Landscape Photographer Shows Dark Side of Human Impact

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Richard Misrach’s photographs shot over the past four decades offer a stark reminder of how human industry corrupts the landscape. His lens has captured environmental devastation in the desert of…

Richard Misrach’s photographs shot over the past four decades offer a stark reminder of how human industry corrupts the landscape. His lens has captured environmental devastation in the desert of the American West and the polluted swamplands of the South. Some of Misrach’s prints, along with those of an earlier generation of photographers, go on display at the Autry Museum of the American West beginning June 4.

“Revolutionary Vision” offers a glimpse of how fine art photography has evolved. Half of the exhibition features work by five leading members of Group f/64, an informal faction of 11 Bay Area photographers led by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, both giants in the art photography world. The group was founded in 1932 and named for the large-format camera aperture, which captures a maximum depth of field. The photographers argued in favor of sharp, crisp images and unaltered prints, as opposed to the Pictorialism photographers’ use of soft focus and retouched images. And Group f/64 believed its subjects were less important than the method of photographing them. Members viewed nature as a template by which to experiment with a camera’s mechanical possibilities as well as for playing with tonal contrasts in the development process.

The other half of the show features Misrach’s prints from the late 1970s and early 1980s, featuring images from several series, including “Clouds,” “Desert Cantos,” “Desert Fires” and “Salton Sea.” The photographs feature sweeping vistas with colorful sunsets and long expanses of sand and brush. Underlying, however, is a sinister and menacing quality. One group of photos shows the pockmarked earth of a bombing range. Another shows billowing clouds of black smoke coming from the orange flames of a wildfire. The Salton Sea series features a post-apocalyptic flooded wasteland of rusted cars, home foundations, gas station pumps and street signs submerged in water.

“It’s a historical collective alongside a contemporary artist whose work is informed by their vision, but at the same time, he really comments on, criticizes and expands some of the environmental messages and undertones of the earlier group,” said Amy Scott, chief curator at the Autry.

The images belong to the Bank of America Collection and are being lent to the Autry as part of the bank’s “Art in Our Communities” program. Misrach, who is Jewish and lives in Berkeley, told the Journal he didn’t even realize Bank of America owned any of his prints. But, he said, he’s happy to know his work is being shown alongside that of Adams, Weston and their contemporaries.

“When I was 18 years old, and I was at Berkeley studying psychology … I was falling in love with photography for the first time, and it was the f/64 group, people like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham — they were all my heroes,” Misrach said. “And so to be put in an exhibition with them is pretty exciting. And a big surprise. I had no idea it was coming.”

Misrach was in college during the anti-war movement of the late 1960s, so while the stunning black-and-white photographs of Weston’s sand dunes and Adams’ national parks shaped Misrach’s aesthetic, his critical approach to the landscape sets him apart from his predecessors.

“My work is very much influenced by them, but also tempered by the politics of the day,” Misrach said. Like Adams, he used an 8-by-10 large-format camera, complete with a focusing hood pulled over his head, and a bellows, the accordion-like folding attachment on a camera.

But he differed in his use of color, the painterly abstraction by which he deployed it, and his subject matter: human-caused wildfires and floods, a mass gravesite for animals, and Nevada’s Bravo 20 bombing range. One series, “Cancer Alley,” features a highly polluted section of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans.

“I photographed the landscape, but where it collided with civilization,” he said.

While Misrach outgrew Adams’ influence, he still reveres the nature photographer. In fact, he has a typewritten letter Adams sent him in 1979 framed on his wall at home. Adams had sent it to Misrach’s first gallery, expressing his admiration for the work.

“He’s still my hero,” Misrach said.

Another thing connecting Misrach to Group f/64 is his interest in the metaphysical. While his work is often political, he also has projects that reach toward the ineffable. He describes his output as jumping back and forth between those two polarities.

For example, his recent best-selling publication “On the Beach” and its follow-up “The Mysterious Opacity of Other Beings,” feature bathers at the beach, tiny but highly detailed figures bobbing in the ocean. He began shooting the project shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The bodies are usually alone, transcendent and drifting in a vast expanse of rippling sun-dappled waves.

Misrach has also created a highly political new project, “Border Cantos,” currently on view at the San Jose Museum of Art, which pairs his images of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands with original music by experimental composer Guillermo Galindo. Misrach sent the Mexico City-born artist discarded objects he found near the border — a tire, a leather shoe, a nylon glove, scrap metal, rawhide, etc. — and Galindo fashioned them into eclectic musical sculptures.

The political nature of Misrach’s work may not be readily apparent to viewers. His barbed critiques of corporate-driven pollution and landscapes marred by human folly are cloaked in the atmospheric beauty and rich color of the images.

“It’s very different from journalism,” he said. “I wanted something that could stand over time. And I find that making things beautiful … it makes you come in and look at something that you would otherwise turn away from.”

It is that tension between the beauty of a landscape and the damage inflicted upon it that reflects our society’s changing attitude toward nature — from reverence to guilt and shame. The idealized landscapes of Group f/64 gave way to Misrach’s documentary approach to human encroachment on nature, and this exhibition enables viewers to witness the evolution taking shape.

“Revolutionary Vision: Group f/64 and Richard Misrach Photographs From the Bank of America Collection” is on display at the Autry Museum of the American West from June 4 to Jan. 8. This article originally appeared in The Jewish Journal.