The most striking impression left by this lavish monograph charting the career of Richard Long, the distinguished British landscape artist, is quite how “un-photographic” it is. Though many of its 200-plus images convey evocative, even haunting, senses of time and place, few qualify as great photographs in terms of composition. Yet, leafing through the book’s pages, it swiftly becomes clear this almost certainly isn’t the point. If, on the one hand, Walking the Line marks Long out as an indifferent photographer, it also captures beautifully the sheer inventiveness and maverick spirit that have earned him a reputation as our most singular of sculptors.
Billed as a record of Long’s work since the early 1990s, the showcase actually stretches back to the ’70s, when he first became mesmerised by the formative and symbolic possibilities of leaving lines as human imprints on the natural order. In A Boot-heel Line (1970), he takes delight in sketching a maze-like outline in the dusty sands of Arizona. Elsewhere, lines are used as metaphors for the act of walking, which Long transforms, via subtle modifications of landscapes through which he passes – from Dartmoor to Japan’s Shirakami Mountains – into an art-form in itself.
Some pictures focus on lines sketched onto fields so faintly that they are all-but invisible – as if their architect were some mischievous sprite, kissing the earth with the flimsiest trace of its passing. Others depict stone circles, deviously laid out on barren plains in the manner of our Neolithic ancestors, or transplanted from their natural environment to the anonymity of a modern art gallery. For a book whose professed purpose is to catalogue Long’s art, it is ironic that some of the best photographs are those portraying unaltered landscapes, rather than ones bearing traces of his subversive, “anti-archaeological” signature. Nowhere is this truer than in the section focusing on his 1,030-mile trek from The Lizard to Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of Scotland, in which the solitary mood pervading the rest of the book is encapsulated in the simple image of sheep shuffling across an empty road.