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Portfolio & Interview: Edward Ranney on Two Landscapes: England & Peru

photo-eye Gallery Portfolio & Interview: Edward Ranney on Two Landscapes: England & Peru photo-eye Gallery is excited to announce our latest exhibition, Two Landscapes: England & Peru by Edward Ranney opening Friday October 30th with an artist reception and book signing from 5-7. The exhibition includes a diverse selection of images created between 1980 and 2004 juxtaposing two disparate environments: the rolling and rainy hills of Northumberland and the desert earthworks in Peru.

photo-eye Gallery is excited to announce our latest exhibition, Two Landscapes: England & Peru by Edward Ranney opening Friday October 30th with an artist reception and book signing from 5-7. The exhibition includes a diverse selection of images created between 1980 and 2004 juxtaposing two disparate environments: the rolling and rainy hills of Northumberland and the desert earthworks in Peru. This is the first time a large selection of works from the Cumbria series have been displayed in the United States. photo-eye Gallery's Lucas Shaffer interviewed Ranney concerning the creation of both bodies of work, as well as his personal practice and introduction to the medium.

Wastwater from Whinn Rigg, Cumbria, England, 1981 – Edward Ranney

Lucas Shaffer:     Can you tell me how the England series came about? I understand you were awarded a grant to complete the work. How did the project begin?

Edward Ranney:     A friend of mine in London happened to see in the newspaper a competition for a grant in England from the Northern Arts Council.  I think it was 1979 or 1980 and she said I should apply for this grant because she knew I'd always wanted to go up to the Lake District and photograph. It was sponsored by the Northern Arts Council of Great Britain and it was money that would be channeled through the Carlisle Museum of Art, in the town of Carlisle, which is just below the Sottish border. The conditions were that the grant would cover expenses and they would keep 20 or 30 prints there in the museum up there. The money allowed me to make two trips in 1980 and 1981, and it was pretty tight financially but also allowed me to get a good selection of work made.

LS:     When you were in England, how much time did you have to make images?

ER:     I was there a month probably each time, at least. As you know, northern England is pretty rainy so there was a lot of pressure environmentally to make work. You know, sometimes I was working with a tarp over my camera and all that.

LS:     Are you photographing with a 5x7 field camera?

ER:     Yes. Sure. A Dutch monorail camera. It's tricky sometimes. Huge storms would roll in and it would rain for a day or two and the area I was working in, the Lake District, as well as the Hadrian's Wall area and getting into Northumberland is pretty... not mountainous, but hilly. The roads go up and down a lot and some of the pictures took some experimenting in how to pick places and how to get out and walk there.

LS:     I wanted to ask about that. I feel like one of the compelling aspects of your photographs is the vantage point. I feel like you have a great understanding of where to stand and photograph. What is that process like and how long does it usually take you?

ER:     That's a very good question. It's totally intuitive but I'm also looking for certain kinds of vantage points that will not only give a sense of topography but also convey how I feel about that particular aspect of the landscape. And sometimes it comes very, very quickly and others I need to walk an hour or two to get to an area that seems promising. Once I'm there it's pretty fast to make my decisions, but I'll make a variety of exposures along with the one I really feel is going to work. But I can only carry oh, 20-30 sheets of film unless I have a helper, but most of the time in England I didn't have anyone with me, I was just feeling my way.

LS:     What was that like; being out there on your own?

ER:     Well, I like it. It's not dangerous. It's not like in Peru where I really can't photograph by myself anymore. Yeah, it's intriguing to go out there on your own and see what you can come up with.

River Lune, Cumbria, England, 1981  – Edward Ranney

LS:     You'd mentioned wanting to photograph specifically in the Lake District. What drew you to the area?

ER:     Well, I'd studied Wordsworth in college, so it was a literary approximation, but I'd also seen pictures of the hills here and there and I figured, boy, it must be pretty rich — the views you get of the hills, but also the spacial relationships and the legacy of the area. I found a variety of subject matter.

LS:     Was there anything in particular The Northern Arts Council asked you to photograph?

ER:     No, and I'm not so sure they felt the project was a great success. Partly because, I think, a lot of the photographers in Northern England resented the fact that a North American had gotten the grant. It wasn't much money, it was $5,000 or £5,000 — so you know I could barely cover my expenses — but there were people who had worked up there a long time in their specialties, so to have a gringo come in and kind of get the advantage of this money and this show — I think it kind of put them off.

LS:     Why do you think the Council chose you over those other photographers? Did they say anything to you specifically about that?

ER:     I think they really liked they way I worked with the landscape. My book, well the Inca book hadn't come out yet, but I'd just had a series of major shows and I think that helped and I think the portfolio that I submitted convinced them that I could do the work and present a series of images that would be different from what English photographers could do. I mean, frankly at that time there were a couple of photographers who had worked with the English landscape and they had done nice work, but my intent was not to duplicate what they had done in any way.

LS:     Nor could I imagine the Arts Council would want you to...

ER:     Yes, you know, I never met with the Arts Council after I left. I was in the process of finalizing the design and printing of Monument of the Incas which came out in 1982 so it was a really tight schedule for me in terms of preparation and the Inca book to a certain degree took precedence over this show. But, you know, I got it all done and it worked. The show did travel a bit in Northern England but did not have wide exposure.

LS:     So have you ever seen this work installed?

ER:     No, I didn't go to the opening, no. I didn't get over there.

LS:     So is this the first time you've seen the work installed like this? As a series?

ER:     Well I've shown a handful of pictures here and there, but yes this is the first time I've seen probably more than five pictures in the series up at the same time.

LS:     Well, that's great. How do you like it?

ER:     I'm pleased, yeah. And also the relationship between the desert and Northern England is so obvious it's sort of a bit of a cliche you might say, but here you have this incredibly rainy and luscious England landscape juxtaposed against the Peruvian desert. It puts the desert pictures in a slightly different context — less academic you might say, because a lot of my work in Peru is looked upon as "Oh, he must be an archaeologist, and he's documenting pre-Columbian sites."  Well, that's true but I'm not trained as an archaeologist or anthropologist — what I'm doing is totally visual, and I go to certain sites because I know they are well known and I know they are important and often there's very, very, very few remains there that stand out as dramatic structures or changes to the landscape. What you often find are rudiments of things left over. Or sometimes looted cemeteries.

Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England, 1980 – Edward Ranney

LS:     After installing your work, I was reading about Hadrian's wall and it seems similar. Much more impressive in its day — 20 feet high, six to nine feet wide, covered in plaster and painted white – it's been looted for brick and used in local construction post-Roman occupation.

ER:     Very much like in Peru. The sites have been robbed not only of contents but the materials, stone and adobe, were used in various other structures. But it's interesting, you can see in a couple of these photographs — like this one here for example [points to Hadrian's Wall] — the very ingenious use of the sheer edges of hills to provide a certain natural barrier from the invading barbarians of the North, as the Romans might call them. As you follow it, you can actually see in that distant hill where the wall continues on that one as well. So it is really dramatic, and what struck me as I got up there for the first time was that this space is like the American West in the sense of the expanse and the richness of spacial complexity. So I felt right at home.

LS:     How do you see the England work fit in to your career, the bigger body of work you've put together?

ER:     Well, I've never published much of it. Aperture published some things in the 80s, which was really nice, but I'd like to do a little book on it if I could get the backing and the proper publisher. It would be interesting. You know, I have a lot of work like that; you can't print everything — you can't show everything. The problem is some people get confused. It's hard for people to sort of be broad enough to always see how the English work relates to what I've been interested in. It's tricky, you know, "this guy works in Peru, he lives in New Mexico."

Palpa Valley, 2004– Edward Ranney

LS:     Speaking of Peru, how did you get started making images in South America?

ER:     Well, actually I started to photograph in 1964-65 once I graduated from college.

LS:     Where did you go to school?

ER:     I went to Yale as an undergraduate, but I didn't study photography there at all. I studied Literature and Art History. So, I knew I wanted to photograph, but I didn't have any sense it would become a major part of my life. As soon as I was in Peru, where I was living for most of that year, I was working with students who where out on a social anthropology assignment — to work with a professor in a certain area around some Inca sites. So, I started photographing in the area and I found that I was good at it and I liked it. I spent most of the year switching to photography and by the end of the year I'd made a series of photographs in 35mm of the Inca sites that I've always used as reference — pictures for later work — which I didn't start until 1971. By that time I was comfortable with the view camera, and by that time I'd saved up enough money to go back and do the kind of work I hoped I could. Turned out well. Following that I got a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and that funded a longer stay in 1975.

LS:     When you were switching from Literature to Photography, who were your mentors at the time?

ER:     No one in particular really. I would meet people here and there; a professor of design from RISD was helpful in Peru and a guy who was studying under Minor White at MIT was helpful when I was back in the States, and I worked for a guy in New York to learn Darkroom stuff as his assistant and I met Robert Frank when I was teaching school in Vermont — my wife and I taught his two kids for a number of years. So Robert became kind, he looked at my work and was like "Yeah." Paul Caponigro looked at my work because I was interested in his pictures of the ancient stones at that time. And when he saw my beginning work he was like "Yeah, just go back; do more." So all of that was helpful.

LS:     So you never had any real formal training; you just started to put the parts and pieces together yourself.

ER:     Yeah, when I came back I lived in New York and I was going to Columbia Graduate school for Spanish Literature. I knew I wasn't going to become a professor, but I had to have that step, and it was a way of reentering the US and it was living in New York, which I always wanted to do, and photograph the city — which I did at the time, which was interesting. I was lucky.

View the Two Landscapes Online Portfolio

View The Lines, Ranney's latest monograph

For more information and to purchase prints please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505-988-5152 x 121 or