RICHARD MISRACH was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1949. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1971, and helped to popularize large-format colour photography throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Misrach's work has been the focus of numerous solo exhibitions, and has also been included in a variety of prestigious group shows at venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Denver Art Museum, the German Society for Photography, Hamburg, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Over the course of his career, Misrach has received numerous awards, including four National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for a Publication, and the Distinguished Career in Photography Award from the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies (1994), and recently, the German Society for Photography honored him with its Cultural Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Misrach's photographs can be found in over 50 museum collections worldwide, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Misrach's prize-winning monographs include Telegraph 3 A.M.: The Street People of Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley (1974); Desert Cantos (1987); Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West (1990); Violent Legacies: Three Cantos (1992); Crimes and Splendors: Three Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach (1996); The Sky Book (2000); Richard Misrach: Golden Gate (2001); and Pictures of Paintings (2002). He is represented by the Fraenkel Gallery (San Francisco) and Pace/McGill Gallery (New York).
AS = Aaron Schuman
AS: To start, could you please discuss your earliest experiences with photography, as both a viewer and a practitioner. What drew you to photography and why did you choose to pursue it so seriously?
RM: As a child, I was often put in charge of home movies. When I was probably around age twelve, my father put a Super-8 camera in my hands to film my family skiing and travelling. Also I used to take snaps of my friends surfing. And I took a high school photography class as an elective, but at that time there were no glimmers of seriousness. Perhaps the real impulse that eventually translated into picturing things comes from my father's wild enthusiasm for everything observed; "That's the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen"; "That is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen"; and so forth. I nicknamed him
Being in California, my first serious exposure to "fine art photography" was the work of the great landscape photographers like Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Ed Weston, as well as locals like Roger Minick and Dave Bohn. Soon, mostly through monographs, I discovered other photographers like Dorothea Lange, Harry Callahan, Paul Caponigro, and so on. That was also a time when the Berkeley campus was in an uproar with anti-war protests, riots, tear gassings. Some of my very first pictures were of those riots - I was tear-gassed and billy-clubbed for taking pictures. So perhaps it was that cocktail - the combination of the gritty, turbulent, political, historical moment mixed with the elegant, romantic fine print tradition of landscape photography - that established the poles that would inform my work. That was 37 years ago, in 1969.
AS: Your most recent publication, 'CHRONOLOGIES' (Fraenkel, 2005), contains photographs drawn from your entire career thus far, sequenced chronologically, but also in a seemingly complex, almost stream-of-consciousness way. Could you discuss the thinking behind this book, its editing, its sequencing, and ultimately its production?
RM: In spite of the fact that 'CHRONOLOGIES' can serve as a retrospective of sorts, I really consider it an "artist's book" - a concept book rather than a definitive overview. I realized that simply by looking at the progression of my work over an extended period of time (thirty years) new meanings and unexpected relationships were revealed. In particular, my working process is privileged over a constructed narrative. It was surprising to me that I would photograph fires, and then turn to floods, then back to fires, then a space shuttle landing, then back to floods again, and so forth. I loved the fits and starts of ideas. Even my earliest work planted seeds that took root years later. Look at the jungle pictures in 1978, and then the scrubs twenty years later; or the pictures of the desert ground in 1976 to be explored again much differently in the dirt pictures of 2003. I loved seeing the breaks in, and resistance to, continuity - making photographs of Cancer Alley along the Mississippi in 1998, while simultaneously working on the sublime Golden Gate series that same year.
It was also kind of liberating to rip the pictures from their tight narratives and see what kind of work they would do outside of their original themes. By laying out the book in chronological order formal and conceptual connections surfaced that hadn't been obvious before. For example, in 1988 I photographed the effects of civilization on Yosemite, juxtaposed with the timeless natural icon of Half-Dome. Then, I found myself in Egypt next, doing the same thing with modern-day Giza against the backdrop of the Pyramids.
AS: Photographers in particular seem to have a very special relationship, if not obsession, with time, and of course, the title of your new book points directly to it. Could you discuss your relationship to time?
RM: 'CHRONOLOGIES' has no text in it. At one point I was seriously considering three simple sentences for the book's intro:
- The photographs in this book are presented in the order in which they were made.
I decided they would have been too heavy-handed in the book, so I opted in the end for no text. Still they can provide some clues to what I was thinking:
- The photographs in this book are presented in the order in which they were made.
The first sentence clarifies and emphasizes the books sequencing, privileging the photographer's process over a constructed narrative. In effect it rips all of my pictures out of their previous contexts to present them anew. Not only can one see one's formal, technical and philosophical evolution - switching from black and white to color, or from explicitly political work to more metaphorical imagery - but the work also takes on a surprising diaristic power. By looking at the work in this order the pictures become personal journal entries. An image of the Hawaiian jungle in 1978 brings back a vivid recollection of myself standing in a jungle of pitch darkness, pointing my camera into the night, and blasting it with a split second of illumination. Further into the book, I can look at Dead Animals #1, 1987, and that image now reminds me of exactly where I stood above a mass grave, in a remote and barren landscape, under a hazy sun, surrounded by the putrid stench of death. And then there is the lone figure at sea, which makes me recall the uncanny god's eye-view, where for days-on-end I would observe people interacting with the elements to see if I could discern some clues to our relationship with the planet. Now, in the new context of this book, every image becomes part of an album of personal memories, and is, for a moment, stripped of its previous aesthetic or cultural function. They become the record of my life.
- Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is always about time.
"Whatever else a painting is about, it is ultimately about painting," was the formalist manifesto of Modernist painting from the 50s, I believe. John Szarkowski paraphrased it later, in the 1970s, to make the case for Eggleston's work in William Eggleston's Guide - something to the effect of, "Whatever else a photograph is about, it is ultimately about photography". I've reconsidered the same idea for my own agenda of foregrounding the importance of time in photos, in its infinite number of permutations. Of course, it's also a play off the Bechers' emphasis, throughout their career, on photography's amazing ability to describe surfaces or "topologies". The thing is, it's old news that photographs are richly implicated with time, and yet we forget. By foregrounding time in this book, I was able to look at not just the "decisive moments" - for example, the way the camera can capture a stand of palm trees bursting into flames - but also cultural or historical moments, such as the way Native American lands were bombed by the US Navy, or a lake-side community was destroyed by a man-made flood. Or perhaps, the photographs convey timelessness, as in the photographs of the rocks slowly eroding, over eons, into dust.
- The book is a time-piece.
And the photographic book (all books for that matter), is a process of page turning, marking the passage of real time, like the movements of a clock. Roland Barthes said "the camera is a clock". Well, the book is a clock as well.
AS: In the late 1970s there seems to have been a huge practical, methodological and
RM: Clearly, Szarkowski's bold embrace of Eggleston's work was the salvo heard throughout the photographic world, and eventually the broader art world. However, I think it was Szarkowski's pre-eminence, rather than Eggleston's work, that explains why everyone is working in colour today. Once Szarkowski argued that colour was a viable language, we lunged at the new medium.
It's hard to remember how uniquely powerful and respected Szarkowski was back then. If Szarkowski hadn't done that show, it's hard to imagine colour gaining the traction to become what it is today. I had done some colour self-portraits and landscapes as early as 1969, but my first serious pictures in colour were of the jungles in Hawaii in 1978, and were a fairly direct evolution of my night desert work. I was still working with a Hasselblad, at night, with a strobe, but I shifted my subject from the sparse desert vegetation to the lush tropical landscape, and shot it in colour instead of black and white. It was a pretty straight-forward move, really. But I was hooked. I have never taken another black and white picture since.
One more point regarding the colour revolution that Szarkowski engendered: the explosion of colour activity from then on has had a huge impact on the whole field of art, not just photography. I think that, in the future, some serious art historical criticism will be focused on the 1970s colour photo movement as a powerful and pivotal period of practice, with the same importance of other historical art-world movements like minimalism, conceptual art, performance art, and so on. I think that the early colour period paved the way for another rich level of practice, including digital colour photography. Both the early period of colour, and the second phase of digital colour photography are at the heart of art world practice today. This was not imaginable back in the 1970s.
AS: Because it is comprised of many of your most successful images thus far, some readers might interpret 'CHRONOLOGIES' as a way of drawing a line underneath your previous work. In a sense, you're coming to terms with a very personal, thirty-year photographic journey; you've determined how your work has grown, changed and evolved in that time; you've compiled it for a number of reasons including posterity; and perhaps you've finally allowed yourself the freedom to fully leave this work in the past, and look ahead without looking behind too much anymore. Firstly, having published this book, do you feel as if a huge weight has been lifted from your shoulders, or has it made the past even more important in your current work? Secondly, has your photographic approach - or have your photographs themselves - changed in any way since the book was completed, having taken such a conscious, conscientious and introspective look at your own photographic history?
RM: You make an interesting point, which I hadn't really thought of - the idea that this book underscores my work to date; i.e., that 'CHRONOLOGIES' is some sort of definitive retrospective. "I don't want no retrospective," to borrow from Ruscha. I don't think of the book as being a definitive selection at all. There are 125 pictures in the book, and I could have easily replaced them with another 125. In fact, this book would have been better if it had had 250 images to fully argue the concept behind it, but you would have needed a wheelbarrow to move it. The fact is that I'm never done with my earlier work. I have over 35,000 8x10" negatives that I've never even printed! It's an archive that I constantly mine for both old and new ideas. And particularly now, with digital capabilities, I can print difficult negatives which were not technically possible to print before. So in some respects, you are right, people will tend to consider this publication the definitive retrospective, but I don't see it that way. I am very happy with the design and production values. Anyone who has ever published a book knows how disappointing the final results can be. High quality is deceptively elusive. But I do think CHRONOLOGIES is definitive in one respect; I think it's the most beautiful presentation of my work to date.
A longer version of this interview appeared in SeeSaw Magazine.
AARON SCHUMAN is an American photographer, editor, lecturer and critic, currently based in the UK. Having assisted various photographers - most notably, Annie Leibovitz and Wolfgang Tillmans - he began to pursue his own freelance career in 2000. Since then, he has exhibited his photographic work internationally, and has been featured in publications such as Aperture, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. In 2002, he was one of six photographers to be shortlisted for The Times Young Photographer of the Year Award; and in 2004, he received a GSE grant from Rotary International to photograph in Karnataka, India. Schuman is on the director's board of the UK-based photography organization, PhotoDebut, and is a member of the international photography collective, Young Photographers United. He is also a Lecturer in Photography at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth (AIB), a Visiting Lecturer in Photography at the University of Brighton, and the founder, director and editor of the online photography journal, SeeSaw Magazine.
All images courtesy the Fraenkel Gallery.
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