Edward Ranney, Choquequilla Cave, Peru 1975

Archaeology and the Shape of Time: A Photo Show In Search of Itself

“Archaeology and The Shape of Time” at Fisher Press (August 26-Sept. 27) is an exhibition of small scale black-and-white photographs by Richard “Chip” Benson and Edward Ranney. The exhibit spans work made from 1968 to 2009, from Peru to Connecticut to Paris, and is timed with the release of a book by the same name.

If you like your photography straight, rigorous, modest, patient, handsome, faithful, and traditional, you will find many individual works to enjoy. The introductory book essay does an excellent job of describing the personal trajectory of each photographer as well as placing him in the lineage of large-format, purist photography pioneered in the 19th-century.

Richard Benson, Paris Rooftops, Paris, France 1980

This approach could be said to have culminated with the deadpan contributions, high on irony, of the New Topographic crowd in the 1970s, including Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Robert Adams (who has contributed an essay about Benson to the book); their distilled “non-styles” cast a blasé eye on the material world. Ranney and Benson seem to have a softer, more eulogizing attitude, shorter on irony. Judging by this show, these artists’ subject matter is often redolent of the past. Nonetheless, an ethic of clear-sight and exquisite craftsmanship pertains.

The intention of Fisher Press is to place these compatible photographers in an aesthetic context accessible to a broader audience than their existing constituencies. Benson, who was dean of the Yale Art School for a decade ending in 2006 (succeeded by Rob Storr), is best known for his technical inventions and his work as a printer and author. Ranney, meanwhile, has been a stalwart of book-based projects on archaeological sites – like Down Country, Lucy Lippard’s book on the Galisteo Basin; but certainly neither artist is a household name. In fact, the essay employs a wistful tone about Benson and Ranney, who may not have “exactly the stuff of commercial art stardom in the postmodern age.”

The organization of both exhibition and book is initially a bit opaque. The subject matter, but more significantly, the philosophical-photographic attitude taken by the artists differs markedly throughout the selections. It’s almost as if the entire history of photography is represented, including the classic 19c split between a pictorial, painting-influenced approach and a naturalistic approach that celebrated the impersonal, mechanical capacities of the camera, as well as a 20c modernist vision of abstraction.

We have the photographer as composer of sublime nature or picturesque landscape, as explorer and documenter of the exotic, as modernist form-maker, even as critic. So it’s no wonder that it is difficult to create a coherent whole for the exhibition or book. Archaeology is a theme in some images, but not a container for the whole show.

The book opens with facing images by the two artists. Benson’s bird’s eye view over an immense sea of intricate Paris rooftops to a distant mirage of the Sacré-Coeur plays against Ranney’s shot of diverging anti-perspectival dirt paths in the desolate Palpa Valley of Peru. In the exhibition, these two are found in the last gallery.

Edward Ranney, Palpa Valley, Peru 2004

The next such pairing, well into the book, is also echoed in the gallery, with a head-on shot of Benson’s Massachusetts brick Mill building against Ranney’s eroding dirt brick structure in Peru, both in voluptuous grays. Next up, architecturally framed views of a Peruvian cave and a French chateau, equally detailed and picturesque. Yet another comparison, stronger in the book, pits a close-up of a Machu Picchu stair detail against a formally exquisite porch-side view of a boarded-up Connecticut house in winter (three steps to the back door included).

The final, slightly wan, comparison featuring an interior view by each photographer is in the last pages of the book, but is less obvious in the show where the prints flank a window: Ranney’s is a metaphysical image wherein a patch of light on the wall relates to a stone on the floor of a rustic New Mexican room; Benson’s light beams through panes of glass around a genteel Rhode Island front door, where a curved stairway calls out the structure of leaning sleds.

Richard Benson, Mill Building, Massachusetts 1983

In short, despite some wonderful images whose pleasures derive from rich formal characteristics, much of the exhibit is not as pointed as it could be and ends up feeling like a somewhat musty elegy. The mini retrospective sections sometimes appear redundant and overworked, such as two photographs of the Shaw memorial by Benson; two photographs of northern New Mexico landscapes by Ranney, in which it is quite obvious that pueblo ruins are serving as comparison with the 21st century earthwork, Star Axis (by Charles Ross), near Las Vegas, New Mexico, which Ranney has documented.

A closer look at two of Ranney’s edgier photographs might have inspired a tauter aesthetic for both exhibition and book. A would-be lyrical view of the Illinois river from above is brutally interrupted by the dark rectangular form of a steel girder jutting into the picture from the right, canceling out half the horizon line where river would meet sky. Rays of light pierce through tiny holes on the end of the beam echoing white circular forms on the river below, and delicate wire lines trace arcs and loops against the sky above the steel. The whole forms a jolting but flawless composition and pitiless view of the way things look now. The facing image of a podunk-postmodern Vietnam Memorial almost shatters the picture plane with its intelligent meditation on the nature of illusion, while tiny signs of hair studio and title company in the background make their paltry claims on reality.


Fisher Press, 307 Camino Alire, Santa Fe; 505-984-9919

Gallery hours 11am to 5pm Wednesday through Saturday through September 9. Call for appointment from September9-27th.

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  1. To the Editors,

    RE: “Archaeology and the Shape of Time: A Photo Show in Search of Itself” – Photographs by Richard Benson and Edward Ranney at The Fisher Press.

    Towards the end of her critique of our new show, Ms. Hughes references two sets of pictures as seeming redundant in the chronology of images on view. The first is a pair of photographs by Richard Benson of the memorial on Boston Common to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The second pair are two local desert landscapes by Edward Ranney – one of a Pueblo Ruin in the Galisteo Basin and the other of the site of earthworks artist Charles Ross’s “Star Axis” project near Las Vegas, NM.

    With respect to Benson’s pictures of the Shaw monument: Benson and Ranney are both members of the Vietnam generation who saw many of their contemporaries go off to fight and die in that war. Each doubtless struggled in his own way with the conflicts arising between opposing the war on moral principle, yet also being among the lucky ones who didn’t have to go fight in it themselves (Benson had already done a tour of duty in the Navy before the war and I believe that Ranney got a deferment because of first being in college and later having a family). From what I know of both artists, each photographed war memorials out of a sensitivity to these events and issues that were at the forefront of the cultural consciousness of that time.
    The Shaw memorial, modeled by the great American nineteenth century sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, was a tribute to the first regiment of free African American men to fight and die in the Civil War. The two pictures of this subject in our show hang in a group of other photographs of memorials of various types, one a monument to the Vietnam war in Illinois photographed by Ranney. Ranney’s picture is admittedly more raw, asymmetrical and modern in appearance than the Shaw images, which could almost have been taken in the era of the events they commemorate. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the Shaw pictures in that group offers a poignant association to Vietnam because it was the first war in which men of color were drafted, fought and died in equal or even greater numbers to their white counterparts. After being largely excluded from serving in the Civil War, and serving in comparatively small numbers in both World Wars – by the time of Vietnam, young African Americans had won the freedom to serve, but not the economic standing that enabled some of their more fortunate white contemporaries to avoid the conflict altogether. One of the two Shaw Memorial pictures in our show portrays a very young African American enlisted man in close-up detail. The second shows Shaw himself, the white commanding officer who came from the same kind of privileged Yankee background as both Benson and Ranney. Shaw did serve in his war and was killed and buried in a mass grave alongside his fellow soldiers. It is more than a little ironic that his and his men’s sacrifice helped to create a society in which white men like himself would be able to avoid fighting in future conflicts while the now ostensibly freed young men of color would be more likely to have to serve and die. All of that history, alongside its implications for the present, makes the inclusion of both Benson’s Shaw pictures well worth the effort.
    The Shaw memorial images also have an art historical import that sets them apart from these other meanings. They come from a suite of pictures Benson took for a highly regarded photographic monograph titled “Lay This Laurel”, which was written by Lincoln Kirstein and published by The Eakins Press in 1973 at the very end of the Vietnam War. It is a significant work in the history of photographic monographs and in that sense is among the precedents in the world of photographic book art from which the Fisher Press’s mission as a limited edition art publisher is descended.

    As to the two desert pictures by Ranney: these pose a legitimate counterpoint to one another, as well as to the larger body of his work at ancient sites in Peru and Central America, in that they simultaneously address both the present and past of human constructions in the landscape. Here Ranney has photographed two New Mexican landscapes, one depicting an ancient ruin on whose exact nature and purposes – ritual or practical – we can only hope to speculate. The second depicts a contemporary construction of modern American art. To me, as the curator of the show, the intent and purpose of Mr. Ross’s art is almost more remote and inaccessible to the casual observer as that of the ancient culture long-passed that hangs to its left. We can at least assume that the peoples of the Galisteo basin understood and used the constructions whose remains Ranney surveyed through his lens. Can we say the same of “Star Axis”? To me, this is not only a funny juxtaposition of images – I think Mr. Ranney and I both saw them as a thought-provoking diptych – it is also an aesthetically engaging and pleasing one, because both are great pictures and, far from being redundant, look fantastic on the wall together.

    Christopher Benson, Owner/Director of The Fisher Press