Beauty as a Firebomb in the War on Nature
Don't let the beauty of Richard Misrach's photographs fool you. His handsomely composed desert landscapes strike a deliberately refined classical note, but what lies beneath the surface is more to the point.
For 30 years, Mr. Misrach's frequent forays into the American West have been motivated by seemingly contradictory impulses: one is love for the desert, and a desire to render that landscape with documentary precision; the other is disgust, about the use of the land by government and industry. "For me the desert is remarkably powerful and beautiful," he told an interviewer for Art Papers magazine several years ago. "I hope that gives it a reason to be saved."
A new book, "Richard Misrach: Chronologies," assembles 125 of his photographs in the order in which he took them, from his first pictures of cactus in 1975 to his recent aerial views of people lying on the sand at the ocean. There is no text beyond the name and date of each photograph. The book, he said, was conceived in the tradition of "the artist's book," that is, a conceptual work that stands on its own. In this case, "Chronologies" was intended as a record of his working process, as opposed to a retrospective of his work. "I wanted it to be as spare as possible and let the pictures do the work," he said in a recent telephone conversation from his home in Berkeley, Calif. Next month, pictures from "Chronologies" will be exhibited concurrently at Pace/MacGill Gallery in Chelsea and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco.
Mr. Misrach organizes his work as cantos — each of which is like a song in a song cycle or a chapter in an epic poem. He works on several projects simultaneously, assigning each picture to a canto. His first book, "Desert Cantos," published in 1987, divided the work into four groups: the Terrain, the Event, the Flood and the Fires. Since then he has added two dozen more.
It's easy to trace the evolution of Mr. Misrach's work from his college years at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1960's, where the antiwar movement instilled in him a sense of political engagement. In the early 1970's, a shift to more spiritual pursuits — he has cited yoga, meditation, the whole earth movement, William Blake, Gurdjieff and Carlos Castaneda — sent him in a different direction, toward the desert.
The first picture in "Chronologies," a black-and-white photograph of an illuminated cactus, has the effect of a primitive explosion — as harmless as a high school science fair experiment — in which the entrails of a bomb streak into the twilight desert sky. The image could be a template for Mr. Misrach's later photographs of bomb-testing sites, military installations that he discovered were closed to the public and highly polluted. He remembers thinking that he couldn't photograph the beauty of the American wilderness without addressing this environmental intrusion. "It would have been the equivalent of sticking my head in the sand," he said.
Now, as then, his trips into the desert last two or three weeks at a time. He loads his Volkswagen van with a cooler full of trail mix, apples, carrots and gallons of water, as well as a suitcase full of mostly nonfiction books. He loves the heat and the quiet, he said, and just wanders, chasing the light, often following the weather as a guide.
But the mechanics of photographing — setting up his 8-by-10 camera, dealing with film holders, calculating exposures, waiting for the right light — can get in the way of a pure meditative state. Still, his almost metaphysical reverence for the land is as evident in the photographs as his technical skill. "When the light is great, I go crazy inside," he said. "If I go out there with a specific idea in mind, it never works out. So I would just stumble on things. That's how I discovered Bravo 20."
Bravo 20, an area of the Carson Sink desert in Nevada, was used by the United States military at the end of World War II for high-explosive bomb testing, and continued for many years. There are still bomb craters and thousands of unexploded bombs buried in the sand. In 1985, local civilians opposed the military's expansion of the site and, in the process, learned that its permission to test had expired nearly 40 years before. Citing an 1872 mining law, they were able to temporarily halt the bomb testing.
Because it had been public land, there were mining shares, and Mr. Misrach bought claims to them for a nominal sum, and invoked his right to survey and mine his property. As a result, he was able to photograph at Bravo 20 for more than a year before the military reclaimed the land. These pictures constitute Canto X.
What began for Mr. Misrach as documentary exercises in the desert evolved into works infinitely more complex. "Misrach has progressed from a deeply rooted social conscience to an artist who exploits scale and the emotional power of color to create works that are more about aesthetic concerns," said Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, during a recent trip to New York. "The book moves between beauty and its opposite, allowing the beautiful and the meaningful to be seamlessly juxtaposed."
Given the crisp detail and the majestic vistas in Mr. Misrach's photographs, it comes as no surprise that he cites the Sierra Club books of the 1960's as an early photographic influence, specifically the dramatic Western landscapes of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter.
Those kinds of images were once dismissed as calendar art, but a new kind of landscape photography emerged in the 1970's. In 1975, a landmark show at the George Eastman House in Rochester titled "New Topographics" identified a movement to document social and industrial encroachment on the American landscape — what is now called suburban sprawl. A statement by one photographer in that show, Robert Adams, who has chronicled the changing American West in black-and-white photographs, serves as an apt summary of the movement's creed: "I set one ground rule: to include in the photographs evidence of man. It was a precaution in favor of truth that was easy to follow, since our violence against the earth has extended to anonymous arroyos and undifferentiated strands of scrub brush."
Mr. Misrach said that his concerns and those of Mr. Adams certainly overlap, but that their approaches differ. "I deal with issues of color and scale; his is a more restrained palette," Mr. Misrach said. "Silver is crucial to Robert Adams's work; color is crucial to mine."
The serene colors and opalescent light in Mr. Misrach's "Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983" (from Canto III) at first suggest a desert oasis. But the diving board is actually part of a relic of an environmental disaster, and its appeal something of a desert mirage. The Salton Sea is an artificial lake fed by waters diverted from the Colorado River; the maintenance companies lost control of the water levels in the late 1970's and caused a decade of flooding. The motel swimming pool in the picture was among the property destroyed.
In "Desert Fire, No. 249, 1985" (Canto IV), the flames come from an agricultural controlled-fire meant to clear alfalfa fields. "I saw smoke in the horizon and I followed it," Mr. Misrach said. The horizon is marked with an almost calligraphic line of flames, and the color of the smoke-filled sky matches that of the ground — a scorched-earth Color Field painting on the one hand, a record of air pollution on the other.
"Misrach's work is very beautiful," Sandra S. Phillips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said in a conversation earlier this month. In terms of landscape photography, Ms. Phillips said, "people in New York City don't understand that most of this country is country — and you can't fully understand the breadth of his accomplishment if you don't take into account that it's about the politics of land use."
Not all of Mr. Misrach's work, however, is so sobering. The Event, from his Desert Cantos, documents contemporary rituals that attract people into the desert: there are people congregated with campers and lawn chairs to watch the space shuttle landings; and photographs of speed testing at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
On a more playful note, "Desert Croquet No. 3, Black Rock Desert, Nevada, 1987" (Canto VIII), was made during a two-day art installation in which artists from a collective in San Francisco played a giant game of croquet using balls that were six feet in diameter. Mr. Misrach captured the otherworldly light during a desert windstorm. Still, in the context of his work, the giant croquet balls take on a more sinister aspect — perhaps that of explosive devices — and their scale against the car and the plane sitting nearby looks postapocalyptic.
One criticism often leveled against Mr. Misrach's work is that it aestheticizes disaster. To such criticisms, he has responded that if he were to make ugly photographs of bomb testing sites, no one would consider the land worth preserving. By delivering the bad news with visual finesse, he suggests, there is potential for greater scrutiny. "Shakespeare uses profoundly rich and gorgeous language to convey the most terrible and tragic elements of the human condition," Mr. Misrach said. "It's the way the story is told that makes us re-examine life afresh."