Richard Misrach is one of America’s most prestigious exponents of large-format colour photography. His work is held by museums worldwide and he has exhibited widely in the States and abroad. He is best known for the politically-charged photographs of the Mojave and Nevada deserts. His most recent body of work – On the Beach – opens this month at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. He spoke to Guy Lane about the project, and about ambiguity and beauty post-9/11.
GL: How were the photographs made? Where were you shooting from, for example?
RM: They were made in Hawaii from the balcony of a hotel that I was staying at. All the photographs were made from virtually one spot over a four year period; each time I went they would put me in a different room, so they might be a few feet from each other, but basically they’re all from one spot on the planet. And they were shot with an 8 by 10 camera on colour film and then scanned and digitally printed. About 65 per cent were untouched digitally, but then in several situations I do what I call digital intervention. Generally I would never add anything – it would be subtracting distracting elements.
GL: How did they emerge as a series, or begin to coalesce? Did you think consciously, “What I’ll do now is aerial shots of people on beaches?” Or did you do one, and like it, and think “I’ll do more”?
RM: Right after 9/11 I went to the desert to go photographing, but I couldn’t really work and so we continued on to the place where we vacationed – the place in Hawaii – as part of a previously scheduled holiday. When I got there the people looked really different: everybody seemed to be vulnerable and fragile to me. The world was changed after 9/11 for me, and I had on my studio wall the pictures of people falling from the towers. I’m sure you’ll remember those pictures – there are figures falling into an abyss. Well, those gestures of the people falling – I suddenly saw them everywhere in the people in the water, and that basically started the project.
There was something really interesting to me about how there was this undertone and edge to what I was seeing. People were floating and, while they weren’t at risk, there were moments when they would dunk under the water, or lose a little control, or float a little too far out to sea. And, you know, there’s something about this sort of sublime perspective, and the small figures, that seemed like a perfect way to obliquely address this new way of looking at the world.
I think the scale and the distance, and using 8 by 10, gave me a certain quality so that you could actually see people’s expressions and details in a way that you couldn’t with, say, 35mm. That sort of effect brings home the sublime quality, if you will, – this sense of scale and detail and of who we are.
GL: You mention the word “sublime” – what do you understand by that in this context?
RM: Well…just the notion, from Edmund Burke, of the beauty and awe we can feel when confronting the landscape and nature. I think a lot of these figures set against these vast seas appear vulnerable. I guess the notion of the sublime represents both the beauty and the awe of nature.
GL: It’s interesting that you connect that general sense of the sublime with the more specific, politically charged nature of 9/11…
RM: Well, I’d be very careful about making too close a connection. Those images of the people falling from the towers into the abyss are like pictures of a nuclear cloud or something – it’s horror but you’re in awe of it. They are devastating and they are still on my studio wall. I think they still make the most powerful images I’ve ever seen… and yet there’s something graceful, maybe about the way they were caught, that speaks to me about the larger human issues.
You’ve got to be very careful not to be too literal-minded about that. I was taking the sort of experience I had and translating it onto our place in nature. Somehow the innocence and the tragedy of that whole thing sort of struck me everywhere I looked.
Basically, after 9/11 I feel like a new end-of-the-world paradigm is arising. It’s not even created yet, it’s in the process of being constructed as we speak. In other words, I grew up in the fifties with a post-apocalyptic mentality, but now it’s kind of shifted – it’s like the end of the world is going to come in a different way. And I realised that, probably going back to the beginning of time, every civilisation has had this collective end-of-the-world scenario. The TS Eliot of The Hollow Men had a very different one; after World War II we grew up with a different one again; and now after 9/11 I think this generation is going to carry around with them a new one. It’s no longer Russia and the United States, it’s taking another form.
So I was just sort of haunted by all those things. It could have to do with the environment, it could have to do with religious wars or terrorism – but these are all new things that pose a threat to who we are.
So again, on the surface the pictures are sublime; they’re beautiful; there’s that light. But – the vulnerability and fragility of human beings in the face of our world, that’s really what the pictures are about.
GL: I suppose, to the extent that the work’s meaning isn’t immediately apparent, it makes more demands on the viewer. Is that a direction you are interested in pursuing?
GL: With regard to the ambiguity you have mentioned – at one level you could look at the pictures and almost be seduced by the colours. You could probably take one in isolation and stick in a hotel brochure…
RM: Absolutely – and I get called by all the travel magazines wanting to use it in a context like that and I just say No. But it is about playing with that genre of imagery – that is intentional. And some of the images probably would work and I think they’re really…they’re beautiful to look at. I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s OK to have that ambiguity there: are these people having a great time or not?
Untitled # 892-03, 2003 © Richard Misrach, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, SF, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, LA and Pace/MacGill Gallery, NY
Richard Misrach – On the Beach – National