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Book Review: The Lines


Book Review The Lines By Edward Ranney Reviewed by William L. Fox Edward Ranney has several claims to fame, among them photographing the construction of the heroic Land Art installation Star Axis by Charles Ross, which stands on a mesa south of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The 11-story tall observatory is both architecture and art, a testament to our enduring need to connect Earth to Heaven, sky to ground, project anchored to our planet’s rotation around the North Star.


The Lines. By Edward Ranney.
Yale University Press, 2014.
The Lines
Reviewed by William L. Fox

The Lines
By Edward Ranney, with essay by Lucy R. Lippard
Yale University Press, New Haven, 2014. 88 pp., 44 tritone illustrations, 12x9¾". 


Edward Ranney has several claims to fame, among them photographing the construction of the heroic Land Art installation Star Axis by Charles Ross, which stands on a mesa south of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The 11-story tall observatory is both architecture and art, a testament to our enduring need to connect Earth to Heaven, sky to ground, project anchored to our planet’s rotation around the North Star. It’s been under construction since 1979 and Ranney has documented its progress each year in photographs that reveal the intent of the sculpture as well as its relationship to the surrounding land. And this has everything to do with Ranney’s newest book, a selection of his images made since 1985 of geoglyphs in southern Peru and northern Chile.

Ed Ranney graduated from Yale University in 1964 and soon thereafter went to Peru on a Fulbright to study the Quechua Indians near Cuzco. He’s been returning ever since and has become what my archaeology friends call the greatest living photographer of pre-Columbian architecture, a reputation founded in 1982 with his publication of Monuments of the Incas. If you compare his photos of Incan archaeological sites from coastal Peru and Chile with those he’s made of Star Axis, you begin to understand that his artistic practice is deeply coherent across several cultures. In turn, this means Mr. Ranney is in the business of putting next to one another two or more previously unassociated things, the primary method through which you create new knowledge in both science and art.

The Lines. By Edward RanneyYale University Press, 2014.

The Nazca Lines are the most famous of the geoglyphs in Peru — sites where the ground has been swept and rocks aligned to create geometric designs and stylized figures — although the geoglyphs of neighboring Chile cover an area magnitudes larger. Most of us know these works, which date from as early as 2000 years ago, through aerial photographs, including those by other artists such as Marilyn Bridges. To view the lines in pictures taken from above is to grasp their overall complexity and relationship to geography; but, to view pictures of them made on the ground is to grasp their relationship to topography, to understand more about how and why they were made. You could call Ranney’s book a kind of ground truth to the aerial images.

The Lines. By Edward RanneyYale University Press, 2014.

The Lines is a small and very handsome excerpt from Ranney’s geoglyph photographs, 44 black-and-white images from a much larger practice that covers archaeological sites and monuments along the Andean coastline. The images are printed in tritone on paper that was first varnished to ensure that the ink did not soak too far into the paper. The warm matte finish of the pages allows your eyes to rest easily on the work for long periods of time under various light conditions.

The Lines. By Edward RanneyYale University Press, 2014.

The sequencing of the photos is likewise as carefully designed, providing a balance between expansive panoramic settings and close portraits of the ground shot within the designs. The first scientists to study the Nazca lines, Paul Kosok and Maria Reiche, proposed that the lines represented constellations, but as Lucy Lippard points out in her incisive essay, the lines were created over a long period of time with more than one purpose, many of which centered on the appearance of seasonal water. The lines weren’t meant just to be looked at but also to be walked as part of a haptic relationship with land, sky, and deities. Ranney’s photographs don’t speak directly to any one interpretation of the lines, thus allowing us to imagine ourselves in the ancient landscape without distraction.

The Lines. By Edward RanneyYale University Press, 2014.

It’s rare to find a body of photographs that is admired by and useful to both artists and scientists and all the lay people in between. But that is where Ranney’s work sits, whether taken in South America or New Mexico. And Yale has done a splendid job of making that abundantly clear in a gem of a book.—William L. Fox


WILLIAM L. FOX, Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, has variously been called an art critic, science writer, and cultural geographer. He has published fifteen books on cognition and landscape, numerous essays in art monographs, magazines and journals, and fifteen collections of poetry. Fox has researched and written books set in the extreme environments of the Antarctic, the Arctic, Chile, Nepal, and other locations. He is a fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and Explorers Club and he is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Science Foundation.

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