Look3: Richard Misrach on Documentary vs. Art, the Complications of Portraiture, and Digital Photography

© Tristan Wheelock

© Tristan Wheelock

Forty years after making his mark in photography with a self-published book of social documentary portraits of homeless people called “Telegraph 3 a.m.,” photographer Richard Misrach is working his way back to portraits–ever so tentatively–as part of his exploration of the passage of time, and the metaphysical questions of aging.

Misrach’s described his circuitous (and adventurous) journey during an on-stage interview with NPR host Alex Chadwick at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday morning. People have rarely appeared in his images, but Misrach explained that he is sneaking up on portraiture again with a follow-up to his “On the Beach” project, a collection of scenes from a Hawaiian beach photographed from the confines of a small 7th floor hotel balcony. The figures on the beach are small, but the ever-improving digital sensors of his cameras have enabled him to enlarge the details, and see faces.

Still, Misrach is showing only people with their faces obscured–by limbs, objects, or their positions–in his tightly cropped enlargements.

“Portraiture is just not ethically clean. It’s complicated,” Misrach explained.

He abruptly abandoned portraiture after “Telegraph 3 a.m.,” which he published in 1972, didn’t have the impact he had hoped.

“I had the best intentions of changing the world by showing these pictures of people living on streets [of Berkeley, California]. I thought this would really have huge impact on the world. Of course it didn’t. It fell flat, rather than change anything on the street, it became a coffee table book,” Misrach said.

That got him thinking about the unequal relationship between photographers and their human subjects, and how photographers inadvertently exploit those subjects for their own agendas. “It didn’t feel right to me,” he decided. “It’s been basically 40 years, and I’ve not been able to do pictures of people.”

Never mind that some of his favorite pictures are by Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Walker Evans (notably Evans’s surreptitious subway portraits). “It’s not lost on me that I’m full of contradictions,” Misrach told the Look3 audience.

But his experience with “Telegraph 3 a.m.” shaped the rest of his career. “I did a 180-degree about-face,” and he ran from photographing people to photographing the landscape, starting with southwestern deserts, he said. At first he photographed exclusively at night, using the techniques he’d learned shooting at night on the streets of Berkeley.

“The early work–Telegraph 3 a.m.–was about social documentary work. The night desert work was about the esthetics of photography and language of photography,” he said.  “My work has been pulled between two poles for the last 40 years: the social/environmental/political documentary work, to the work that explores the esthetics [and] metaphysical magic of what photography is. I’ve never quite reconciled the two. That tension keeps me on my toes.”

But it has always been essential, Misrach said, to make the images as beautiful as they could be. “I want my pictures to be formally beautiful. I pay attention to composition, to color and scale. All of these things are ways to convey ideas.”

His early desert work led, by the mid 1980s, to his “Desert Cantos” project, which he continues to this day, and it anchors–in one way or another–all of his other projects. Inspired by the epic poems of Dante and Ezra Pound, Misrach wanted to move beyond stand-alone photographic essays.

“What I was interested in was taking a bunch of ideas that were related and linking them together,” he explained. “One essay is connected to another and then to another. and that creates an epic form.  So my ‘Desert Cantos’ project, which is an umbrella, is an epic project.”

It includes different series on floods, fires, space shuttle landings, the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Black Rock desert, and pits where dead animals are disposed of, to name a few. To date Misrach has done 35 separate cantos, and he’s currently work on a new one about entropy, in a former settlement at the Salton Sea that was abandoned years ago to the elements.

Through his Cantos (and other projects), Misrach examines humanity’s often-detrimental relationship with the environment.

“Some of pictures from ‘Desert Cantos’ are metaphorical, some more politically explicit, some more conceptual or theoretically driven,” Misrach explained to the Look3 audience.  “I really like these different forms, with the different cantos juxtaposed together, because it sort of problematizes the whole project, to make it not such a neat system.”

Misrach described how he made repeated forays to New York while he was in his 20s, with the idea that he would move there to establish his career as a photographer. By the age of 30, he realized he wasn’t going to do it.

“Part of it is, this vast American landscape is glorious. It’s really powerful.You feel very much existentially present on the planet. For me the desert beams this powerful metaphor–the stage, if you will to look at the values of civilization.”

Of course, Misrach has tackled some difficult subjects beyond his “Desert Cantos” work, notably his images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and his “Petrochemical America” project, about the environmental degradation brought on by oil refineries along the the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. (Misrach projected images from those projects, explaining how they got started, and how they were connected to his Desert Cantos project and other work.)

Meanwhile, Misrach’s “On the Beach” project, which he started in early 2002, came out of his trauma over the 9/11 attacks. “There was something disturbingly sublime about the existential moment of people falling through space from the [World Trade Center towers]” as the towers burned on 9/11, Misrach told the Look3 audience.

He took refuge in the desert, to see what new Canto might come of him, but nothing did. Meanwhile, on one of his many trips to Hawaii, where he vacations (and surfs), he noticed from his hotel balcony the small figures of people lying on the beach, and floating in the vast sea. It reminded him of those small figures falling from the towers, and suddenly saw the landscape differently. And, he said, he liked the idea of thinking of the balcony as a studio. “it was a different way of working. It was confined. The world came to me,” he said, as opposed to his going out and chasing light and landscape.

With both his post-Katrina and the recent “On the Beach” work, technology has offered new creative possibilities, and Misrach said he has seized them enthusiastically.  He shot about 2,000 pictures with a point and shoot camera “to take notes,” but at one point he woke up in the middle of the night, he said, and realized “that there wa s great book in the words that people had painted on houses, cars and trees.

“I think the humor showed the resilience of the people,” he says. (The book, published by Aperture in 2010, was called Destroy this Memory.)

Misrach says he’s able, with digital technology, to make pictures that are much sharper and clearer than anything he was able to do with an 8×10. He’s shooting his latest “Desert Cantos” project (on entropy) with an iPhone. He’s printing his own work, and in sizes he couldn’t imagine, and producing books at a much faster rate, because technology has streamlined the production time.

“I think this is the most exciting time in the history of photography,” he said. “Technology is expanding what photographers can do, like the microscope and the telescope expanded what scientists could do.”

Photo, above: Richard Misrach (right) with Alex Chadwick. Photo © Tristan Wheelock. Our thanks to photographer Tristan Wheelock, who’s taking photos at Look3 for the Instagram feed of PDNOnline.

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