Source: Draft edited and extended from Wikipedia
Richard Misrach (born in Los Angeles, California in 1949) is an American photographer “firmly identified with the introduction of color to ‘fine’ [art] photography in the 1970s, and with the use of large-format traditional cameras” (Nancy Princenthal, Art in America). He is perhaps best known for his depictions of the deserts of the American west, and for his series documenting the changes brought to bear on the environment by various man-made factors such as urban sprawl, tourism, industrialization, floods, fires,petrochemical manufacturing, and the testing of explosives and nuclear weapons by the military.
The Desert Cantos
Misrach’s longest-running and most ambitious project, the Desert Cantos, is an ongoing series of photographs of deserts. Begun in 1979 with a Deardorff 8×10” view camera, the series is ongoing and numbers 33 cantos as of 2013.
Misrach’s use of the term “canto” was inspired in part by the cantos of Ezra Pound. The Italian term “canto” was used to denote that the vast enterprise has been broken down into individual thematic essays or “cantos,” which together make up the whole work, or “song cycle.” Some of these cantos consist of only a few images, while others run into hundreds. Some may be regarded as “documentary” in mode, some more metaphorical. Some may be considered aesthetic in intent, some “political” – though as an ambitious and intelligent photographer, aesthetics are never pursued at the expense of politics, or vice versa. Misrach’s goal may be said to be a search for the photographic Holy Grail, to fuse reportage with poetry. To progress – as he put it – “from the descriptive and the informative to a metaphorical resolution.” (1989 article in Creative Camera, Gerry Badger)
Beginning with “The Terrain,” in which images of apparently untouched wilderness are punctuated by human elements such as a lone telephone pole or a train, theCantos include spectacles like the space shuttle landing (“The Event”) and car racing (“The Salt Flats”), man-made fires and floods like the Salton Sea (“The Flood”) and desert seas created by the damming of rivers, as well ascolor-field studies of empty skies (“The Skies”). Images of military training and testing sites feature extensively in the Cantos and the series’ corresponding publications: “The War” resulted in the 1991 book Bravo 20: The Bombing of the America West, co-authored by Myriam Weisang Misrach, and nuclear testing was addressed in Violent Legacies, published in 1992. “The Pit” documented mass graves of dead animals in the Nevada desert while “Pictures of Paintings” focused on the representation of the western landscape in museums across the American West. “The Playboys” depicted issues of Playboy, discovered by the photographer at a military site, that had been used for target practice.
The Los Angeles Times quotes Misrach regarding the Cantos:
The desert … may serve better as the backdrop for the problematic relationship between man and the environment. The human struggle, the successes … both noble and foolish, are readily apparent in the desert. Symbols and relationships seem to arise that stand for the human condition itself.
Misrach’s Border Cantos series comprises photographs of the border between the U.S. and Mexico taken since 2004, and most extensively since 2009. In 2012 he began a collaboration with composer Guillermo Galindo, who manufactures playable instruments from objects found along the border. Misrach and Galindo have recovered artifacts from the border zone including water bottles, clothing, back-packs, Border Patrol “drag” tires, spent shotgun shells, ladders, and sections of the border wall itself, all of which have been transformed by Galindo into instrumental sculptures. The pair’s collaborative project will be featured in a museum exhibit in 2016 which will tour the United States through 2018.
The Oakland–Berkeley fire and Hurricane Katrina
In October 1991, a firestorm raged in the Oakland–Berkeley hills, killing 25 people, wounding 150 and destroying over 3,500 dwellings. This fire – one of the worst in California’s history – happened a few miles from Misrach’s studio and the photographer visited the site a few weeks later, taking hundreds of pictures. However, out of respect for the victims of the fire, he put the work away for two decades. “1991: The Oakland–Berkeley Fire Aftermath: Photographs by Richard Misrach,” an exhibition of Misrach’s photographs of the firestorm’s aftermath, was finally shown for the first time concurrently by the Berkeley Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California in 2011. These exhibits included handcrafted elegy books in which visitors shared their recollections, a video story booth for recording memories, and an open-microphone meetings. The collected responses from local residents, as well as the prints — sets of which Misrach donated to the museums — were kept in the collections.
To date, the majority of Misrach’s large-format documentary images of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast taken immediately after Hurricane Katrina have not been shown, with the exception of Destroy this Memory, a book published five years after the disaster, consisting entirely of pocket-camera pictures of messages left on houses, cars, and trees by survivors of the hurricane. A Los Angeles Times review called the book “a raw testament, shot between October and December 2005, just after the waters began to recede but the emotions had certainly not. Without captions or a contextual introduction to detract from the potency of the photographs themselves, the book is a powerful document allowing survivors to speak eloquently for themselves — even in absentia.” Proceeds from Destroy this Memory were donated to the Make It Right Foundation to help rebuild the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. Complete sets of the photographs were also donated to five museums—the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Golden Gate Bridge and Petrochemical America
When Misrach moved to a house in the Berkeley hills in 1997, he was inspired by the spectacle of weather and light surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge (see images) , which sat only seven miles from his front porch. For four years he photographed the bridge from the same location and with the same vantage point under different climate conditions. These images are conventionally visually stunning in their horizontal bands of sunset colours using very low horizons.
Concurrently, Misrach was working in Louisiana, following a commission he received from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. In 1998, he began documenting “Cancer Alley,” (see images) a stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to over 135 plants and refineries. The resulting images were exhibited as part of the “Picturing the South” series at the High Museum. He resumed photographing the area in 2010 and completed the series in 2012 with another exhibition at the High Museum, “Revisiting the South,” and the publication of Petrochemical America, a book pairing Misrach’s images with an “ecological atlas” by architect and Columbia University professor Kate Orff. Orff’s writing and infographic-style work in the book articulate the complex industrial, economic, ecological, and historical problems that inevitably gave rise to the places featured in Misrach’s photographs.
On the Beach and On the Beach 2.0
In January 2002, following an exploratory trip in November 2001, Misrach started his On the Beach project, consisting of serial photographs taken from the same building overlooking a beach in Hawaii. The project’s title refers to the Cold War-era Nevil Shute book and subsequent 1959 sci-fi movie, On the Beach, in which a nuclear disaster goes unnoticed by a group of happy beach-goers who suddenly find themselves the only survivors. According to Smithsonian magazine, the series was “deeply influenced by the events of September 11, 2001;” the aerial perspectives of figures suspended in the ocean or on the beach reminded Misrach of news photographs of people falling from the twin towers.
The resulting photographs were very large: Smithsonian reports that “the largest measure six by ten feet and are so detailed you can read the headlines on a beachgoer’s newspaper.” The beach images “seem much more beautiful, almost in a way more soft than some of his other work,” writes Sarah Greenough, photography curator at the National Gallery of Art: “After you look at them for a while, though, they are hardly soft at all. There really is something very ominous going on.” Misrach also captured people in action – a man tossing a woman through the air or someone doing a headstand in the water – which was especially noteworthy given the time-consuming and cumbersome view camera used. The photographer has said that the work is of a piece with his usual focus on humanity and the environment, but “it is much more about our relationship to the bigger, sublime picture of things.”
Misrach completed the series in 2005 and went on to publish a large-format book called On the Beach in 2007, voted by Photo District News readers as one of the most influential books of the decade.
Returning to the same beach while on vacation in late 2011 with a new digital camera, he began working at the same location but with a different intent and mood: the artist says he was becoming “more comfortable with metaphysical questions,” and the subjects of his 2011 images appear at play and in harmony with nature. The title of the series, On the Beach 2.0, alludes to the fact that the photographs are grounded in their technological moment in time – as do the individual titles, which refer to the date and exact minute of each shot.
Conversely, reviewer Allegra Kirkland points out that parts of this body of work are the closest Misrach has come to traditional portraiture since Telegraph 3 AM. The use of a digital camera and a telephoto lens introduced a new degree of speed and proximity to the artist’s shooting methods; although faces are often obscured by a towel or magazine, many of the images in On The Beach 2.0 might still be considered gestural portraits.
Kirkland writes: “The [On The Beach 2.0] series is about waiting and what happens when you do—the strange, small, secret moments that compose life… Ten years after the debut of the original project, Misrach seems to be affirming that man and nature do not always have to exist in opposition.”
Reverse photographs and iPhone images
Misrach has created a number of reverse images, essentially presenting large prints in their negative form. Another exhibit of this work was shown in 2011, consisting entirely of small-scale color prints taken with an iPhone camera. These revisit Bombay Beach, California, a flood zone where he [photographed] found objects and detritus – evidence of man’s presence in the landscape. These compositions were also manipulated: positive becomes negative and objects are transformed in a reversed color spectrum.”
Selected grants, awards, and commissions
Misrach’s book Desert Cantos received the 1988 Infinity Award from the International Center for Photography, and his Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West, co-authored with Myriam Weisang Misrach, was awarded the 1991 PEN Center West Award for a nonfiction book. His Katrina monograph Destroy This Memory won Best Photobook of the Year 2011 at PhotoEspaña.
He has received numerous awards including four National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an International Center of Photography Infinity Award for a Publication, and the Distinguished Career in Photography Award from the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. In 2002 he was given the Kulturpreis for Lifetime Achievement in Photography by the German Society for Photography, and in 2008 he received the Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fine Art Photography.
In 2010, Apple licensed Misrach’s 2004 image Pyramid Lake (at Night) as the inaugural wallpaper for the first iPad. The opening credits of the 2014 HBO series True Detective featured a montage of images from Misrach’sPetrochemical America.
Background and education
In 1967, Misrach left Los Angeles for the University of California, Berkeley, where he obtained a B.A. in Psychology after briefly pursuing a degree in Mathematics. While on campus he was confronted with the anti-war riots and began photographing the events around him; he also learned the rudiments of photography with Paul Herzoff, Roger Minick, and Steve Fitch at the ASUC Berkeley Studio.
Misrach’s first major photography project, completed in 1974, depicted homeless residents of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. This suite of photographs was shown at the International Center of Photography and published as a book, Telegraph 3 AM, which won a Western Book Award in 1975.
Having hoped that Telegraph 3 AM would help improve life on the streets, Misrach was frustrated by the book’s minimal impact and retreated to the deserts of Southern California, Arizona, and Baja, California, where he took photographs devoid of human figures entirely. Working at night with a strobe that illuminated the landscape around him, he experimented with unusual printing techniques in the university darkroom and created richly hued, split-toned silver prints. A resulting 1979 book was published without a title or a single word of accompanying text besides nominal identifying information on the book’s spine. In 1976 he traveled to Stonehenge to continue his split-toned night studies, and in 1978 he began working in color on journeys to Greece, Louisiana, and Hawaii.