“It’s not the end of the world at all”, he said. “It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us ”
On the Beach – Nevil Shute
The characters in Nevil Shute’s Cold War bestseller On the Beach are living out the last days of humankind. A radiological war fought with thermonuclear weapons and cobalt bombs has extinguished life in the northern hemisphere. Now a lethal airborne front of radiation drifts inevitably and inexorably southwards. There is no reprieve. Most choose suicide.
“We’re all going to get it,” he said. “Every living thing. Dogs and cats and babies – everyone. I’m going to get it. You’re going to get it.”
At first glance it is not altogether clear why Richard Misrach should have explicitly adopted Shute’s title for his own recently completed series of photographs. Admittedly they are all pictures of beaches or seaside; but the limitless expanses of Hawaiian sand, the ravishing colours and the crystal Pacific waters do not immediately conjure a dystopia. Indeed, taken individually, they could be smuggled with ease into a luxury travel supplement. “I get called by all the travel magazines wanting to use them in a context like that,” he says, “and I just say no.”
The photographs are all taken from the same elevated viewpoint (a hotel balcony) and feature human figures dwarfed by the epic scale of the beaches and seascapes against which they are set. Though there are several more crowded compositions, the most effective and compelling images are of lone bathers or couples. The disjunction in scale between figure and vista is enhanced by the size of the reproductions, the largest of which measures almost one metre across. The book is not so much big as
it is vast.
A cumulative effect of Misrach’s deliberate attenuation – but not elimination – of any human presence is, on the one hand, an impression of insignificance and vulnerability. And on the other, a sense of the sublime – the awe and even terror felt in the face of overwhelming power – pervades the work. This is augmented by the marked impotence of the bathers. The swimmers don’t swim; their bodies float upturned, arms outstretched. And the sunbathers lie lifeless beneath towelling shrouds.
The combination of Misrach’s aerial vantage point and the astonishing detail achieved by use of an 8 x 10 Deardorff camera often works here to confound the conventions of perspectival recession. So, in some of the book’s most powerful pictures, the human figures appear strangely dislocated from their surroundings. Two floating bathers, when viewed from above, appear to be falling with arms and hair outspread. Likewise, a prostrate sunbather could be in headlong freefall.
Such effects are intentional. Misrach started the series while haunted by photographs of Americans jumping from the stricken World Trade Centre: “The world was changed after 9/11 for me… and I had on my studio wall the pictures of people falling from the towers. Those gestures of the people falling – I suddenly saw them everywhere.” Further, he was struck by the disparity between the apparently cataclysmic events of contemporary history and the prosaic routines of life on the beach.
“Nevil Shute’s book is very much about that – you know a lot of people in it end up going picnicking or going to the beach in the face of imminent death. I mean they all knew they were going to die. They knew it was coming: it was just a matter of time. And in the end it reverts to: ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ You could either commit suicide or go and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. And, to me, it was right after 9/11 and everybody was traumatised by it, you know. But yes, people were able to go to the beach and enjoy themselves as if nothing had happened.”
The frequently stunning images in On the Beach resist easy categorisation. Whatever the topicality of Misrach’s concerns, the pictures are manifestly not political statements. Neither wholly documentary nor art, his photographs derive their richness from the ambiguities, the complexities and the subtleties of their fusion of moral content, aesthetic quality and historical contingency.