I had never heard of Richard Misrach until I ran across several stunning spreads of his muted color photographs in the August issue of Smithsonian magazine. The brief text that accompanied the images was written by Kenneth R. Fletcher and was titled, appropriately, "The Beach," as that is what the photos depict — people appearing to enjoy themselves on the sand or in the sea. But is that really what's being depicted here?
Fletcher noted that it might seem as if Misrach took the various photos reproduced across six pages of Smithsonian while "hovering" over a number of different beaches throughout the world. In actuality, he shot them all from the same high-rise hotel in Hawaii. The 59-year-old Misrach, who is identified as a "fine arts photographer known for his pioneering work with color and unsparing images of the despoiled American West," told Fletcher that he enjoyed the "lofty perspective" that the hotel's balconies gave him.
"I always thought about it as being a god's-eye view, looking down and seeing these amazing human interactions," the photographer told the writer.
Fletcher also noted that, though the connection is probably far from obvious, These "pictures of people relaxing and playing were deeply influenced by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, Misrach, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., happened to be in Washington, D.C., which was shaken by the attack on the Pentagon, and he was anxious about his son, Jake, then a freshman at New York University. He finally reached Jake and was able, a few days later, to drive up to Manhattan. 'I went in at night past blockades and got into the city … . There was still ash falling from the sky. It was really eerie. I found Jake and took him to a friend's house outside the city.' "
Once the photographer got back to his home in California, he and his wife decided to go on a trip they'd been planning to Hawaii, where they'd often spent time. But, as Misrach explained recently at the Art Institute of Chicago (where his beach photos are now on display), he was "haunted" by the experience he'd had in Manhattan; he could not shake the mood. In fact, he insisted that it changed the way he looked at everything.
"So," wrote Fletcher, "even his picture of a lone couple on a beach can be vaguely unsettling: Their isolation underscores their vulnerability, and the photographer's long-range viewpoint is clearly that of someone watching. It's no accident that the title Misrach gave to the exhibition and book of photographs taken in Hawaii over four years is 'On the Beach,' from the Nevil Shute novel about life after a nuclear holocaust."
There is, as several commentators have pointed out, something beautiful but ominous about these images. In one, a group of swimmers make their way from the ocean, but Misrach said that "their gestures conveyed to him a sense of flight from some unknown threat. Without a context he has said, 'you just see this vast sea and these people.' "