When Richard Misrach was a boy growing up in Los Angeles, his family would take road trips to the mountains to go skiing, which would take them through the Mojave Desert. “It used to scare the hell out of me, and it left a very profound impression.” Like many of his peers of a philosophical bent in the 1960s, Misrach absorbed the mysticism in books by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and in particular Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan — which would lure him back to the desert just as he began developing as a photographer. Misrach found in its forbidding but beautiful expanses a terrain that might reveal to him the hidden truths of the world, and he would return to it continually over the course of his long and estimable career. “I’ve photographed jungles and forests, but they’re not as interesting to me. In the desert, everything stands out in relief. The open landscape is highly visual.”
Out of this enduring fascination has evolved a body of work under the rubric Desert Cantos, containing many sub-themes that include The Fires, The War, The Salt Flats, Skies, The Flood, and so on. The most recent series is Border Cantos, for which Misrach has explored the US-Mexico border and found routes by which “illegals” attempt to enter US territory. Though graced by a master artist’s assured eye for formal composition and revelatory detail, they capture the elegiac quality of their desolate settings and the frequently futile, often fatal quest for better lives. Human migration is an exploding, tragic, nation-altering phenomenon around the globe, and Misrach’s desire to zero in on it (at the point closest to his California home) is consistent with his longtime parallel aims.
I started out inspired by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, the West Coast f/64 group of landscape photographers. And then, going to Berkeley in the late ’60s, I was exposed to a lot of heavy-duty politics. And the two collided. I think my work has been reconciling the aesthetics of the medium, which I have a great passion for, and my interest in the social, political, environmental world. There are bodies of work that are strictly about the aesthetic language of the medium, and there’s work that is much more in a documentary tradition of taking on things that are impacting our world. I think the best work is where the two come together, but it’s always going back and forth.
Since his adverse reaction to an early phase of photographing street people in Berkeley, Misrach has consciously veered away from aiming his camera at people except as tiny figures in an enveloping landscape that he thought of as “stand-ins for humanity,” not unlike those he recently admired in Turner’s and other 19th century landscape paintings. But that has begun to change as he returns to his other recurring series: On the Beach. As an elemental counterpoint to the desert, the ocean’s edge has given Misrach many years of image-making that have investigated man’s disruptive, and vulnerable, place in nature. In an earlier oversized monograph, figures were captured from far above lying in various poses on wave-lapped sand. In the latest series, The Mysterious Opacity of Other Beings, the figures are now floating out in “the sublime” of the sea itself. Misrach thinks of these as portraits, and in fact they might be considered as the flip side of street photography — revealing in candid gesture and bodily splay the humanity of the strangers that he chances to shoot.
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