Westward the Course of Empire

I’ve always been intrigued by the remains of transportation systems. As I drive around town, I see interchanges which have been blocked off because they are no longer safe, ramps for overpasses which were never built, and right of ways from old railway lines.* I find them fascinating since they tell stories about how people used to get around, suggest the ways we expected things to develop, and reveal the underlying structure of how we originally settled here.

*I wish there were a project similar to Forgotten Chicago going on in the Bay Area.

Photographing these remnants has long been something I’ve wanted to do. I doubt it will ever happen due to the fact that many of them can only be seen and appreciated from the road. And yes, this is close to being ruin porn except that its motivations are documentary and historical rather than photographic.

Tonopah and Tidewater #1 by Mark Ruwedel. at SFMoMA

Which is why I got so excited when I discovered Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire. At last year’s New Topographics exhibition at SFMoMA, the extended exhibition* of influences and influenced included a few Ruwedel prints of old railway lines where all that is left is the imprint upon the earth of cuts and grades.

*This is something SFMoMa excels at. They will bring in a big traveling exhibition and then make it better through introducing related material from their collection.

I did some research when I got home and discovered that those prints were part of a complete exhibition. I immediately placed the exhibition catalog on my Amazon Wish List. I finally got around to purchasing the book last week* and have been pleasantly surprised to find that it’s even better than I was expecting.

*For those of you keeping score, this is the third book after Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke which New Topographics inspired me to acquire.

Ruwedel’s book is about technology, history, art, and nature. It’s pure American West landscape photography which references the 19th-century glass plate landscape work as much as it draws on the New Topographics photos of the built environment. It also suggests that Gohlke’s essay about experiencing the landscape by car is really about experiencing the landscape from any moving vehicle.

Photographs of wide open spaces as viewed from transportation is possibly the best description of the American experience. These definitely give that sense even though the transportation is now absent.

What’s most fascinating is how the photographs can tell us what everything looked like before the railroads. Despite the immense wealth granted to the railroads through land grants next to the tracks, it appears that much of that land is still unused. Aside from the remnants of the railroad grades, everything else is almost pristine wilderness.

Each photo tells me what things looked like before the railroads, what it looked like from the railroad, and what it looks like now that the railroads are gone. Then factor in the history of rail transport and how it ties into American expansion. The only thing I’d like to see added is a map. But that’s not a photography complaint.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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