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The Tainted Desert : Richard Misrach's Photographs Document the Beauty and Ruin of the American West

November 04, 1990|SEAN ELDER | Sean Elder is a free-lance writer living in New York.

IN JUNE OF 1986, photographer Richard Misrach and his German shepherd, Kodak, took a walk through the desert. It was not unusual terrain for them, but Misrach moved gingerly. He was scanning the landscape for more than a great shot: Scattered about were hundreds of unexploded bombs, varying in weight from 25 to 2,000 pounds. He knew how to distinguish between the live ones and the dummies. Live bombs were covered with what looked like alligator skin, or were painted with blue stripes, or had fuses on one end. But Misrach noticed that the alligator skin was peeling off of some, that the blue stripes had faded on others and many had their tails buried in the sand. Even the dummies, powder blue and Day-Glo orange, contained a smoke charge that could take your hand off.

After several nerve-wracking hours, Misrach's confidence increased, his photographer's instincts overriding his fear. He took out his 8 x 10" view camera and began capturing images of the blighted landscape: the bombs, half-buried in the earth; craters, large and small, some bleeding a brilliant red fluid; demolished tanks, jeeps and trucks--even a yellow school bus, its insides charred black.

This stretch of the Carson Sink Desert in Nevada was not a military site. This was public land that the Navy had been bombing illegally since World War II. Although Misrach knew that he had every right to be there, he strained his ears listening for Navy jets, which could return at any moment, strafing and shelling as they pleased.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Tainted Desert" (Nov. 4) misidentified the name of a photographic exhibit up last month and this at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Bravo 20: A National Park Proposal," the title of the exhibit, depicts an area of the Nevada desert that had been bombed by the U.S. Navy for 33 years, not 40, as the magazine reported. JMA Architects & Engineers in Las Vegas was also misidentified in the article.
--The Editors

Richard Misrach has been photographing the desert of the American West for more than 15 years. He has been hailed by critics as one of America's most distinctive and original nature photographers because, among other things, he is not afraid to document the realities of the planet.

Man has left his mark on Misrach's landscapes: Power lines cut across the pristine scenery, satellite dishes wink in the distance, animals lie bloated, having drunk from toxic sumps. The images are formally beautiful, but the message is grim: Misrach considers humanity's assault on the earth a "failed stewardship." And in Bravo-20, the Navy code name for the Carson Sink Desert, Misrach has found a metaphor for his concerns.

With "Bravo-20: The Bombing of the American West," Misrach is doing more than documenting tragedy through art; he is trying to galvanize people into protecting public lands. An exhibition of his photos, scheduled to open Nov. 19 in San Francisco, will travel across the country this year, to coincide with the release of the "Bravo-20" book (Johns Hopkins Press). Both will also contain a history of the bombings and the project (by Misrach's wife, Myriam Weisang Misrach) and a proposal by the photographer about what to do with the land: Turn it into a theme park, complete with a Boardwalk of Bombs and a Devastation Drive.

A VERY APPROPRIATE suggestion for a boy from Los Angeles.

Misrach, 41, spent his wonder years in the upscale neighborhood of Westwood. His father owned a sporting goods business and his mother was a homemaker. Many of his schoolmates at University High were movie brats and lived lives of unconcerned privilege. Then, in 1967, Misrach enrolled in UC Berkeley.

"Berkeley was going through tremendous upheaval," Misrach recalls. "I've never grown as quickly as I did in that year; it sent me on a spiral of challenging a lot of the values my parents held."

Though he entered the university as a math major, Misrach soon switched to psychology and began a thesis on "altered states of consciousness." He also fell in love with photography.

His role models were Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, whose WPA photos of the '30s documented the lives of the nation's downtrodden. Like Lange and Evans, Misrach wanted to make a statement. He had a dream in which faces of burnt-out street-people who were overrunning the city appeared and disappeared. He thought, "I should photograph this, these people, this culture that I'm part of and yet not part of." The results--stark, depressing black-and-white pictures of young people seemingly not long for this world--were published in "Telegraph 3 A.M." (Cornucopia Press).

"In the end I didn't really do anything that affected social change, and my art wasn't particularly great art," he says. "I came out with this coffee table book that had the greatest intentions yet somehow fell flat."

At 24, Misrach gave up his graduate work in psychology to pursue photography full-time--but not the art /propaganda he had dabbled in. Like many people in the counterculture nationwide, his concerns were turning mystical.

"It sounds sort of hokey," he says, "but I just sort of discovered the desert."

Scouring California, Nevada and Ari zona in a VW van, Misrach camped out, taking photos of the landscape, always at dusk or dawn, which he calls "the crack between the two worlds. It's a very magical time. But I brought artificial light."

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