Bill Finger (BF): I am very interested in looking at where artists find their beginnings. It is such an important story that can reveal so much about later works. What was it that drew you to the desert? What was that made it such a strong subject? It has been such a long and serious exploration for you.
Richard Misrach (RM): When I was starting photography, my first serious body of work was street photographs and my project Telegraph 3 A.M. It was black-and-white documentary work in the streets, along the lines of Bruce Davidson.
This was Berkeley, California, in the early ‘70s.
Around this time some things began to change. People started rejecting the politics of protest, per se, and started looking at Eastern religion and things like meditation. So, I began thinking in those kinds of terms.
There was a book I was reading at the time, The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda. It talked about the search of the mystical and miraculous, a kind of spiritual quest. Based on that, I was inspired to start thinking about the desert. It was a landscape that I’d driven through and passed by in my childhood. I had looked at the deserts of Southern California, like the Mojave Desert, as a big, vast, barren wasteland. But in reading this book I thought, wow, this is a place where you can go on a sort of soul quest.
In early 1976, I decided to go in search of cactus. Big giant cactus were looming in my imagination from the Castaneda books. I decided to just make a complete right turn, stop photographing people, and stop photographing on the street all together.
BF: But there is still a feeling, a thread perhaps, that connects them.
RM: Yes. During the latter half of my work on Telegraph 3 A.M., I was photographing people on the street at night. Not with a strobe, but I’d ask people under street lights to stand still for twenty seconds, while I photographed them on a tripod.
It sensitized me to this language of night photography. So, a couple of things happened. One, I decided to go into the desert looking for this quest of myself, a kind of spiritual looking at the landscape. At the same time, photographing at night gave me a new language with which to look at it. The deserts have been photographed before. Edward Weston comes to mind, Ansel Adams, and all the great f/64 photographers. I wanted to come to it fresh. So I decided to only photograph at night. I didn’t shoot any photographs during the daytime at all. I took a big artificial strobe with me, and I just blasted the landscape with my light and started creating photographs. It allowed me the freedom to explore the poetry of that and just be out there, by myself, reflecting on it. It was a powerful moment. In that moment, I really fell in love with the desert.
BF: Early on you photographed deserts in other countries, but what is it about the American desert landscape that drew you?
RM: I realized that it’s a really important part of America and that nobody photographs it. The rest of America has been very well photographed, but I felt this was like a tabula rasa. It’s a place where I can really study and think about things, and not just the spiritual, but also the way that American culture is reflected there. So, by looking, I started seeing how America culture stood out in relief in this vast desert. The contrast became very powerful.
BF: The juxtaposition of your internal spirituality with the American cultural landscape of the desert creates such a rich and layered dialogue. At the same time there is a certain conflicted aesthetic beauty to the imagery.
RM: Recently I was looking through some early work that I photographed once or twice, from the air. The Bravo 20 bombing range, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that?
BF: Yes, absolutely.
RM: I had never looked at this early aerial work until recently. These are 35mm photographs. A friend of mine flew me over the bombing range near where I had been photographing with the 8×10 on the ground. While looking through those contacts, I found audio recordings that I made, where I’m driving around the bombing range. I’m all by myself, and I’m talking about being out there.
Listening to these for the first time, I’m just mind boggled, because I’m talking about what you’re mentioning, which is, I’m here, I’m on a post-apocalyptic bombing range with craters and bombs as far as the eye can see in every direction. This is Native Northern Paiute ritual land, which the Navy confiscated to do practice bombing right after World War II. It is a decimated landscape. But I could feel this spiritual connection to the land, in spite of all this devastation. This was a big revelation—that you can be amongst devastation and that those places can still retain their power and their beauty.
BF: That’s part of the power of the images. That dichotomy of beauty and devastation, or even ugliness, or whatever you want to call it. Disruption, perhaps. This is something that reoccurs in your projects, time and again. The Pit, the dead animal pit photographs come to mind.
RM: Yes. Pictures like the dead animal pit, which are really difficult pictures. I still look at them, and I’m torn, because some of the pictures are so beautiful, and at the same time, they’re really horrific. And yet, the beauty in the quality of light, the texture, the color, the form, makes me transcend, and it makes me think about death in ways that I hadn’t thought about before.
It’s difficult, there’s no getting around it, those are really difficult pictures; and yet there’s something about the contrast of beauty and death. Maybe like Picasso’s Guernica or something like that that makes you reflect about larger things, metaphysical things. It’s not pretty, but it’s part of life, too. I’m very careful about showing them now. It’s very tricky, to look at reality in a way that we typically never get to look at it.
BF: It makes me think of the mindset that we have, as far as views of death and the way it’s represented. In current American culture, we often do not represent it. We avoid it. But if you compare that to the nineteenth century, where it was common to have a loved one who had passed photographed, to create a memory object. Some people now will look at those as being macabre. But death was a such a common thing then. And yes, it is very sad, but in the context of the time, it was a tribute, and it was done lovingly. There was more of a spiritual connection to death and dying. It was seen as a part of living.
As far as the pit images, I think there’s a beauty, but there is also an embracing of the tragic aspect, in a very respectful and honest way. It’s through that layering of approach that you give the images such strength. It is because of that strength that the work stays with you.
RM: Yes, it’s interesting. Some of those pictures hung in my studio for a couple of years. But they have resonated and lasted longer, in terms of my own ability to engage and think about them, than any other things that I’ve ever made. And that creates a conundrum. If you can get past the terribleness of it, there’s a lot to think about. It’s a challenging question. It definitely is. What can we photograph? When is it going too far? Where is it exploitive?
There’s an aspect of what photography can do that no other medium can. It can bear witness. It was there, and it happened. I felt like, even as difficult as those pictures are, it does show the kind of practices that happen in the desert, that communities were doing. Things like that needed to be seen. It’s layered, and it is complicated.
BF: When did the concept of “cantos” enter your work?
RM: After the night desert work, which was not part of the Cantos. Around 1978, I switched to color and began working with an 8×10 view camera. Just photographing the desert. I began documenting different aspects of it. Starting out, I was photographing the landscape, the terrain. Things that really showed off that contrast of civilization and nature. I started photographing manmade floods and manmade fires, and the work became more environmental. Around that time, I was reading Ezra Pound, trying to read his famous fifty-year-long lifetime epic poem called The Cantos, and I’m really having a lot of trouble with it. There are seven languages, including Chinese ideograms, that he throws into the fray. I found that challenging and impossible. Then I found this one little obscure book that gave you an access to it. It said, “Don’t get hung up on not being able to know the languages, just read the poetry and then kind of go with it. More like a dream, kind of feel your way through it.” That gave me a handle on it. On its sections, sections that create this epic poem. It opened the structure of this long epic idea.
Then it occurred to me that photographers have long borrowed the idea of the essay from print journalists, to create the photo essay. But nobody has ever used the literary structure of the epic poem in photography. And it all came together at once: I can do fires and floods, and bombing ranges, and nuclear test sites, and Space Shuttle landings. And I can create separate essays, separate chapters, but by linking them together in this one epic structure, the Cantos, they can then inform each other. It gave me that foundation on which to build.
BF: So, you are throwing these different elements into the fray, like Pound in a sense.
RM: Yes. Pound used different languages. He’s speaking in English, and then suddenly you see a Chinese ideogram with no explanation for it. It’s just there, and you have to deal with it and make sense with it.
What I realized is that photography also has different kinds of languages. Photojournalism, documentary, fine art. For each canto, I could use a different form. For example, I could photograph, say metaphorically, the fires and the floods. That’s very biblical. Or I could photograph something more theoretical or conceptual, like pictures of paintings, or pictures of skies that are made based on the language of the way places are named. I would take these different strategies—conceptual, fine art, photojournalist—and put them side by side. Suddenly, you’re going along and looking at a series of fires and floods, and then you have a bunch of pictures of paintings. Since they are in the same project, same group, you have to look at it on its own terms. I found that to be a really powerful form. A form that I’ve been doing ever since. Currently, I’m on the fortieth Cantos.
BF: It makes so much sense. I relate that to photo editing, where you’re putting together a body of work and editing for a book or exhibit. There you make considerations between singular images. Establishing this relationship between the two images to say something else or something new. But this is taking that idea and expanding it outward. Instead of constructing a singular point, a singular vision, you are constructing multiple viewpoints that create a new whole. There is much more depth to the sense of time and vision. It feels much more active.
RM: It really does. Then think about this: in recent years, with the cellphone, we have another piece of photographic language. This other language that everybody is using daily.
With the border project, I’m shooting a digital high-res camera, but I also made a number of pictures with my cellphone. In just doing that, there’s another component of language in there that the viewer is forced to contend with.
It reveals how the mediums that we use, the actual cameras that we use, can change the way things mean.
BF: How do you think that’s affected what you photograph or how you photograph some of your subject matter? It is an interesting visual contrast to the 8×10.
RM: Yes. For the Border Cantos, I would shoot with the big camera and do big grand landscapes of the wall. Then, all along the border, I would find human artifacts—immigrant artifacts—tennis shoes, backpacks, water bottles, things like that. All throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, you find it everywhere. I started quickly documenting them with my cellphone. I photographed what objects I found and where I found them. I didn’t wait for the great light; I didn’t make the big epic landscape. These were more like just raw information. Because of the format, I could only print them so large. Then I realized, these work well together. So, I made these huge grids for the exhibition. I’ve got these forty-foot-long grids where you have these objects side by side. I never did that with the bigger camera. The smaller camera gave me a new language to work with. It’s less aesthetic, if you will, and more graphic or informational. It actually created a new form that I’ve never used before, that kind of grid.
BF: For the Border Cantos you collaborated with sound artist and composer Guillermo Galindo. In a few of the past projects, you have also collaborated with other artists. Can you speak to not only this collaboration but to collaborations as a part of your art practice?
RM: Yes, it’s interesting. I’ve done several collaborations. One with Kate Orff for Petrochemical America; and then on my Bravo 20 project, I brought in an architect and some students to help me realize this idea for turning a bombing range into a national park.
I think, for me, collaboration has always been really powerful. You get this foil where you’re working tight with somebody, and it expands. There is a sharing of ideas.
As for Guillermo Galindo, his work is strong, and I think my work is strong, but together they’re much stronger. I think it’s so powerful. This project is about the border and the wall. Guillermo and I come from different cultures. We bridge that with this project; we bridge mediums. We bring two very different mediums—photography and his sculptural instrument creations. They inform each other. And I think it’s an incredible symbol at the base of the project, which is collaboration and bridging, rather than walling off. It’s a perfect metaphor for the actual content of the work.
BF: The objects that you were finding in the desert, that you mentioned before. You collected some of those for Guillermo to include in his sound sculptures/instruments. Even separated out from the landscape, there is still a sense of tragedy that lives within them.
RM: I think Guillermo said something really interesting, and that was, with those objects, he was going to try to let them speak for themselves. We don’t know their stories. You can only imagine what the people, often children, who carried them had gone through to travel that far, through scary and horrible terrains.
Guillermo felt like the objects all had these stories which we’ll never know. He was just trying to set them free, to release their voice through his music, through the sounds that were created using them. I thought it was very powerful.
BF: There’s a series of images in Border Cantos, just outside of San Diego, on the beach looking towards the Playas de Tijuana.
RM: The people through the wall?
BF: Yes. I can’t help but compare that to your On the Beach series. I started thinking about how interesting a contrast it is. With the images for On the Beach, it’s almost this bird’s-eye point of view, and there’s a quietness to it and a stillness to it. Then you go to the beach for the Border Cantos, and now suddenly we’re on the same level. It’s almost like where before you couldn’t join the people because we were up way too high, now we’re level with the people there. It’s louder, it’s active. It looks like fun. But suddenly, we’re the ones trapped on the wrong side of the wall. All we can do is observe. Was this contrast deliberate, or am I reading too much into it?
RM: One of the things I love about photography is that it is open to multiple readings. You’re right, people on the other side are having a blast. You can see they’re digging sand castles, they’re barbecuing, they’re body surfing; but there’s a wall between us. In fact, it doesn’t look like a wall. It looks like a prison cell. It looks like the bars found in a prison. And guess who’s on the wrong side of the wall, ironically. That part of the beach where I photographed, turns out I wasn’t supposed to be there, and they stopped me. There are no people there. That area is cordoned off. It’s a gorgeous beach on the US side, but we’re not allowed to use it because it’s a security zone. On the Mexico side they’re just having a blast though. I feel like, who’s at loss here?
BF: Looking back to where our conversation started, looking back to the mid-70s and your first forays into the desert, this is an astounding journey that you’ve been on. What has this forty-years-plus-long quest brought to you?
RM: It has been this amazing adventure. I’m seventy years old, and I love what I do. To me, the discoveries, it’s been such a gift.
Susan Sontag used to be critical of photography as getting in the way of experience. We see that today with, for example, cellphones in front of the Mona Lisa. People go there and do selfies. They’re not even looking at the Mona Lisa. So, I think there’s certainly an amount of truth to that. But for me, the camera has been a license to explore things that I don’t think I would ever have had the courage, or maybe even the curiosity, to really go and do. It’s a weird thing. I mean, my Bravo 20 work, as I mentioned, I’m listening to those old audio tapes, I’m looking at my old journals, I’m looking at pictures I’d never printed before. Back then, I was just immersed in it, and maybe too young to really appreciate it. But now as I’ve gotten older, I get to look back on it and go, “That was pretty amazing.”
BF: This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for your time and the openness that you’ve extended me. It’s really been wonderful speaking with you.
RM: I’ve enjoyed it. It was a real pleasure.