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The West haunts American photography as the South haunts American literature — if for opposite reasons. Lush and complicatedly peopled, the South is burdened with history. “The past is never dead,’’ William Faulkner wrote in words that are as much boast as warning. “It’s not even past.’’
The West, in contrast, could have been created with the camera in mind: stark and empty and bracingly new (terrifyingly new, too). The South may feel foreign to us, but the West looks alien. In documenting it, photographers from Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson in the 19th century to Ansel and Robert Adams in the 20th to Richard Misrach today have made it seem at least a little less alien.
Mark Ruwedel belongs in their company. His West is riotously austere and beautifully desolate: a Beckett landscape so empty of human life that even Beckett’s lost souls would feel out of place there. Yet one crucial aspect distinguishes Ruwedel’s work from that of his predecessors. As much archeology as art, his images explicitly remind us that the West has a past, one immensely longer in duration than the past of cowboys and Indians we see in westerns. “California is west of the West,’’ Theodore Roosevelt once said. The parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, and California that Ruwedel photographs aren’t west of the West. They’re so desolate they almost seem underneath the West.