© Mark Ruwedel, Canadian Pacific #3, 2000


As many of my fellow photo book enthusiasts already know, there is an undeniable allure when it comes to a finely crafted monograph filled with beautiful images. The desirability of such books can be so overwhelming at times that we will forgo what most would consider the necessities in life, to attain the current object of our desire. Therefore, when I first held Mark Ruwedel's, Westward the Course of Empire, felt it's soft cloth cover, I knew without hesitation that this was going to be such a book. The deep red type and inlaid plate on the front are just a teaser as to the richness and stunning quality of the reproductions inside. The black and white photographs are printed impeccably well, and garner the urge to pull them ever so gently out of the binding, to then frame and hang on the wall.


© Mark Ruwedel, Everett and Monte Cristo #15, 2001


© Mark Ruwedel, Tonopah and Tidewater #25, 2002


This is of course secondary, and ultimately of no consequence, if the work itself does not warrant such treatment. In this case, Ruwedel’s study of the remains and ruins of both the American and Canadian West’s once grand trans – continental railroad system is more than due. This collection of 72 plates documents what was, by capturing a trace of what is left. His photographs relate the impermanence of the past both eloquently and with extreme care. Utilizing a formula that many of us are familiar with, thanks in large part to Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel holds us captive with landscape after landscape beckoning us to follow the next turn, see what is around the bend, just as the lure of the West has done for generations. However, where Ruwedel differs from the typical topographic mode is that his photographs are full of rich shadows, wonderfully rendered skies, and snow. This method of increased attention to the actual scene, as opposed to a more objective approach to addressing the subject matter, adds depth and clarity to the work. We see what has drawn Ruwedel out into the abandoned West, we see where the longing to walk or drive along the remains of some 130 railroad lines comes from.


© Mark Ruwedel, Chicago Milwaukee St.Paul and Pacific #23, 2004


© Mark Ruwedel, Kettle Valley #41, 2000


However, as much as I cannot help but think of Ruwedel trekking out into the West, 4x5 in tow, finding these forgotten places, it is impossible to not also consider those who came before. Those who set out to physically unify a nation and in turn conquer the West. And when it comes to the longing that I spoke of at the beginning of this review for the object itself, in actuality that longing only represents the intense desire to see a photographer use the medium at the height of it’s potential, to be able to share in that experience over and over again. Something that Ruwedel appears to do exceptionally well.


Justin James Reed, 2009