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Eye in the sky

Richard Misrach's Latest Photographs Have an Eerie Perspective, in More Ways Than One

June 08, 2003|ANN HEROLD

All those wondering how photographer Richard Misrach gets his God's-eye views won't be getting any answers from the artist. Is he hovering in a helicopter? Standing on a cherry picker? The mystery is everything. "There's a strange sense of voyeurism" created by the unusual vantage point, he argues, that would be lost in focusing on such pedestrian details as camera, lens, location.

So the most you will know about where he shot his new series, titled "On the Beach," is that it is set somewhere in the Hawaiian Islands, where Misrach has periodically vacationed over the last four years. He realized that it was the perfect place to mirror the Australian coast as depicted in "On the Beach," the 1959 film about the end of the world that had long haunted him and ultimately inspired these images. "There's a nuclear cloud heading for Australia," Misrach says, recounting the Nevil Shute novel on which the film is based. "It's about what people did in those last days, enjoying the visceral pleasures of life. Picnicking on the beach and swimming for the last time."

To the Berkeley photographer, 9/11 had chilling parallels to the apocalyptic film and to the somber future envisioned in T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," in which the poet writes of a traumatized postwar population: "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper."

Since 9/11, Misrach says, "I no longer see the mundane scene of people frolicking on the beach in the same way. There's the ambiguity of not knowing if they are safe. A sort of eeriness." In his studio are several photographs of people falling from the World Trade Center towers, and there is a somber similarity in Misrach's solitary figures floating in the ocean. "The figures in the water have the same gestures, the scale is roughly the same and it's almost from the same perspective," he says.

The lone figure is an image Misrach also explores in his "Desert Cantos" series, already 20 years in the making. "Our culture is known for stressing the individual over the collective," he says. "I also work alone, so it is an important aspect of how I see myself." Then there are the patient studies of a particular setting, such as the series of photos of the Golden Gate Bridge in which Misrach shot the same spot hundreds of times over four years.

For "On the Beach," he repeatedly shot a single place on the sand where crowds gathered. He is intrigued by the subtle differences: They look like the same crowd, but a closer inspection proves otherwise. He was also fascinated at the way people chose to stay apart from each other: "When you look at the photographs, you see that there's some sociological space between the people."

Perhaps the strongest ambiguity comes in the photo of a man sprawled on a towel near the water's edge. You can't tell if he's young or old. For the photographer, there is an even more primordial question, "You can't tell if he's coming out of the ooze and it's the beginning of life, or he's returning to the ooze and it's the end."

Not that the photographer expects his viewers to feel all this. It's enough that they experience people frolicking on the beach, he says. But if they're a little bit unsettled, well, that's what he's hoping for.


"On the Beach" is at the Grant Selwyn Fine Art gallery, 341 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, until July 12.

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