"There are obnoxious tourists just as there are obnoxious children, but there is a strong element of snobbery, it seems to me, in our criticism of tourist groups, the condescension of those who belong - who are at home - to those who are strangers without recognizable status. Yet we are all of us strangers, tourists, at one time or another, and from our own experience we should recognize the individual impulse for self improvement that is back of so much tourist travel. At the risk of exaggerating, I would say that the inspiration of tourism is a desire to know more about the world in order to know more abut ourselves. If we offend public taste, that is only incidental to our search; the Swiss cuckoo clock, the bumper sticker from Carlsbad Caverns is a type of diploma - proof that we have at least tried to improve."
- J.B. Jackson, The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics, "Learning About Landscapes", p. 3.
"The desert is a barren stage where the fundamentals of life play out." - Richard Misrach, as quoted in Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach, "A Problem of Beauty", p. 16.
In The Necessity for Ruins, J.B. Jackson, the noted landscape essayist, argues that educated wanderers become good tourists. That is, to grasp the concept of tourism for all it may reward the individual one must negate the connotations that recall images of Hawaiian shirts and overweight Americans. In many respects, the landscape photographer Richard Misrach is ideally what Jackson, the educator, had in mind. To qualify Misrach as a model tourist might give us the framework to understand the range of landscape he has uncovered in what most us take to be a single, bleak idea: the desert.
Like many who, after visiting a place and suddenly awaken to previously unconsidered wonders, Misrach has returned for many years to deserts in both the United States and elsewhere to discover the life and events that occur on this, our most vast of stages. Since 1981, he has photographed the desert, often seeking out areas where the land has, by the sheer huge, seemingly empty stretch of it, been assumed to have been a wasteland. Organizing his photographs into series he labels Cantos, an homage to the poet Ezra Pound, he has photographed secret, illegal and nuclear bomb test sites used by the U.S. military as well as natural and man-made fires. The intervention of humankind with the landscape is often his theme. As an activist, Misrach is a socially, politically and ecologically minded artist. As a photographer, he is one of the most important landscape artists of our time.
Misrach's underlying theme is his consistent testing of our conventions of beauty and ugliness; the conflict in art that gives both pleasure and provokes revulsion. In her excellent 1996 survey, Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach, Anne Tucker, Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, methodically traces Misrach's career. All in all, there are 19 Cantos to date, including the work offered here, Cantos VI: The Pit. Many are considered ongoing by the photographer, whereas some, like The Pit are now finite and circumscribed by others. The fifteen images contained in this suite were selected from hundreds he made over the period from 1987-89. The animals' fate was a mystery with some explaining the deaths from toxically contaminated water near a Naval Air Station. Misrach however relates them to the cover-up of nuclear fall-out in the 1950s that caused massive amounts of birth defects in sheep and the death of horses and cattle from radiation illness (see: Crimes and Splendors, p. 98). It may be difficult to reconcile the visions of decaying carcasses with the more traditionally beautiful color photographs of night skies and clouds that Misrach has also authored but there is a common denominator. Anne Tucker writes that, "Despite the vivid hues in The Pit, the immediacy of rotting animal flesh dominates our responses (ibid., p. 15). In effect, Misrach forces the contemporary viewer to comprehend the horror of The Pit with the same considerations as he does the wonderment in the beauty of the undisturbed desert sky, as both can "dominate our responses" effectively.
Misrach considers his spiritual photographic forebears to include Dorothea Lange and Wynn Bullock, rather than the formalists Walker Evans and Edward Weston (op. cit., p. 16). In that regard, the late work of Eugne Atget also seems a spiritual predecessor. Atget's work of the 1920s, with its concentration on the modernization of Paris and its unknowable conclusion, is a parallel to Misrach's documentation of devastation. Atget's circus and fte images of the last few years of his life include images of painted carnival broadsides of circus animals. In the final volume of catalogues devoted to Atget for the Museum of Modern Art, The Work of Atget: Modern Times, John Szarkowski wrote, "There is in Atget's last work, in spite of its poise and perfect stillness, a hint of the apocalyptic: the broken classical gods in their decaying gardens, the skeltons and stuffed animals, the deranged, transparent mannequins, the creatures of the carousels, escaped from medieval fairy tales, suggest a vision of a world almost unhinged. In figure 65, the legend on the painted carnival flat says there is a fire in the jungle." (op. cit., p. 178).
The suite includes the titles Dead Animals, nos. 1, 18, 20, 79, 86, 93, 164, 167, 222, 279, 294, 324, 327, 362 and 454.