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Virginia and Truckee #1

  • Mark Ruwedel, Virginia and Truckee #1.

Selected by Walker Pickering
Assistant Professor of Art, Photography
School of Art, Art History & Design

As a child born in the desert of West Texas, I have an affinity for photographs that can speak to the conflict in our desire for westward expansion with the indifference of its toll on the land. In this image from Mark Ruwedel’s series Westward the Course of Empire, the pathway now sits scarred, unused by the train tracks intended for this site. 

I imagine the nineteenth-century laborers and what they might have to say about the energy they expended in pursuit of the greater good. Would they be angry that their efforts have been discarded, or proud they played a small role in the building of a new kind of empire? 

Images like this imply a great deal about the dream and the folly of Manifest Destiny. I’m reminded of the work of photographer Daniel Shea in his Removing Mountains project, where companies were willing to literally blow up the entire top of a mountain in order to get to the coal it held. Because westward expansion was framed as a race, the effects on the land were an entirely secondary concern. 

Still, we’re left with a new kind of beauty in these traces of Manifest Destiny’s failures.