Down Country: The Tano of the Galisteo Basin, 1250-1782

by Lucy R. Lippard, Photographs by Edward Ranney
Published by Museum of New Mexico Press, 2010

Reviewed by Michele Penhall

Issue 18

Lucy Lippard takes the reader on an epic historical journey in this exhaustive account of northern New Mexico’s Galisteo Basin and the Tano, or Southern Tewa pueblo people, whose roots in this area were established centuries ago. Drawing upon archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, history and aspects of art history, as well as her personal passion for the place where she has lived since 1993, the author has organized this narrative of “imagined landscapes,” as she refers to the book in her conclusion, around twenty-seven succinct chapters whose subjects include a particular important time period, significant aspects of native culture such as sacred shrines and rock art, pre and post-Colonial events and the implications and repercussions of those events for the Tano.

The interdisciplinary approach Lippard employs to weave her story brings a cultural depth and clarity of understanding to this native group and their extended geography—the entire Galisteo Basin—that should serve as a model for similar studies. Told in the clear voice and transparent prose of a skilled veteran writer, Lippard, throughout the book is careful to both qualify her account and to caution us about the inherent “…difficulty of “reading” a culture so far from one’s own in both time and space….” (p.281). History is a messy thing. Primary sources, historical documents, and even oral accounts are all open to interpretation by whomever is conducting the research. To again borrow from the author, “new evidence is constantly arriving to disrupt the previous “facts.” So while Lippard has developed a cogent historical narrative, she also recognizes the slipperiness and mutability of that narrative.

Throughout the chapters historical photographs, line drawings, site plans, thumbnail images, and works by such contemporary artists as Susan Rothenberg and Miguel Gandert, reference Lippard’s text, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Edward Ranney’s seventy-three black and white photographs made over an extended period of time, however, add a potent and critical visual dimension to the book which completes the project. Nestled together in two sections of the book, the photographs form their own comprehensive narrative of the basin. From a micro, macro and sometimes a near bird’s eye view, Ranney’s work move us across and through the terrain navigating exposed ruins, remote shrines, intricate rock carvings and petroglyphs, rocky mesas, and vast expanses of open New Mexico land.

His images continue a tradition of landscape photography established in the nineteenth century by some of the great American photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins. Yet their significance reaches beyond a documentary or topographic aesthetic. Views such as Pueblo San Lázaro (pl. 52) and Arroyo del Chorro at Pueblo San Lázaro (pl. 54) mine the same kind of sublime sensibility for the landscape as we see in Gustave Le Gray’s forest images at Fountainbleau and/or Eugène Atget’s Fortifications de Paris. There is an implied intimacy, a relationship there that is the result of a close longstanding affinity to the place. It is in large part what makes the photographs so powerful. Seen in tandem with Lucy Lippard’s narrative, Ranney’s images complete and make visible, the long journey undertaken by the Tano in the Galisteo Basin.