By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat October 3, 1996
The camera is one of the most powerful tools of the 20th century. Through this unblinking eye we record, preserve and analyze the entire range of human behavior, from our most glorious triumphs to moments of depravity and downfall. Every photograph reveal s as much about the person behind the camera as it does about the scene before it; every photograph, whether of a landscape, an animal or a devastated building, reveals human passions - our doubled desire to understand ourselves and the world around us.
Few photographers of the 20th century seem to understand this better than Richard Misrach. Over two decades ago he embarked on a project of epic scope and heroic ambition: to photograph the American desert from every possible angle, documenting and invest igating the many levels of human impact and interaction with the legendary West. Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach, the current show at the UA's Center for Creative Photography, brings together hundreds of Misrach's artworks in a rare and dazzling show - a comprehensive look at what may be one of the most significant artistic projects of this century.
Taking inspiration from the long poems of Ezra Pound, Misrach chose to group his photographs into cantos, creating a narrative structure of related themes and subjects. Each canto deals with a specific location and scene, from California flood plains to N evada bombing ranges to anonymous pits full of rotting farm animals. By deliberately choosing his subjects with an agenda in mind, Misrach managed to blend the political and the aesthetic in a way that is both seductive and extremely powerful, producing m esmerizing works of art that can knock the wind out of you.
One of the living masters of color photography, Misrach uses an 8-by-10 view camera to produce huge negatives, which are turned into gigantic prints over four feet across. Each print is an utterly flawless, crystal-clear masterwork in itself, dominating t he viewer's entire field of vision.
Looking over Misrach's cantos it becomes clear that he has no intention of traditionally recording the desert. His photographs not only capture rarely-seen features and events in the desert but expand the very definition of desert itself - casting aside c owboy myths and tourist postcards to peer into the American psyche itself. "Desert" is not simply defined by the amount of annual rainfall: it is a state of mental and physical struggle with the environment, where mankind's desires are often rebuffed by a land older than history.
When entering the gallery one first sees three gigantic prints from Canto XVIII: Skies. Minimally framed and without protective glass, these portraits of both morning and evening desert skies are spellbinding. Intense and yet infinitely subtle, these port raits of nothing but color itself are ultimate abstractions, composed of only air, light and the viewer's imagination. Captured at precise moments over the deserts of California, Israel and Arizona, these prints serve as a visual diary of Misrach's experi ences in the desert - an attempt to fix in time the ineffable beauty of the desert's ever-changing skies.
In stark, almost brutal contrast to these abstractions are the grotesque memorials of Canto VI: The Pit. Photographed in a large pit full of dead and dismembered farm animals, these prints are unspeakably gruesome - and unquestionably beautiful. Framed in rough, hand-welded metal these carefully composed portraits capture death in all its turgid finality, yet with such lush color and detail that what might simply put the viewer off their lunch becomes an aesthetic puzzle: how can something intrinsically r epulsive also be beautiful?
This is a question that has dogged Misrach for most of his career. He has set out to photograph the monstrous, often horrific consequences of humankind's conflict with the desert, often producing achingly beautiful images of brutally ugly subjects. Is the re an ethics to beauty, such that only "good" subjects should be beautiful, and evil left to its own crude devices?
"Shakespeare could describe death in the most aestheticized language, with a startling beauty, and he is revered-yet people have a problem with a photograph of the same situation," Misrach said. He analogizes the problem as similar to the optical illusion of a picture of a vase that can also be seen as two opposing faces: "You can see one, but not both simultaneously without discomfort."
Prose or poetry allows us the buffer of our own imagination, but Misrach's photographs present only bare facts. The contrast between the seductive beauty of his prints and their subject matter does not weaken them; instead it complicates and extends their power. Rather than simply sugar-coating bitter pills, the clarity of Misrach's vision allows the viewer to confront the consequences of our incursion into the desert without blinking: literally, to look ourselves in the eye.
Confronted with a picture of a vast pile of rotting entrails, the viewer's understandable first reaction is a wince and an involuntary gasp. Yet such is Misrach's skill that a persistent viewer will survive the first shock and begin to see shapes, colors and tones in precise composition. In this way Misrach unlocks a hidden treasure: cobalt blues, rusty reds and patches of mellow gold reveal that as animals we carry all the rainbow colors of the surrounding landscape inside our own bodies, a mirror image of our colorful world.
The transaction also works in reverse. Seeming to glow with their own ethereal light, the haunting seascapes of Canto III: The Flood are stunning, enchanting, otherworldly. Houses and structures rise mysteriously from a sea of infinite calm and color, pea ceful and still. Yet the viewer's pleasure may turn to chills upon realizing that this is a man-made flood: self-inflicted destruction caused by a clumsy attempt to turn the desert into a paradise.
Misrach's desert is a place of irony and contrast: a bombing range with fascinating contours and colors; a picture-perfect canyon often used as a movie set, yet laced with deadly plutonium; cars racing at astounding speeds over salt flats that were a trea cherous, deadly obstacle for pioneers a mere century before. Technology has allowed us to turn the desert into a playground, and Misrach realized that this makes the desert a perfect backdrop for studying human successes and failures, passions and dreams.
Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach is showing until December 1. The Center for Creative Photography is in the Arts complex on the northwest corner of campus. Gallery hours are from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p .m. Sundays, closed Saturday. Call 621-7968 for more information or visit http://www.ccp.arizona.edu/ccp.html.