Richard Misrach: A New Take on Beauty
Hey, don’t get me wrong. I dig Ansel as much as the next guy. What’s not to like? His images are immaculate. His use of light was exquisite. His technique was perfect. His subjects were beautiful. Man, his photographs are beautiful. But at their best, his photographs reveal a crisis of modernism. For the better part of a century, photographers had been honing their craft. Their mastery of tools and materials had been continuously evolving. The sensitivity, strength, and relevance of their gaze had also been getting better and better. Their unquestioned quest for beauty was loping along. Finally, in the work of Ansel Adams, it all came together. The technique was perfect. The subject was perfect. The beauty was perfect. All of the ingredients of the photographic ideal were singing in perfect harmony.Why, then, did his work leave many of us feeling so empty?
The Brighton Store, in an old log cabin, had the best carrot cake. The frosting was fantastic, sugary sweet with the bite of cream cheese. Finishing a backcountry ski tour with a piece of this cake was one of my fondest teenage rituals. One day I brought a girl with me to the store. Before I could get to it, she’d eaten all of the frosting off my carrot cake. I was devastated, but I played it cool. The flavor of the cake without the frosting surprised me. I mean, I’d eaten this stuff before, right? I was amazed by the subtlety and complexity of the spices, by the richness and the texture. These qualities had always been in there, so why hadn’t I noticed them before? Could beauty be the problem? In the decades that followed, a fear of beauty emerged in the work of many photographers. Some embraced the rough, raw, inelegant style of the snapshot. Strangely enough, beauty was found in this aesthetic. Some embraced the matter-of-fact documentary style, but this language developed a strong aesthetic as well. Some tried to downplay formal beauty with politics while others attempted to reduce their work to the concept alone. Some photographers tried to enamor us with novelty while others tried to shock us.We had lost our innocence.We needed something intelligent and mature. We needed something that didn’t run from beauty…or exploit it.
The first Richard Misrach photograph that I saw was a black and white picture of the desert at night. A scraggily plant, unnaturally cut from the darkness of its land by the pop of a flash, dominated the foreground while planets scratched their way through the hours of the sky. It never tried, not even for a moment, to fool me into thinking that it was about the beauty of the land. The land was important, but the beauty in this image was its own.
Over the years, Richard Misrach replaced his medium format camera with an eight by ten view camera. Turning from the black and white artificiality of flash at night to the more natural, but often surprising, colors of light during the day, he let the beauty of the land into his work. This was not, however, the seductive, escapist beauty of the calendar shot. His compositions are simple, often minimal. Although his photographs drip with the stark beauty of the desert, he never buys into the wilderness myth. This is the land as it is. This is the land as we have made it. An empty swimming pool, abandoned because of a flood, stands in an inland sea accidentally created by a water diversion project gone horribly wrong. Bombs and destroyed vehicles litter a high desert basin under the torn horizon of a distant mountain range. Visitors, who have come to the desert to play for the weekend, bring as much of the city as they can carry along with them. A dumpster breaks the horizon of the playa.
Political issues are seen in Richard Misrach’s photographs, but they are not political. He often looks directly at ugliness, but his pictures are not ugly. There is beauty in these images, but not the stereotypical beauty of the idealized landscape. The sweetness of the frosting doesn’t hide the rewards that come with the complexity underneath.Yeah, these pictures are not ashamed to be beautiful. Ugliness brings truth to the beauty in these photographs. They are complicated but not compromised. They resonate.
By David Baddley