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Photographic Notes From a Desert Rat

Richard Misrach's haunting images bear witness to the power and politics behind a colorful landscape.

September 01, 1996|Steve Appleford | Steve Appleford is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Photographer Richard Misrach wasn't exactly surprised when his latest series of pictures drew skepticism from friends and dealers in 1994. He realized the photographs were not the usual landscape images. There were no horizon lines, no trees, no clouds, just . . . skies: rich fields of color, blues, reds, grays. But Misrach was just as certain that these minimalist photographs were an important new layer to his 18-year examination of the Southwestern desert landscape. The pictures, he says, "may be difficult for people, but [the series] pushes what this work is all about to another level. I'm convinced it's integral."

The new series, called "Skies," has since enjoyed broad acceptance from critics and collectors, who have come to see them much as Misrach does: as a logical extension of his iconoclastic redefinition of landscape photography.

On Saturday, an exhibition of "Skies" opens at the Jan Kesner Gallery in Los Angeles. At the same time, Misrach's epic "Desert Cantos" project (which includes "Skies" and 17 other "cantos" or chapters) is now the subject of a major traveling retrospective curated by Houston's Museum of Fine Art (work that is also collected in "Crimes and Splendors," a catalog published by Bulfinch/Little Brown).

Though not documentary photography, Misrach's work is often content-heavy, capturing quietly alarming landscapes, many of which reveal environmental devastation caused by the military and the endlessly quirky encroachment of civilization. His images have stretched from grim desert fires to bullet-ridden Playboy magazines found on the fringes of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.

In 1992, Times art reviewer Susan Kandel wrote that the pictures "offer an exhaustive chronicle of the surprisingly varied landscape of the American desert--its space and scale, its highways and terrain, its prey and defilers."

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Now 47, the Los Angeles-born Misrach had shown no interest in the desert as a young man. Back in high school, his interests had revolved around surfing and skiing, and his knowledge of the desert came from passing through it as quickly as possible while en route to the slopes of Mammoth. "I hated the desert," Misrach remembers, chatting while on vacation recently with his family in a rented Oxnard beach house. "It was ugly, it was barren, it was all the stereotypes. It wasn't until I was well into my 20s that I discovered the desert for the first time."

Though initially influenced by West Coast landscape masters Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Minor White, Misrach lost interest in "just looking for the great view," he says. "I became much more interested in the political aspect, social aspect and cultural aspect of landscape representation. It became much more complex."

Relaxing barefoot on a couch with his surfboard and 8-by-10 view camera nearby, Misrach explains: "The whole 'Desert Cantos' project is really about layering different ideas and different approaches to landscape to bring out different kinds of meaning. The traditional view was sort of the starting point, and it's broken down over the years."

Misrach first began taking snapshots in high school in the mid-1960s. By the time he was involved in the antiwar movement while studying psychology at Berkeley, he was using a 35-millimeter camera to document campus rioting. But it wasn't until he saw an exhibition by photographer Roger Minick on the Mississippi River Delta that Misrach understood the profound impact of the photographic image.

"The powerful nature of the realism of photography really hit me for the first time," Misrach says of his first reaction to Minick's work. For Misrach it was a revelation that photography "could be used as an art form. It transcended the snapshot. There was something else there."

Soon he was working in the campus darkroom, earning a modest living as a glorified janitor while making his own prints. He had found comfort in the solitude of working alone in the field and in the darkroom. "Once I began making pictures, I just knew it was right for me," says Misrach, who still lives in the Bay Area, in Emeryville. "It's never happened again in my life before or since, anything like that. I had an instant love and passion for the process."

In 1972, he began a two-year project photographing the street people of Telegraph Avenue, just blocks away from the Berkeley campus. He made 65 portraits in black and white, with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, but he was finally uncomfortable with the published outcome of the project, not convinced that their hard lives should have become fodder for a coffee-table book.

"Did this really serve the people that I thought I was serving?" Misrach asks. "I had a social agenda, but was it doing that? I realized it made for a better art book than it did helping people."

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