INTERVIEW: "Q & A with Richard Misrach"

Monolake 2, California, 1999.

Questions and Answers: Richard Misrach

“In preparation for the High’s installation of On the Beach, Richard Misrach took time to answer a few questions about his influences and experiences over the course of his career” for his new solo exhibition titled “On the Beach” recently opened at the High Museum in Atlanta.

Your photographs often draw attention to human impact on the environment. Why is this issue important to you? Do you have a positive or negative view of the direction in which we are moving, given all that you have seen?

RM: It is the great paradox of human existence. We must exploit our environment to exist, and we risk destroying it (and ourselves) in the process. It’s an extraordinary delicate balance and a compelling subject for one’s life’s work.

But there is also a deeply personal element to the work because I love being in the landscape: I find an aesthetic pleasure there that I don’t quite understand. My pictures are as much, maybe more, about the existential mystery of what I experience in the landscape than about civilization’s relation to it.

As far as the future of the planet, it’s hard not to worry. Just because we haven’t set in motion an irreparable calamity yet, is no insurance that we won’t in the future. Our nuclear arsenals, overpopulation, energy challenges and pollution remain growing threats. And yet, more than likely, it will be the unexpected that will be our undoing.

You have typically focused on the American landscape, free of human figures. In On the Beach, figures populate many of the scenes—why? What brought about this change?

RM: After 9/11 several images of people falling/jumping from the towers were published in newspapers. Those images were some of the most terrifying and heartbreaking I’ve ever seen. I was haunted by them.

In the past, I photographed people in the landscape where they usually introduced a sense of scale and relationship to our manmade environment. The people falling from the towers provided a whole new kind of scale: a relationship to the abyss—the abyss that haunts all of us. Because of those pictures, I found traces of our relationship to the sublime—fear, resilience, defiance, peace and joy—even in the most ordinary activities by the sea.

You’ve been asked a lot about how you made the photos. What inspired you to assume that particular vantage point? How does it enhance the images and/or the message behind them?

RM: The unusual “god’s eye view” draws attention to itself implicating the photographer in the process. This was important to me, as I was struck by the fact that right after 9/11, people carried on with their lives as if nothing had happened. People were vacationing and I was working; it was really weird actually.

It reminded me of that great Bruegel painting of Icarus falling into the sea. As Icarus plunges to his death, the farmer tills, the ship sails, life goes on.

My photograph of the handstand evokes the painting while inverting it—the legs represent the resilience? Obliviousness? In the face of our national tragedy. Even at the moment of such a profound national tragedy life inexplicably goes on.

Also, there is a sense of voyeurism and surveillance embedded in the all seeing vantage point. It is a relatively benign reminder—nobody is really compromised—but the camera is always watching in our Google satellite world.

To create the On the Beach series you used an 8×10 view camera. Can you talk a little about the technical advantages and challenges of working with a large format camera?

Untitled 696-05, 2005

RM: From a technical standpoint the 8×10″ camera was the wrong tool for this project. It is a cumbersome suitcase that requires reloading for each shot and has slow shutter speeds. It is not good for quick captures or stopping movement. By the time I would set up the camera, focus, load the film holder, pull out the film slide and depress the shutter, my subjects had often literally swum out of the frame. So many great pictures were missed.

That said, the fine detail afforded by the large negative, when I did get what I wanted, was crucial to achieve the intimate gestures and grand scale of the work.

You are perhaps best known for your images of the American West. What drew you to that landscape? How do you choose a location?

RM: I was born in Los Angeles and surfed and skied growing up. The western landscape was my universe. Since 1968 I have had five Volkswagon campers which I’ve used to travel the West for 2 to 3 weeks at a time. I throw in my camera, food, film and some coolers with film holders, and head off without any destination in mind.

If it’s hot, I stay north, cold, I head to southern deserts. Basically, I wander around chasing the light from dawn to dusk and see what I can discover.

I usually found that if I had a preconceived idea for a project it wouldn’t amount to much. Discovery—an aggressive receptivity, if you will—of what is in the landscape provides the inspiration for new ideas.

With the advent of digital technology, photography has consolidated its position as the medium of the masses…what are your views on the prevalence of photography on the internet and the use of digital? How has it impacted your work?

RM: So far the omnipresence of imagery on the internet hasn’t had a huge impact on me. However, digital production has completely changed the way I work and think about photography. I haven’t shot film in almost two years and am now making all of my own prints again (haven’t done that since the 1970’s). Some prints are as large as 10×13 feet!

Having full access to the new technologies has encouraged me to play and experiment in ways that take me back to when I was a beginning photographer. And given that everyone now in college will have the same opportunities—access to the means of production and radical new tools—the medium is destined for big, important changes. I can’t imagine a more exciting period for photography.

Over the course of your career photography’s place in the world of fine art has shifted and evolved. Do you feel that the way that photography is perceived/accepted has changed significantly since you began?

RM: Despite historic claims to the contrary, photography was marginalized by the art world for a long time. However, in the last decade and a half, photography has been at the fore of art world practice. Moreover, when I began photography the idea of making a living selling work in galleries wasn’t even a fantasy. Now, for better or worse, photography has entered the art marketplace big time.

How did you break into photography and what advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

RM: I think it was in 1968 that I saw the work of a young photographer, Roger Minick, hung on a wall in a small gallery at UC Berkeley where I was a student. I was deeply moved by the content of the work and the beauty of the prints, and I knew immediately that was what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I had never felt that before. Advice to aspiring photographers—follow your passion and work hard. If you are worried about career or marketplace, find another line of work…

Picked up via American Suburb X

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