Richard Misrach

Calling the eighteen photographic portfolios sampled in this midcareer retrospective “cantos” allows Richard Misrach to foreground the poetic intent of this enormous project. His aesthetic is deeply affected by political judgments, but it is ultimately concerned with dualisms like nature and culture, wilderness and civilization, situated in a thicket of references to the history of photography as an art form. The pictures in “Canto I: The Terrain,” 1981–84, set out this encounter from the first. A photograph of a canyon vista, for example, includes tourists contemplating the scene, and studies of light and atmosphere in the San Jacinto Mountains also register the scar of a dirt road whose track across the desert likely got the photographer there. The Santa Fe, 1982, shows the tail end of a freight train crossing a level stretch of land. The lines of the rail, train, and horizon establish a formal harmony that sadly reflects on the desire to live in harmony with nature. And yet it is a subtly beautiful picture, with sage and olive-colored chaparral and a gentle violet cast to the desert soil.

Misrach maintains the dramatic tension between his binary oppositions within the particular situations and events he documents. Most of these images refuse to reduce themselves to a formula or slogan. This does not mean that Misrach is immune to polemics. The show’s Houston installation often ignored the numeric sequence of the cantos and, in part, presented a progression of violence—from invading tourists through bombing ranges and military installations—a progression that culminated in the horrific images of dead animals in “Canto: VI: The Pit,” 1987–89.

The consistent human presence in these landscapes links them to the works of nineteenth-century photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson who documented the progress of American civilization across the continent. In a real sense, unexploded bombs and blasted trucks are the other end of a continuum of landscape images that begins with O’Sullivan’s reports from the frontier.

Although he devoted two cantos specifically to desert inhabitants and tourists, the presence of individuals in Misrach’s work is like that of specimens in an environment: they are representatives as much as individuals. He does not appear to seek any emotive spirituality. Most telling in this vein is “Canto XII: Clouds (Non-Equivalents),” 1981–. As the title indicates, his clouds are intended as a forceful rebuttal of Alfred Stieglitz’s quasi-Symbolist notion of emotional immanence and spiritual transcendence. In Misrach’s photos, clouds may be dramatic and even beautiful, but they are also just water vapor. Historically situated and semiotically informed, these images constitute a manifesto for a poetics of materiality.

Michael Odom