San Francisco

Richard Misrach

Grapestake Gallery

Through a combination of extended time exposure, artificial illumination and print toning, Richard Misrach forges an evocative nocturnal vision of the Arizona, California and Baja deserts. In composition and physical presence, his photographs read as iconic manifestations; his rock formations, cactus and succulents vibrate with a mystical aura. Time exposure and foreshortened depth of field create atmospheric effects, stars are transformed into dashes of light, and toning intensifies a haze that is dramatic and unearthly.

Misrach’s images are pictorial and deliberately romantic, both in choice of subject and manipulation of photographic technique. Nevertheless, his pictures display a systematic investigation of form and a challenging articulation of directorial concept. By working at night, with hand-held strobe illumination, the photographer literally sculpts the subject into existence. Time exposure and artificial light source provocatively expand the philosophical issue of what the camera sees, and the shadings of reality inherent in that vision. Misrach’s directorial mode is transcendentally intentioned, and far removed from the social statements of most images made in this manner. His approach to landscape, reminiscent of Tonalist painting, is equally removed from the cool, analytic topographic photography of the ’70s.

Viewed both in exhibition and recently published monograph, the desert work is intriguing for the limitations imposed by the photographer, and the expansive statement realized within those boundaries. The repetitive square format and iconic centering negates dramatic juxtaposition or traditional deep space. However, within a narrow spectrum the photographer imbues his forms with remarkable variation and intensity. As overtly romantic as these images appear on the surface, they display a conceptual complexity in the quadrant delineation of space and scale ambiguity.

In the sequencing of sky, ground and landscape configurations, Misrach’s photographs suggest a metaphor for creation, and a continuation of the visionary sensibility integral to West Coast photography. Like Anne Brigman, who depicted herself among the gnarled tree forms of Sierras in the Pictorialist era, or Wynn Bullock, who placed his subjects in vast panoramas, Misrach engages in a man and nature dialogue. But where Misrach expands upon this tradition, and adds a self-reflexive note to photography, is in his use of strobe, which both informs the content and offers a pictorial vestige of man.

Hal Fischer