The harsh light, sweeping panoramas, and sculpted pueblos of the American Southwest make it an ideal subject for photographers. For that reason, Americans have spent the last half century surrounded by images of red canyons, silhouetted cacti, highways stretching toward distant horizons, and cowboys astride tired steeds. These postcard icons have become part of a common visual shorthand used to discuss the idea of frontier, but in the early twentieth century such photographs were evidence of the exotic. The shooters who would define the region in the popular imagination had yet to arrive.
They came for many reasons. Photographers arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in search of unspoilt wilderness, native tribes, clean light, and respite from increasingly crowded and dirty cities. But whatever the reasons were for their coming, the reason they all returned was the same: scale. Monument Valley, the Sonoran Desert, and even the ancient towns around Taos provided photographers with a chance to capture subjects in the context of deep time. For the initial group of artistically minded photographers who journeyed from New York to meet Georgia O'Keeffe, the wife of their famed gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, the place served as a laboratory for experimentation. For the artists that followed, it came to embody the size and possibility of America, serving as a stage for more human dramas.
The Southwest's significance in shaping photography as an artform is matched only by photography's significance in defining the region's identity. Here are the photographers who came to the desert with their cameras and left with a legacy.
Many of Mark Ruwedel’s photographs look like stills from old Westerns or even outtakes from military testing footage. His work in the deserts of the Southwest has focused on abandoned homes, train tracks, and empty spaces. In his photographs, the drama of expansion and progress is evident only in its absence. Society came west and kept right on going.
Ruwedel's pictures from Wendover Air Force Base, where the Enola Gay practiced the Hiroshima run, show the ways in which bombs deformed the earth. His images of homes, crumbling under the onslaught of the sun, seem to mock the hubris of living in an arid wasteland, and his photographs of trash discarded by immigrants crossing the border from Mexico hint that it's all one desert anyway. "I'm attracted to certain types of landscapes, very barren, isolated, sort of alienated landscapes," the photographer explained during an exhibition at London's Tate Modern. "I was never interested in what is naively described as 'pure landscape photography.'"
Unlike many other southwestern photographers, Ruwedel is focused not just on capturing the Southwest as a static wilderness, but on documenting what has been done to it by humans and what is being undone by time. The frontier may no longer be wild, but it can seem so again.
Copyright Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York