June 14th, 2013

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.

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