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Interview: Richard Misrach with Peter Brown

I have followed and enjoyed Richard Misrach’s work since the mid 1970s. In 1985, I did an interview with him for the Winter issue of spot. That interview is available online at the HCP website. Richard’s work needs little introduction. He is among the most prominent photographers of his generation and his work has been shown and published widely, perhaps most notably in a retrospective curated by Anne Tucker at the MFA H in 1996. His exhibition on Katrina, Destroy This Memory, was shown at the MFA H this Fall. Richard is the creator of a vast archive of photographs on the desert Southwest. They are sectioned into what he calls Cantos, thematic chapters that re-imagine American culture. They are provocative in the best ways and are very beautiful. He has also photographed in Louisiana for many years – Cancer Alley, the corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as well as the desolation left by Hurricane Katrina. And he has also taken pictures of the desert sky, the Golden Gate Bridge, the beaches and water and jungles of Hawaii, Stonehenge, the Pyramids… I could go on. Richard is a remarkably prolific and talented photographer. For our interview this time, we emailed back and forth for a number of weeks. And at HCP, we are very happy to have him back in spot after a quarter of a century.

Peter Brown: Richard, given that this is an interview, I’d like to begin with an examination of words – a few from the start of your career and some from your most recent work.

On the inside cover of Telegraph 3 A.M., your first book, is a picture of graffiti: Flower Power, Street People Unite! TCH, LSD, STP, MDA, MES, PCP – now you think of some! And above this, in a faint hand: Long Live Telegraph. They’re a set of sad and funny statements that remind me of your work on Katrina. And in Destroy This Memory, your Katrina book, each photograph contains graffiti. And the graffiti set off a narrative.

In between these two bodies of work you’ve published books with no words at all: your first desert book famously included neither words nor numbers apart from a few things on the spine. There have been books with academic essays; one with short fiction, a poem here and there, more graffiti, even a shot-up Playboy interview with Gore Vidal. There are essays on the desert and the Golden Gate Bridge. And there is the retrospective Chronologies which has no words beyond descriptive titles.

I’m interested in your relationship to words and words to your work. You’re an articulate guy and well read and you’ve said that you’ve been influenced by writers as diverse as Yeats, Pound, Castaneda, and John Van Dyke. Characterize your feelings about words and images, if you would. And tell me a bit more about writers who have influenced you. Cormac McCarthy springs to mind – as does John Brinckerhoff Jackson.

Richard Misrach: I have an ambivalent relationship to words and photographs. There have been many periods in my career where I’ve felt that photographs should stand alone. I am reading Duchamp’s biography and I just came across: “As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences, everything goes wrong.” There have been periods where I’ve felt that words were critical to anchor meaning in a photograph via a title, an extended caption, or an accompanying essay. And sometimes not. And neither position has won out. Over the years I have swung back and forth.

The [untitled book] published in 1979 by Grapestake Gallery was indeed wordless, titleless even. Only the spine had the minimum information required to make it a book. I was trying to deconstruct the conventional supportive material to see what would happen if one created a purely visual book. At the same time, I was having gatherings at my studio. Lew Thomas, publisher of Photography and Language, Lutz Bacher, Sam Samore, Donna-Lee Phillips among others would come over. We’d have potluck dinners and discuss readings and images. After a couple of years, we produced a portfolio of large scale language-based photographs: Text and Context. I did a piece called Contribution Piece where I offered my services as a photographer, free of charge, to a number of friends and family. My photograph in the portfolio was simply a 30×40 silver print of the typed letter I sent out. I don’t remember if more than one set was ever made, but the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston bought it for its collection. I had forgotten about it until Anne Tucker pointed out its relationship to my current publication, Destroy This Memory. And what is interesting – and I didn’t realize till our interview here, is that I used the same design strategy for both books. In each case, the photograph on the cover becomes the title: in the 1979 volume, the title is the image of the cactus. In the 2010 volume, the title becomes the words in the photograph on the cover.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that essays can become dated, whereas photographs retain their vitality – and paradoxically – defy their time specificity. We see that with snapshots. The moment from a vacation or a wedding transcends the split-second to become memory – our consciousness – timeless. Essays can shackle a body of work to a historical moment. Though sometimes that is desired. Two recent books, Chronologies and On The Beach had minimum text. I explored a number of approaches, even using my own words in an interview accompanying On The Beach, but finally felt the words limited the pictures’ meanings. On the other hand, Destroy This Memory, is literally photographs of words, and my next book will have extended captions to build a narrative. So once again I am contradicting myself….

Re: what I read: I actually gravitate to non-fiction more than fiction. I like books of ideas – how art works – cultural and literary theory. I knew of J.B. Jackson through other photographers – and in fact Jackson was going to write for Desert Cantos. Although I was familiar with his thought, I confess I hadn’t read much. I did read a couple of Cormac McCarthy’s books, and found his novel, The Road, stunning both in the beauty of the writing and also because in its uncanny correspondence to my work.

PB: I certainly thought of The Road, and I also thought of Blood Meridian which deals with the pre-settled Southwest in ways that seem paradoxically post-apocalyptic. And J.B. Jackson’s book The Necessity for Ruins in its title alone describes much of your work. You’ve dealt with ruins throughout – Stonehenge, the desert, the pyramids, Katrina….

In our previous interview you said you had a strong belief in intuition, in instinct. It’s a belief that I share as a photographer, and it’s mysterious and powerful. Beyond the mental leap into the unknown that intuition entails, you’ve been the recipient of remarkable synchronicity over the years. Books show up at the right time for you to read, people make appearances, fires have a tendency to spring to life around you….

And from this I’d like to get your thoughts on spirituality and religion. I know you’ve read visionary writers, but I wonder if over the years a more solid kind of belief system has emerged, something beyond an appreciation for powers that we can’t fully comprehend.

Finally, and again connected, I presume you were raised in the Jewish tradition and I wonder how this might have impacted your work. Apocalypse and holocaust are closely related in terms of horror. You have a well defined sense of morality and purpose, and I’m curious about its context. These are a difficult set of interior questions, but I’d love to get your thoughts on them….

RM: One of the things I do, is that I “graze through books,” as my wife Myriam says. And frankly this is weird. I’ll read till something catches my interest, then put the book down and let the idea simmer for awhile. Then I’ll pick up a different book and do the same. Then back again. I do this with several simultaneously. It’s odd and I suspect I absorb the material more as a montage, or a William Burroughs cut-up, than as clean narrative. Right now, I’m reading Calvin Tompkin’s biography of Duchamp, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel Kotkin, and a catalogue on Arte Povera. Recently I read cover to cover, the exception to the rule, Jeff Wall’s writings and interviews. I enjoyed it, and his essay on conceptual art’s intertwined relationship to photography is truly significant.

Re: spirituality and religion – I adhere pretty closely to Bill Maher’s take on it (although he gets pretty obnoxious). I just don’t get religion. And although I am Jewish (and to the dismay of one of my dearest friends who is Israeli) I don’t identify either religiously or culturally as a Jew. I think growing up as a second generation Californian may have had some bearing on this.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly spiritual person either. That said, I experience a kind of joy in seeing things in the world – making sense of them with the camera – something that I can’t explain. Perhaps making pictures gives me access to a kind of spirituality that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Part of what I find so compelling about photography is the mystery of it. After forty years I would expect myself to be jaded, bored – but not at all. The magic of the ways photography works and what it does, remains elusive. Photography still challenges my visual and intellectual needs in a way no other medium can. But I can’t explain the impact in conventional spiritual or religious terms.

PB: You’ve dealt in many interviews with the social and political implications of your work. But as you may have guessed, I’m interested in what’s going on within you as well. You’ve been around difficult subject matter forever – from street kids, to bombing sites, to animal pits, to toxic swamps – on and on. Yet all of this has been
balanced by happier stuff: the night sky, the Golden Gate Bridge; sublime images from the desert; lush jungle photographs, dreamy shots of the ocean in Hawaii.

This seems a very human balance, and I’m interested in two things: if this dichotomy has been arrived at in some rational way, or if you have simply needed breaks from the horrific from time to time and have taken them. And secondly: how carrying an endgame vision, an apocalyptic sense of the future, in both your life and work has affected you personally. I don’t want to put you on some Jungian couch, but I wonder how you’ve dealt for forty years with a desecrated landscape and a vision of our future that you’ve described as out of a Mad Max movie. I’ve always thought there were prophetic things going on in your work Richard and frankly, they’ve had me worried! I wonder if you think of your photographs as cautionary tales or do you actually believe that this is the way we’ll end up.

RM: There are two polarities in photography that I find tremendously compelling. The first is a characteristic that makes it a unique tool for “bearing witness” (which of course has a religious connotation in spite of my stated lack of interest in religion). The work of mine that’s closest to a documentary mode – Bravo 20, the dead animal pits, the Salton Sea Flood, Cancer Alley, Katrina, etc. – serves that function for me. I do see this work as cautionary tales, as you’ve put it. Each one of those disasters is relatively small-scale in nature. But in each case, human folly signals that it would not be too hard to expand these problems globally. The same human apparatus is at work. That said, I’m not just photographing content here. I go to great lengths to make formally engaging pictures. I pay attention to the frame, to the light, etc. I’ve always felt that the best of my pictures function in a way that historical painting used to. As painting has relinquished this function, photography has become capable of performing that role beautifully. Just as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa was both a remarkable visual experience, it also embodies a specific political
event. I hope my pictures function in that way as well – as aesthetic objects and markers of historical moments in America.

However, I do need to cleanse the palate after that kind of work! In 1998, for example, I was making my Golden Gate pictures from home at the same time I was taking trips to Cancer Alley. My career, in a way, has been about navigating these two extremes – the political and the aesthetic. And this brings me to the second polarity.

Aside from the more documentary/witness bearing capabilities of the medium, I love the sheer magic of the machine, and the light, and the materials and chemistry that make it up. From my earliest days of experimenting in the darkroom, to my most recent Photoshop experiences, I am never disappointed in the rich aesthetic properties and intellectual challenges of the medium. You want to know if I have deep insights into the nature of this kind of pleasure. Unfortunately, I don’t. But it is a deeply gratifying experience.

PB: I like the dual nature of your work. Another photographer who follows this path is Robert Adams. His images address the politics of the environment directly – yet he is also compelled to show the beauty that remains in the West. And he takes the same care you describe in the way that he frames and edits – not just for content but for aesthetic pleasure despite the subject. And I’m wondering if you talk or correspond much with other photographers about your work?

RM: I’ve had three salons in my studio over the years. The first was in the 1970s. That was the most successful and lasted a couple of years. We started another one in the 90s with people like Larry Sultan, Catherine Wagner and Jim Goldberg. That never quite took off. I think we were too far along in our careers and adult lives – and
it died out. I tried another one a few years ago with some younger artists but again – too busy with life and work…. So today I really don’t share my ideas with other artists. But that first salon was great. Highly recommended for younger artists. I remember Lew Thomas saying “You can’t trust anyone under thirty.” He was thirty-two and I was twenty-eight.

PB: You mentioned historical paintings and the way they bore witness to events. In your Canto The Paintings, you re-photograph certain works of 19th century art. Most are cropped: a woman’s legs, half of George Washington, a scene at the Roman Coliseum. Tell me your reasons for photographing them. Did you mean them to point toward a painterly aspect of your work? You mentioned Jeff Wall earlier, and in terms of scale and a kind of competition with painting, his thought certainly has pointed in this direction….

RM: A number of series in the past have played with the relationship of photography to painting. My Scrubs, 1996, were a direct play on Pollocks. I even cropped and framed them in a similar way. The idea that a straight, unmanipulated photograph of something as mundane as dead desert brush could look like a Pollock fascinated
me. Similarly, my sky photographs in 1988 were a play on color field painting: Reinhardt, Rothko, et al. But my photos were not trying to emulate painting – they were exploring the nature of the (profound) differences between photography and painting. The two mediums can create similar forms, but the meanings, because of the way they are made, are very different. My Pictures of Paintings was the most literal experiment with this idea: I photographed the content of a painting and represented it in the context of my Desert Cantos, locating the paintings in a specific American West. I found Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Walker Evans’ photographs to be amazing. Simply by re-photographing an image a change of meaning takes place. This was a revelation.

When people talk about photography looking like painting they miss the point. The large scale of the work for me has nothing to do with painting – it’s all about our new found ability to work with size, which was never viable before. In 1978, when I was making my first color photographs (Hawaii), Donna-Lee Phillips looked at the prints on my studio wall and said that the way I presented them defeated the point. I was photographing in dark jungles at night, almost blind except for bursts of strobe. I initially printed them 16×20 and Donna said that because of their small size, the viewer “contained” them. As if I, the photographer, or the viewer, were in control of nature. She said if I made the prints larger they would overwhelm the viewer and underline this fallacy. That was a brilliant insight. I printed the images as large as I could – 30×40. They were the largest color prints I’d seen, and they felt like a revelation. I dropped off a bunch at MoMA and came back to pick them up. John Szarkowski asked me into his office and the prints were taped up on the walls everywhere. I could see that he was excited. That was a pretty heady moment.

PB: I imagine it was, and what a loss his death was. He was in Houston and still brilliant a few months before his stroke. To my mind – curating aside – he was one of the best writers of the latter part of the twentieth century. No matter the discipline. And I remember those jungle photographs well. We used them in a show
at Rice, and they were overwhelming. I’d never seen anything like them before either.

RM: Yes, Szarkowski was amazing. The way he unpacks the meaning of photographs in Looking at Photographs, for example, is revelatory. It’s still one of my favorite books. The half dozen times we spoke in his office or on the phone he was always thoughtful and witty. He dropped these little insight bombs. For example, he described my Desert Fire #43 as “a messy Wizard of Oz”, and he said of Waiting (which you used on the spot cover years ago), that he loved it because it reminded him of Atget’s idea of “where to stand”.

PB: You said at your recent talk at the museum with Anne Tucker, that you had not used film in over two years. And while before you were limited to fifty shots a day, you now can take hundreds. Do you find yourself photographing with the same discipline? And do you feel the same “possession” of an image, not having had to load and unload film, cart the huge camera around…. Is there a physical aspect to film photography that you miss, or are you simply pleased to have things so much easier?

RM: I was shooting with my 8×10 after Katrina for 12-14 hours, from dawn to dusk, over a three month period. I was pushing hard and blew a disc in my back. I was unable to lift anything for ten months. I not only had to throw in the towel on what was going to be a long term project, but I had to consider alternatives to the 8×10. I started testing a medium format camera with a digital back. And that was that. I haven’t shot film in 3 years (I’ve been accused of going over to the dark side!).

It is different. I don’t have the quality that I had, but the quality of the image is still good. In exchange, I can photograph in the wind, I can make hundreds of photographs in succession, I can stop action. When I get home I can download, process and print five foot photographs within twenty-four hours of returning. In the past it would take months to have the 8x10s developed, processed and contacted just to see what I had.

But perhaps most importantly, the new technologies allow me to print my own work which I haven’t done since the seventies. I am able to get prints exactly the way I want. And I’m back to experimenting and exploring with the printing process. I feel as though I’m discovering the medium all over again. And I must say, as the advancement of color technology in the 70s had a revolutionary impact, I think the digital revolution taking place is going to have even a bigger one. Kids coming out of school have access to the means of production right in their bedrooms. And the new tools have infinite potential. This is going to be an amazing period for photography and photographers.

PB: Well that sounds like religion to me. Almost a conversion experience! And it’s safe to say that you don’t miss the physical aspects of the large camera. I agree that this is a wildly exciting time to be a photographer. I gave a critique to a group of high school students at HCP recently and was knocked out by the work. It ran the gamut from traditional silver prints, to processed color, to digital color, to scanned overlapped Diana camera negs printed three feet in length, to prints made with a cell phone with an SX 70 app. They looked like early Egglestons. And then of course there’s the web. And speaking digitally, I’ve wondered if Destroy This Memory is the first digital work you’ve shown?

RM: Actually, the 2005 photographs which I made with a 4 megapixel camera for Destroy This Memory were the first digital pictures I ever shot. But the first digital work that I’ve exhibited have been photos from my recent series, Untitled. These are pictures that explore the beauty and meaning of the color negative. They are inspired partially by John Cage’s Notations – a book that reproduces samples of musical scores as graphic form. I’ve always marveled at the strange beauty of color negatives.

PB: You’ve just returned from Louisiana where you’ve worked for many years. Are you continuing with Katrina and Cancer Alley, or are you into something new?

RM: I’ve been revisiting and updating my Cancer Alley project which I began in 1998.

PB: And of course the desert work continues. Do you anticipate further Cantos? I’d very much like to see this work collected in a mammoth volume or series of books. I’m thinking of something like the Atget set brought out by MoMA in the eighties.

RM: Yes, the Desert Cantos are ongoing. I’m up to DCXXX. And yes, definitely, someday it would be great to have a multi-volume boxed set.

PB: Is there a new set of pictures you might begin to make because of the digital camera? Much of Telegraph 3A.M. was portraiture, and I haven’t seen portraiture from you in many years.

RM: I never know what I’ll be doing next. The Destroy This Memory project is a shift that I couldn’t have anticipated and it’s determined purely by the new technology, as is my Untitled series. Portraiture always poses a problem for me. Ever since Telegraph 3A.M., I have believed that there is a problematic, exploitive component inherent to photography. It’s weird because I am in awe of many pictures of people – Arbus, Bruce Davidson’s East 100 Street, Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor, Katy Grannan’s photographs. But I always feel the balance of power between the photographer and the subject to be unequal – even when the photographers seem sympathetic. So I admire the portraiture of others, yet I don’t feel comfortable photographing people myself.

Almost always, if people are in my pictures, they are “figures” – taken at a distance, and obscured from recognition. I think of them serving as stand-ins for civilization, rather than individuals.

PB: Interesting – Robert Adams uses trees in much the same way, I think…. Finally Richard, your work has functioned in many ways, but perhaps most powerfully
as a cultural critique. On the end flap of the Telegraph book, written in your twenties, you say in a wonderfully innocent way that your next project is to create “an extrapersonal photo-document on American values.” My feeling is that this is what has motivated you all along (in concert with your fascination with the medium itself) – that you’re interested in American values and where our national priorities have led us. Do you find this to be true?

RM: I was 24 when I wrote that, but maybe I was on to something 🙂

Peter Brown is a Houston based photographer. He is a founding member of HCP and has written for spot for many years. The work from his most recent photographic
book, West of Last Chance, a collaboration with the novelist Kent Haruf, won the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize.