titles directly below each photograph onto their mounting in soft pencil, so faint that you have to look close to see it. From afar, it is invisible, but up close, it is wonderfully evident, precise, and informative. He gave multiple reasons for choosing to title these images in this way. The first is the influence of 19th century photography, much of which was mounted on boards with title information directly beneath it. I immediately called to mind the thousands of Social Museum photographs at the Harvard Art Museum (H/AM). As much a historical document as is it a collection of photographs, the Social Museum collection combines images and text to tell the viewer something concrete about a place, a time, and the human condition. Two examples from the H/AM's Collections Online are below:

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Races, Negroes: United States. Virginia. Hampton. Hampton Normal and Industrial School: Agencies Promoting Assimilation of the Negro. Training for Commercial and Industrial Employment. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Hampton, Va., 1899-1900

Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, On deposit from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection, 3.2002.2

Lewis Wickes Hine, Housing, Conditions: United States. Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Survey: Drying Produces Dust: Bad Surface Drainage., c. 1908

Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, On deposit from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection, 3.2002.7

Mark’s method of titling directly mirrors his method of image-making. Without a close examination, you’ll miss the titles completely and will also miss the intricacy of his images. From far away, you see the forms of mountains or hills, tracks or footprints. Up close, the images come alive with a thousand details. PEM’s Curator of Photography Phillip Prodger says, “The richness and beauty of his prints commands attention from the start but their jewel-like detail invites repeated viewing. They get better every time you see them.”

I wasn’t sold on this idea immediately, as it is a commonly echoed sentiment about photography that I find to only sometimes be true. However, with Mark’s work, it is absolutely dead on. The poignancy of his work lies in the details and it really does get better the more you look.

Interestingly, though the images are of dinosaur tracks and ancient footprints (both ripe subjects in the natural history realm), Mark was careful to extract himself from this kind of examination, saying that his images would be useless to a paleontologist or anthropologist. They are visual representations, of course, but Mark’s intentions have much more to do with examining the ethereal aspect of time by capturing living beings’ affect on nature in the past as well as examining our current relationship to it.

The power is in the subtlety. One of my favorite images, which also happens to be one of the few color images in the exhibition, shows dinosaur tracks beneath pooled water. The tracks would be nearly invisible if it weren’t for the slightly darker coloration of the water that has pooled above them and likely would have disappeared in a black-and-white image. When asked why he shot in both black-and-white and color, his response was that he was experimenting and chose whichever felt right at the time. He didn’t go out into the field with a project in mind. He photographed dinosaur tracks when he had an opportunity, but he didn’t think of them as a project until after he had made the images. I find this answer refreshing and exciting, as it seems that photographers are often expected to have a project conceptually fleshed out and polished before even beginning to make the work.

Paluxy River Site, #1
Mark Ruwedel; 1994; Color coupler print; Collection of the artist, courtesy of Gallery Luisotti (Santa Monica, CA)

Ultimately, echoing the sentiments of Phillip Prodger, I am drawn to go back and look at these images again. They are much more complicated than they seem initially, raising questions about mortality and the physical traces of beings from a time that no longer exists. It is fascinating how visual representations of a place can bring up such complicated ideas about the passage of time and the layering of history, experience, and space.

Imprints: Photographs by Mark Ruwedel is on display at the Peabody Essex Museum from June 12, 2010 to January 1, 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment