Born in 1942, educated at Yale University, internationally recognized landscape photographer Edward Ranney is the recipient of numerous awards and grants including NEA grants (1974 and 1982), a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1977), and Fulbright Fellowships (1964 and 1993). His work is represented in public and private collections alike including The Museum of Modern Art, New York and San Francisco, The Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe and Houston, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and The Art Institute of Chicago. His photographic books include Stonework of the Maya (1974), Monuments of the Inca (1982), Heights of Machu Picchu (1998), and Prairie Passage (1998).
This conversation was first seen in the January/Febuary, 1999 issue of View Camera magazine.
Edward Ranney Both the recent book, Prairie Passage: Photographs of the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor, (Univ Illinois Press) and the exhibition of the same title shown at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1998, were produced by the Canal Corridor Association of Chicago to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the US Congress’s designation of the canal’s route as the nations first National Historic Corridor.
I’d been wanting to do a project like Prairie Passage for some years, particularly in the area around Chicago, where I grew up. I didn’t grow up in the Canal Corridor, but it was similar enough that there wasn’t a big difference in terms of landscape and light. Central to the photographic project was the transition from the urban to the rural. It’s not static thing. There’s the whole issue of what you preserve and what you try to acknowledge in the way of reading the landscape. Chicago is rich for a landscape study because of its rapid growth and the designation there of the nations first National Historic Corridor.
John Paul Caponigro One of the things that makes this new kind of park unique are the easements or land grants from corporations in return for tax incentives and private property exists within a larger area designated as public? That’s creative.
ER Yes. In Chicago itself it’s still not worked to have the easments approved, but outside the city there are over sixty miles now of continuous trails that can be used for walking and bike riding. So you have the reuse of the canal towpath in a way that’s very practical. It’s used heavily by people, at least from the area, whether it will be used as heavily by the people from Chicago remains to be seen. It’s the kind of photographic project that’s pretty specific. It’s not like I was turned loose in an exotic archeological site. I was commissioned, which does make a little bit of a difference. There were specific historic buildings that had to be shown.
JPC Whether they generated optimal images or not.
ER Yes. Then there were other things that no one had expected me to photograph which I came upon. It was very rewarding to be able to surprise people with what I could find. For example, this is an important picture for me because of the way the landscape is reclaiming this industrial site at the Joliet Arsenal. There’s a very interesting transition happening there.
JPC It’s revegetating?
ER Yes. This is where a lot of the TNT was made for WWII, at this munitions plant. You still have the remains of a lot of those structures but you have vegetation reclaiming the site. We also came across historical images – glass plates. Some show the building of the Sanitary Canal, which is the modern canal still in use from Chicago down to Lockport. These pictures were made around 1900. It all gives you a sense of what’s hidden in the landscape, even if you can’t see it.
For me this work relates to my photographs in Peru because it’s a kind of contemporary archeology. It’s only 150 years as opposed to 500 to 1000 or more, but the same visual process takes place when I’m working in the field. You go to a certain place where you know something happened or that looks significant and begin to make pictures and through the process of making the pictures you discover what was actually going on there and what it can mean. So the document leads you into, you might even say, a metaphysical realm.
JPC How would you say that?
ER Well I think that in the process of making pictures you come in contact with forces that are pretty pervasive and universal which put the efforts and contstructions of human civilization in perspective. Just as we’re looking at aged cultures that left traces, our own traces are visible to us, even if they’re only fifty years old. It’s a way of reading signs that we’ve left that acknowledges the bigger forces at work, reflect what’s involved with decay or change. It’s a metaphorical process that doesn’t change, whatever generation you’re living in.
JPC Visual documents are interesting. Pictures do things words can’t.
ER One problem this show had to deal with, because we organized it as a journey following the canal from Chicago to Peru, Illinois, was that the wall labels had to convey specific information and historical change. I think a lot of people who saw the show, particularly people used to photographic shows only as art, got trapped because they felt they had to read everything to absorb the show. And you don’t really. It’s very interesting, a lot of the comments that people left in the little note book at the exhibit said that they understood the whole scope of this area and the passage of time and the historical forces at work in a way that they never had before and it was clearly from just looking at the pictures as opposed to trying to absorb all the information. The information had to be there to convey where you were and what had happened in certain places and why certain buildings were presented, but I think it’s also very important when you go into the show to be able to disregard the information and just look at the visual evidence and make your own deductions from that.
JPC Has it been a little freer working in Peru (South America) over the years ?
ER Sure because what happens when I go to Peru is that I’m building as I go from one year to the next. I’m finding places that I wouldn’t have found ten years ago. No one is telling me what I should be photographing. It’s pretty clear which archeological sites are the important ones. But it’s also about the process of finding things, even insignificant ruins, whether it’s a ruined graveyard or a very minimal archeological structure that really hasn’t been looked at before. Anything has the capacity to become a good picture, as you know, it’s just a question of what you do with it.
JPC Right, or even a question of finding interest in it.
ER I’ll also force myself to make pictures of places that I don’t find particularly interesting because again in the process of making the picture I begin to see things that make a picture and become interesting.
JPC Have you found that people have taken an interest in some of the things that you’ve found that ordinarily they hadn’t devoted attention to? Have you discovered something that archeologists later go to and consider an interesting prospect?
ER In some cases I think that’s true. That’s one of the things that, even as my way of working becomes more and more out dated, makes me believe that there’s still a reason for doing it, which is that people will look at the pictures and say “I never looked at it that way.” or, “I never saw that.” I think there’s still room for that in our culture; I think it’s necessary. There’s so many people inventing or creating subject matter that they forget to really see what’s right around them.
JPC In going to exotic places, there’s a sense of discovering something other, than yourself and your culture. One has to fight the tendency to romanticize. I’m wondering how you first struggled with those notions, how you first approached it, and where you stand in relationship to that now?
ER A place like Peru can have a romantic appeal particularly the highlands and a place like Machu Picchu which draws you and holds you there not just because of the layering of history but also because of the evocative atmosphere of the light. What I’ve found over the years, particularly as I became more interested in a very specific subject matter, the Inca rock shrines with carvings in the native rock which relate to worship – the artifacts, the landscape, and the culture all demanded that I not romanticize them, that I look at them fairly matter of factly, so that the information that specialists hadn’t really absorbed about their abstract language, if you will, expecially the rock carving and what it signifies, became clear on its own, as opposed to me investing it with something that maybe wasn’t meant to be there.
JPC And yet you still made your own pictures.
ER Very definitely
Photographs can distinctly reflect and make very specific the visual patterns that ancient people carried in their minds. The Andean weaving patterns were often inspired by plant structures of the local area. The rock carving was influenced by natural forms and was symbollically conceived reflecting metaphysical concerns as opposed to biological ones. These are discussed by experts in the field, and I’m certainly not adverse to having archeologists or art historians write about these things as much as possible but again it’s important to let the pictures try to present an experience in themselves, so that you’re not always thinking about how to look at something in terms of its factual content rather than what it is in itself.
JPC Phenomenology. Even in the seemingly banal there is a richness of experience and being that no single text or perspective could hope to encompass.
That there were several major civilizations, empires, in South America, that rose and fell before Columbus, tends to be over looked.
ER Exactly and it’s the remains of these cultures on the Peruvian coast that have never been documented broadly by anyone, even in 35mm. So to be able to put together a broad archive of these sites that range from approximately 2000 BC, to the Inca occupation, around 1450, is exciting. The large format negative provides you, the archaeologist or the layman, with all this detail and this different sense of space than a 35mm record can provide. My hope is that the body of work can be kept together, negatives, proof prints, a set of fine prints, and housed in an institution that will make them available for study and reuse in publication after I’m gone..
JPC Culturally we tend to polarize certain notions – historical, scientific, document and the artist, creative, expression – yet so many documentary photo essays challenge this view.
ER It’s very difficult. Are you looking at a document of a culture or are you looking at my particular view of it?
JPC Exactly. Is it mere fact? Is it appropriation?
ER Exactly. You know there’s a fine line to draw as an artist and a recorder. Hopefully there’s a little bit of both in them, a little bit more than a little bit let’s say. That enables the pictures to be, not all of them but many of them, worthy objects of contemplation, particularly if they’re finely crafted as prints that will enable them to live beyond a certain kind of informational reference.
JPC That’s a nice phrase – worthy of contemplation.
JPC Historical images used to be considered among the highest art forms, second only to religious (sacred history), while landscape and still life trailed behind. That, in a large sense in this century, has been over turned and photography has taken on the role of bearer of history.
ER If you look at the 19th century expeditionary photographers particularly of the American west you know a lot of their work was published in books and reports. They were pretty scientific in a sense and yet those pictures really rise above just reporting. Some people critically would oppose their incorporation into the art museum. But how can they not go into the art museum? First of all they are beautifully seen, beautifully executed and printed, and they stand as some of the greater photographic products of the history of photography.
JPC One early challenge to that was that the artist hadn’t impressed enough of his or herself upon the materials to make the resulting statement their own, thus it wasn’t artistic. Only clear “intention” proved it was something more that the product of a machine.
ER That’s been the traditional way of looking at that work but when you begin to appreciate and acknowledge, either the eccentricities of photographers like O’Sullivan or the classic beauty of the images that Carlton Watkins produced, you have work that is really stunning in terms of its relationship to the painting of the period.
It’s interesting, our enthusiasm for 19th century photography, which interests me a lot because of the way I work with the large format camera and similar challenges in the field. Just getting to the places that are important to photograph is one. Two, making sure everything works, that the image is registered properly. And then letting the unexpected things happen as you’re making pictures so that they become something more than just factual records. Again it’s letting the forces at work play on you and being quick enough to realize what works and what doesn’t work visually, as O’Sullivan and Watkins were quick enough to realize. It’s important to acknowledge and honor the fact that the work that these practitioners produced was very definitely used in a practical way when we exhibit them today. For instance, the exhibit Perpetual Mirage, at the Whitney Museum in 1996 presented the books along with the prints themselves. It puts the images and the work, the photographic prints themselves, in a context of meaning that is not just isolating them as aesthetic objects, which does make a difference. I would hope that my work would be acknowledged in the same way.
JPC An art beyond art for art sake?
ER Yes. Do I want artifacts – ceramics and textiles – shown with my work? That’s an issue that comes up occasionally. In some cases I like the juxtaposition and in other cases I don’t. There are different ways and different times of bridging those gaps, some of them work better than others.
JPC Egyptian culture as one thing rather than a process of dynasties with evolving cultural concerns. When you first went to Peru, did you have a simpler understanding of what Peru might be or did you expect to find that kind of variety when you first went?
ER It’s been an ongoing process for me, going back to Peru for more than 25 years, working intensively in the mountain region at first in the 70’s, then coming back in the mid 80’s and working along the desert, not trying to do everything within even a 10 year period, but rather amass a sense of archival information and a personal sense of a vast area a couple thousand miles in length in a way that enables me to keep discovering the subtleties of the different cultures that rose and fell during that period of time. It’s much richer in a certain way because it’s more complicated. And you can see it in the pictures. Sometimes you have to find a few details that stand out, maybe they’re very small, insignificant to other people, but very important archaeological.
These sites are constantly being destroyed. It’s unfortunate and that’s been one of the drives for me to keep doing this even though it’s not easily funded, because in another 20 years there may not be much left.
JPC There’s something inescapably temporal about photographs. We’re here today, looking at the product of 25 instants, each seconds in length, and less visibly there’s the time that went into getting there between each. Each is a moment sliced out of a continuum, the present become past, each represents an accumulation, a deposit in the body of work and in you. I’m curious about the benefits of time. You’ve been looking at this for decades and I’m sure that brings a different kind of understanding and a different quality to the work as a result.
ER Yeah. I’m obviously not in a hurry either to publish it. You know I’ve shown some of this work only in bits and pieces here and there. Obviously when I show it I want to show it definitively and publish it definitively with as high a quality as I can arrange. But it all takes you back … to life, to raising a family and watching your kids grow. Sometimes, you know, you’ll look at a picture and aside from it’s formal qualities you’ll think how difficult it was at that particular time in your life to make that picture. It brings back certain visceral memories that are a great part of getting out in the field with a view camera and doing work. I mean part of the reason that some of us persist in doing it is that physically it’s really very enjoyable. It’s a totally engaging. It’s not a sport but it’s an out door thing, you’re using your body, you’re using your brain, you’re using your eyes, and all these elements have to be orchestrated in an almost balletic way, often, if you’re working in a very difficult physical situation. You remember the condition that prompted it, you know where the view point was, and what it was you came up with to solve the problem of making a decent picture at that place.
JPC So is this Ranney light that I’m seeing or Peruvian light?
ER It’s both. But I would say in the coast there’s much less opportunity for interpretation of light because it’s so harsh. It’s much more demanding and less variable than in the mountains. The mountains are much more evocative and changeable from one second to the next. On the coast you either tend to have extremely harsh sunlight or very dense fog, and often you just have to accept a certain amount of haze.
JPC You have to work with what you’re given including the mood of the landscape which is sometimes impressed upon you.
ER Right, exactly. I’ll go back to some of these places but I often find that what I see is what I get, because you can’t always go back, and if you do it’s not, perhaps, as good as when you first went there.
JPC So a document is both created and discovered.
ER Exactly. You have to be open to many things. First of all you have to be open to what’s there at the time that you’re there and second of all you have to intuit, project ahead a little bit, what you think you want that will work or convey the truth about the situation that you’re exploring.
JPC A majority of viewers will never see the real thing. With few exceptions to date, your images of Peru are my only images of Peru.
ER That’s probably so. It’s interesting how photographs often become our surrogate reality. And that’s important. We can no longer fool ourselves and say that every picture is not only worth a thousand words but is the ultimate truth, because we all know that’s not so. But I still think there’s a place for this kind of work. The rocks aren’t going to go away.
JPC No and neither will “reality” and the necessity of making statements about what we feel is “true.” It might just get more problematic.
ER What’s very interesting with all this work is that the more I do it the more I see how deeply it can enter the psyches and spirits of people who look at it and are interested in it, whether they’re artists as a lot of the viewers are, or people who are just amazed by the forms that these ancient cultures created in the landscape. It can really effect how you look at landscape and feel about very common things, such as your own house.
JPC That’s kind of wonderful. The picture continues on into a life beyond itself.
ER The wonderful thing for me is that it’s also a learning process for me.