Exploring Ancient Boundaries

Mariana Cook traveled the globe for eight years photographing rural stone walls.

Mariana Cook didn’t pay much attention to the stone wall separating her woodsy Chilmark property from the adjoining Keith Farm on Middle Road. That is, until fifty-six cows came visiting through a crumbling section of the wall. The incident prompted the New York photographer to walk along the wall, considering its purpose, history, and beauty. She turned her lens on the rustic boundary line, and soon she found herself in search of stone walls to photograph elsewhere.

In Mariana’s new book of eighty-plus photos and six essays, Stone Walls: Personal Boundaries (Damiani, 2011), we learn each construction has its own story about the land as well as about the people. Often with a guide or expert to help her “read” the walls, Mariana traveled through Britain, Ireland, the Mediterranean, New England, Kentucky, and Peru collecting images.

She found glacial landscapes similar to Chilmark’s, with rocks cleared from farm fields to create stone borders. Some walls have jagged stones placed on top to keep sheep from climbing over; others have openings big enough for sheep but too small for cows. Farmers have improvised when the landscape has no trees or wood to build gates. On the Aran Islands in Ireland, they remove stones to create an opening to get from one side to the other and replace them once they’ve crossed over.

“I continually found new and different things,” says Mariana, who says she takes an intuitive approach to her work. “I let the data sort of unfold, present itself.”

On a family trip to Peru with her husband and teenage daughter, Mariana found a “geometric feat” at Machu Picchu, where stones had been smoothed with sand and fit together so closely there’s no space between them; she returned on her own to photograph them with a tripod.

Dedicated to using only natural light and shooting with film, Mariana developed her craft under the tutelage of Ansel Adams. Starting in 1978, when she was twenty-three, until his death in 1984, Mariana studied with the renowned American landscape photographer. Her link to Adams was a Vineyard connection, the late Washington Post newspaperwoman Katharine Graham, who introduced the two when Mariana was just starting her career in photography.

Mariana may be best known for her portraits of people: couples, parents and children, mathematicians, and scientists. But through her eyes, the stone walls aren’t so different. “Compositions of portraits are abstract,” she says, noting “the interaction of form and light.” One stone wall image from Malta actually seems more like a portrait of a twosome. Mariana explains it is the oldest known dry stone wall, dating between 3600 and 3200 B.C. Her photograph shows two large stones that give the impression of two people facing each other in silhouette. “I love it,” she says. “It looks like they’re kissing.”