Sunday, 3 March 2013

Richard Misrach: A short summary

Richard Misrach was born in LA in 1949. Although he started with black and white photos  he moved to colour in the late ‘60s and is very well known for his large, richly coloured landscape work. These are generally grouped in series – the most famous of which, Desert Cantos, concentrates on man’s interaction with the world – or more specifically the South western deserts of the USA. Other series have similar themes – for example Cancer Alley is a study of the industrial complexes along the Mississippi valley. The subject matter chimes with his environmental activism. Often the impact of man is only hinted at.

Although quite political his images are financially very successful. However, some critics note a potential for accusations of sanctimony, and offer criticism of his decision to make money from his art. Underlying this is the proposal that his photos are too beautiful for the message they are intended to carry – that they undercut there own authority. A lecturer I heard recently might be tempted to sneer at them as gallery art, in much the same way as she did Burtinsky. This feels to me to be a sad mis-reading. What is the value of a message no-one hears? No one can doubt his single mindedness in some of these series, and that is probably the way they should be seen – as a series, not as single images.

In an interview with Spot magazine, Misrach admits to “an ambivalent relationship to words and photographs”, sometimes feeling that images should stand alone, and other times feeling that they need text to anchor their meaning. I suspect that this is related to the fact that many of the environmental ills he addresses are not visible in images as such – in interview about Cancer Alley for example he regularly references smells and sounds and feelings in the nose and throat. He has also worked with Kate Orff a graphic artist/designer to extend his images in Petrochemica America.

In discussions about his collection, Chronologies – which sets out his work in the order photographed, rather than in its individual series – he says that all photographs are about time., which is another angle to his work which chimes with my interests, and yet, looking at his images I’m not sure I see it. of course, they record moments – moments that are significant to him, or to the communities he is photographing – but is that the same as saying they are about time, or are they simply (merely?) recording a time. For me the two are different.

What is Misrach’s legacy? It’s probably to early to say – he is certainly not the only photographer interested in mans environmental impact, although he is certainly one of the most financially successful. His work sits in opposition to the Ansel Adams school of majestic unsullied landscape works, and for that reason I think they do not sit easily with mainstream ‘landscapers’ interested in a pretty picture, and yet they have a sometimes slightly sinister beauty of their own. The issues he raises are important to all of us – so perhaps his ultimate legacy will be evidence that it is possible to have a conscience and not need to be po-faced about it. His work rewards a look past the beauty to the message behind.


Time Lightbox: – accessed 03/03/2013

Seesaw magazine: Chronologies: – accessed 03/03/2013

Gerry Badger: In Photographica Deserta: – accessed 03/03/2013

Spot: Spring 2011: – accessed 03/03/2013

Aperture: Petrochemica America: – accessed 03/03/2013

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