Richard Misrach on Landscape and Meaning

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This is one of Aperture’s ‘Workshop’ series, in which photographers talk about their work as if they were leading a workshop. I don’t have any others in this series, but I do have a couple of other Aperture books, and like those, this is a lovely object: nice paper, great size and format, good photo reproductions. Solid thumbs up.

Notes

I like this idea of rejecting the decisive moment. As a default it’s become pervasive and stultifying. Maybe less so in landscape, though there is still this idea of waiting for the perfect arrangement of sun, sky, animals, waves, etc.:

There’s no real moment in these pictures. There’s the long exposure and the short flash, but there’s not a decisive moment in the Henri Cartier-Bresson sense of stopping a split second. I call this the “prolonged moment,” exposing film or a digital file long enough to absorb the light of the stars. Maybe a moth flies in front of the light or a car goes by in the background and that becomes part of the picture.

On finishing projects – a certain amount of pace is necessary:

When I finish a project, I’m done. I read something by John Cage where he recommended that you bring an idea to closure and then “drop it like a pair of dirty socks.” I tend to carry out a series until I’m saturated by it and then I’ll move on.

On the difference between the photograph as history painting, and as the indexical record of a specific event or subject:

Théodore Géricault The Raft of the MedusaWikimedia Commons

When you’re making art, what you’re really attempting is to create something that transcends the moment. We are inundated with images daily; they don’t stick with us. News images are consumed and discarded almost instantly. Social media is even faster. I try to counter that.
The series Bravo 20 or The Pit could easily have been black-and- white photographs on the front page of a newspaper. Instead, I made these images in color and printed them large-scale for exhibitions to give them an object quality, a physical presence so they would operate more like the genre of history painting than journalistic or traditional documentary photographs. The scale monumentalizes the moment, creating a perpetual reminder as opposed to something more ephemeral. Art declares a subject’s importance. Think of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa: it depicts a tragedy and yet it’s also a glorious painting that has endured for over two centuries. You don’t walk away from it with useful information about the cause of the shipwreck or the ordeal that followed; rather, it’s a meditation on the human relationship to the sea, to nature, and especially to other humans, while also serving as a permanent memorial to the event.

On the basic unit of photography being a series, rather than a single image, and the freedom this opens up:

I was reminded of Claude Monet’s haystacks. He painted a simple subject, stacks of hay in the field in different light and seasons. I realized I didn’t need to make just one strong picture and be done, but that it was all the variations, at myriad times of day and year, that would be extraordinary. I decided to photo-
graph the bridge every day and record the date and time each picture was made (back then we didn’t have digital cameras that would record the time). This was a powerful lesson for me, that you don’t always have to travel somewhere to get a good picture; sometimes there is great potential close to home.

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