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The Aesthetic Sensibility Of Richard Misrach’s Documentary Photography

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American photographer Richard Misrach has spent the past forty years traversing the deserts, salt flats and river systems of the US and abroad, documenting the breadth of the landscape and our complex relationship to it.

Misrach’s famed medium format color photographs of the landscape are sublime and unsettling; he captures spaces that are void of human forms, but eerily punctuated by human presence. Photographing sites like the polluted rivers of Mississippi known as Cancer Alley, mass animal graves in the Nevada Desert, desolate bomb test sites, the border between the US and Mexico—and the passages through the desert that people follow in an attempt to cross it, his work offers a unique insight into contemporary happenings.

Given how closely Misrach’s work is concerned with current events, it could be read as documentary; but the aesthetic sensibility with which he approaches photography aligns him more closely with the tradition of historical paintings. In a 2011 interview with Peter Brown for the Houston Center for Photography, Misrach noted: “My career, in a way, has been about navigating these two extremes—the political and the aesthetic.”

Misrach is best known for ‘Desert Cantos’—a collection of 30 series that is widely considered his magnum opus—in which he looks closely at human intervention on the landscape. The ‘Cantos’ include documentation of car racing, man-made fires, and floods, the damming of rivers, desert seas, the landing of a space shuttle, and empty sky where color becomes the subject itself. “The desert” Misrach remarked in an interview with Kem Nunn, “may serve better as the backdrop for the problematic relationship between man and the environment. The human struggle, the successes… both noble and foolish, are readily apparent in the desert. Symbols and relationships seem to arise that stand for the human condition itself.”

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All images © Richard Misrach