August 31st, 2015
An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach
The following interview was edited from a tape-recorded conversation between Aperture Foundation editor-in-chief Melissa Harris and Richard Misrach at his California studio in March 1992 and appeared in the book Violent Legacies (1992), which includes three “cantos” in his series of photographs that explore the American West. This spring, Aperture released Misrach’s The Mysterious Opacity of Other Beings in which the photographer focuses on the gestures and expressions of faraway bathers, adrift in the oceans of Hawaii. Here, he and Harris discuss this earlier project that brings together the landscapes of Utah deadlands, a former nuclear test site in Nevada, and copies of Playboy magazine.
Melissa Harris: How does Violent Legacies fit into your ongoing Desert Cantos project?
Richard Misrach: I began the Desert Cantos project around 1979. For over a decade, I have been searching the deserts of the American West for images that suggest the collision between “civilization” and nature. The three cantos that make up Violent Legacies are part of this larger project, but deal specifically with militarism and cultural violence.
The “canto” idea is actually very simple. It’s a structural term meaning the subsection of a long song or poem. Throughout the history of literature it has been repeatedly used. Most people are familiar with Ezra Pound’s epic poem, The Cantos, or Dante’s Inferno, which is subdivided into cantos.
I found that, photographically, my work in the desert naturally broke into subseries. Each subseries, or canto, was independent, but related to the others. Combining the cantos created an epic, comprehensive relationship. Now I’m on “Desert Canto XIV.”
I tend to work on several cantos simultaneously. I give them numbers upon completion, instead of when they are initiated, because they can change significantly as they evolve. The three cantos that comprise Violent Legacies are: “Desert Canto IX: Project W-47 (The Secret)”; “Desert Canto VI: The Pit”; and “Desert Canto XI: The Playboys.”
Thus far, there are fourteen fully defined cantos (although some are still in progress) and a prologue. From one to fourteen, the cantos are: “The Terrain”; “The Event”; “The Flood”; “The Fires”; “The War (Bravo 20)”; “The Pit”; “Desert Seas”; “The Event II”; “Project W-47 (The Secret)”; “The Test Site”; “The Playboys”; “Clouds (non-equivalents)”; “The Inhabitants”; and “The Visitors.”
MH: I know that some of your pre-cantos work was also done in the desert. There was a whole series of night desert landscapes of cacti and palm trees that were made in the mid-’70s. What is it about the desert that holds such a fascination for you?
RM: I am not certain what it is that makes it so compelling. It does seem that the severity of the landscape sets cultural artifacts off in dramatic relief. The paucity of life there—in comparison with other environments, like forests and cities—is a reminder of how fragile human existence is. The desert has always provided rich material for literature and the visual arts, from the Bible to science-fiction films, probably because it epitomizes the extremes of the human condition.
And the deserts of the American West are particularly interesting because of their role in determining a peculiarly American identity and mythology. But I don’t think I could have sustained this project for as long as I have if I didn’t enjoy the process of working in the desert so much. It’s the heat, the feel of the earth, the rich solitude and silence, and the remarkable scale of everything that makes being there so deeply fulfilling. I’ve always had this strange sensation of being a small figure in a vast landscape—as if I were seeing myself from the air. My best ideas seem to come when I’m driving those long stretches of desert highway. Physically and mentally, that’s where I feel the most alive. . . .
MH: What are the relationships among your artistic intentions, your political activism, and your evident desire to uncover truths? Is your work journalistic documentation? Is it about aesthetics? Or is it a sort of hybrid?
RM: First off, all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal.
The very act of representation has been so thoroughly challenged in recent years by postmodern theories that it is impossible not to see the flaws everywhere, in any practice of photography. Traditional genres in particular—journalism, documentary studies, and fine-art photography—have become shells, or forms emptied of meaning. Victor Burgin underscored a significant point when he made the distinction between the “representation of politics” and the “politics of representation.” Nonetheless, despite the limitations and problems inherent to photographic representation (and especially the representation of politics), it remains for me the most powerful and engaging medium today—one central to the development of cultural dialogue.
The Desert Cantos project of the last decade has shifted somewhat in the nature of its representation. The earliest series, “The Terrain,” “The Event,” “The Flood,” and “The Fires,” for example, were more or less aesthetic metaphors. Recent cantos, however, have become more explicitly political. The “Bravo 20” project points a finger directly at military abuse of the environment. I think the three cantos in Violent Legacies hover between the two.
MH: Richard, your photographs are visually very seductive. Yet your subjects are death, contamination, and violence. Are you perhaps aestheticizing the horrific, and thus exploiting it?
RM: Probably the strongest criticism leveled at my work is that I’m making “poetry of the holocaust.” But I’ve come to believe that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of difficult ideas. It engages people when they might otherwise look away.
Recent theory has been critical of the distancing effect of artistic expression—“Create solutions, not art.” But the impact of art may be more complex and far-reaching than theory is capable of assessing. To me, the work I do is a means of interpreting unsettling truths, of bearing witness, and of sounding an alarm. The beauty of formal representation both carries an affirmation of life and subversively brings us face to face with news from our besieged world.