Richard Misrach is an influential artist whose large-format colour landscapes focus on the relationship between human beings and their environments. Following the publication of his latest book, Richard Misrach on Landscape and Meaning, he reveals the secrets behind a quartet of images.
Above: ‘Untitled (Ocotillo), 1975’
Misrach’s first series, Telegraph 3am, brought early success and a show at the ICP in New York City. But for him it was a failure, because it didn’t improve the lives of his subjects. He decided to stop photographing people altogether, and retreated to the desert. “I would go out and camp for two or three weeks in my Volkswagen camper,” he says. “And then I just started photographing, but only at night. I took a strobe and I just sort of lit up the desert. And that was it – that took me in a totally different direction.”
Above: ‘Desert Fire #249, 1985’
“Whenever I’ve had a preconceived idea for a project, it’s never panned out,” says Misrach. “My best projects are sparked by driving and looking with an open mind – being what I call ‘aggressively receptive’.” That was certainly the case with his Desert Fire series. “Once I saw the first fire, I saw them everywhere. So how did I not see them for the three years before, driving the same roads over and over again?” No doubt it had something to do with the fact that exactly one year previously, he’d lost 4,000 negatives in a fire at his lab … “That was brutal.”
Above: ‘Bomb crater and destroyed vehicle, Bravo 20 Bombing Range, 1986’
The fifth series in Misrach’s ongoing The Desert Cantos was one of his most explicitly political, drawing attention to Bravo 20, a vast military bombing range in Nevada, now highly contaminated. “This image works on several levels,” he says. “It lends itself to a literal reading – a hole in the earth with bombs all around it and a destroyed convoy – and the symbolic: a bloody, oozing wound.”
Above: ‘Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona, 2015’
While working on one of his latest desert series, The Border Cantos, Misrach began a collaboration with Mexican artist and composer Guillermo Galindo, whose practice includes making his own instruments from everyday objects. As Misrach was travelling the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border he would photograph and collect objects for Galindo to work with back in Berkeley. These same instruments were eventually exhibited alongside Misrach’s photographs, and Galindo composed numerous sound pieces too. “The project is much bigger than our individual contributions,” says Misrach. “It acts as a bridge between two cultures, AND between our two mediums.”
Richard Misrach on Landscape and Meaning is published by Aperture. The photographer selects more favourite images in the July/August 2021 issue of the RPS Journal.
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