Richard Misrach: Desert Cantos
By Peter Brown
An exhibition of Richard Misrach's desert work, selected from the series which he calls Desert Cantos, will open at the Houston Center for Photography on December 6 and will remain there until January 5, 1986. This interview was held in lateSeptember.
PB: Tell me about your family, your background.
RM: I was born in Los Angeles in 1949 and pretty much lived there until I was 17, when I went to Berkeley to go to college. I have one sister, she's three years older. My father was in the sporting goods business, with my grandfather. I guess you'd say my mother was a conventional housewife.
PB: Any kind of family visual influence?
RM: My father was a kind of photo buff. When he was a kid he had a darkroom. When we were growing up he always had an 8mm movie camera and he used to do the family outings. We had a pretty active family. We'd go skiing and on trips. To film everything the family did, he ended up sticking the movie camera in my hands, so I did a lot of that. When I was a teenager and I'd go on surfing trips with my friends I used to make little films — more like home movies. But I was into it.
PB: Were sports a particular interest?
RM: Well actually, surfing and skiing aren't like team sports. Skiing was always a very meditative sort of sport for me. It wasn't really a sport, it was more of a process . . . It's more like a dance, at least the way I thought, than a sport; you know, rhythm and movement and all that. I just enjoyed being out there. It’s very important for me to be in a physical environment that feels good when I'm working. I've been to certain places that were visually interesting, but that I didn't like — too cold or too wet or it just didn't feel right.
PB: Did the desert enter into your consciousness early on?
RM: Yeah, that's important. When I was five or six years old, my father had a friend who talked us into buying three blocks of land in the Mojave Desert, out by Edwards Air Force base, with the idea that base would expand and all these soldiers would need housing. It was a big investment on his part and of course it was a total bust. But he did buy these three blocks and he named the streets after my sister, my mother, and me. I just came back from Nevada last week and as I was driving toward Mojave I had to try to find the place. I turned off a street to start looking and I ran right into Richard Street. That was real strange.
When we used to go skiing in the Sierras and we used to have to drive through the desert, I remember it being very eerie and not liking the desert at all, particularly at night. I remember we had a flat tire once and I kept thinking bogeymen would jump out of the bushes.
PB: Some of the black and white work in the desert certainly is spooky stuff.
RM: Yeah, in fact, when I first started working there, I didn't like the desert. I thought it was an ugly, barren, empty wasteland — all the stereotypes of the desert. The Carlos Castañeda books about Don Juan came out around the time I started that project. I was interested in a kind of a funky American symbol and also the kind of mysticism that was popular. So I went out there. The first day I just walked around in the late afternoon. The incredible heat, silence, and stillness were very powerful — and positive.Iguess it's about the first time I appreciated the beauty of the place.
PB: Why did you decide to go to Berkeley?
RM: It was very good academically, I needed to get away from home, and Berkeley represented an alternative symbol to what I was used to — and I liked the politics. It was the tail end of the Vietnam War, and that was the time of the very heavy politics. I was pretty much involved with that. That was the time I really started taking pictures with a 35mm camera of the riots and the tear gassing and all that.
PB: Did you take any classes in photography, were there any offered?
RM: They had a couple of classes in the architecture department, but I didn’t want to take them. I finally took one when I was already seriously involved in photography and Bill Garnett wanted to flunk me because I wouldn't do the assignments that he wanted. But he and I became friends.
I was getting my degree in psychology, and my senior year I was kind of bored with academia and there was a facility called the ASUC Studio, which was an etching, lithography, ceramics, and photography studio for students and faculty and people related to the university. It wasn't accredited, and there weren't formal classes. The facilities were there, and if you wanted help on a print, you'd bring it out in the light and somebody would look over your shoulder and say, well it's too dark or too light or you need more contrast. There were good people there. Dave Bohn officially set it up. He set up a real simple structure and he had a protégé, Roger Minick, who took over after him. I worked with Roger and saw some of his work there. That was my first exposure to fine art photography. It just blew me out of the water that photographs could be so beautiful. I had the sense that this was something I'd want to do, so I started doing it. After I graduated, in 1971, they offered me a staff job, kind of a glorified janitorial position, at the Studio. The classic structure at the studio was: nobody would say a word about anything — if you got a grunt, you were making progress. And that was it. So you would just keep working until you got a grunt. I'd go in the darkroom, develop my film and make some prints and bring them out and Roger would look at them.
I photographed the people getting fucked over by the police and all that, then I did a trip to Europe, and started photographing more fine art sort of stuff. Probably the biggest education I had besides the studio with Roger was the books that were published then on the West Coast — mostly the landscape books, White and Adams and Caponigro. I started making landscapes. I did that for about a year, and then I realized that was kind of a dead end. The next stage was moving towards the documentary work, which resulted in Telegraph 3 A.M. in 1974, which was the book of photographs of Berkeley street people.
PB: Were there other younger photographers that you were friends with at that point?
RM: Yeah, there were quite a few. The people who came to the Studio did so because they were highly motivated to make pictures. They weren't doing it for grades or anything like that. It was a fairly intelligent base of people, who maybe didn't go on with photography but who were doing really good work. In fact, in those early years, there was one year when Steve Fitch, Paul Herzoff, and I received NEAs and Roger received a Guggenheim.
None of us was aware of the bigger art world. We weren't exhibiting yet, we really didn't know about that. We were very naive at that point. We'd heard about an NEA for photography, and we thought, well, we'll apply, but it wasn't like the kind of consciousness there is now about getting grants and having shows. In fact, most of the people hadn't had shows when they applied for grants.
PB: The Telegraph 3 AM. book — how did that get off the ground?
RM: Leonard Sussman, who was a staff member at the time, told me that if you really want to make the medium a language that you can speak with fluently and articulately you have to do it every day. You have to photograph and print on a daily basis. I took it literally. I wanted to get away from the landscapes and I started photographing the street people in Berkeley. After three or four weeks, Roger started looking at the work and said, you've got a book here. So I spent about two years just photographing my brains out and Roger was my guiding light on this all the way along. He helped me edit the work. He sat on the press with me, helped me organize, design the book, and raise the money for it.
I was living on 13,000 for a year and a half. I didn't have my own darkroom. When the studio would close to the public at 11pm, Steve Fitch and I would print all night. I did that until 1978.
PB: How do you feel about that work now?
RM: It was interesting right after I did the work. I was so intensely involved I just did it, published it. When I looked at it at that point I was embarrassed. I think it was a little bit confused; it was somewhere between art and documentary. It really wasn't that exceptional as either one and it was trying to do both. My original purpose was to make a social statement, ideally to effect social change. I realize that actually it was a coffee table book that most people couldn't afford and when people looked at it they said how beautifully printed, how aesthetically interesting. It didn't do what I thought it was supposed to do I learned to live with that and moved on. Ten years later, now, all of a sudden the book has valid historical information. I am liking the book now for a totally different reason than when I had made it. I think it has a value now that it didn't have then. The meaning, theinformation, the period of time I think is well represented. In that sense I do feel good about it.
PB: Then comes a major shift. The desert work is very different.
RM: Photographing people was really draining. After that I went to the desert to isolate myself. I had needed to do that for a long time.
PB: Why did that happen?
RM: The political atmosphere changed at Berkeley, and there was a cultural movement toward Eastern thought: the health food kick, meditation, the introduction of Zen. That clearly had an impact on me and so did the Castañeda books. I was also reading Gurdjieff, Blake,and Yeats, and all that visionary literature that came along with the Castañeda books. I think a combination of that general shiftin the cultural winds, and the reading I was doing got me interested in something different.
PB: Why the desert over other places?
RM: Because of my familiarity with the desert from my childhood. Also because of the Castañeda books. I was really intrigued with the desert from the first book and my first experience going into the desert corresponded with that very highly. Out in the desert I would find myself reading each book over and over, trying out certain exercises.
PB: How did you decide on a particular place in the desert?
RM: Then I mentioned to a woman in the ceramic studio at ASUC that I was going down to Arizona, searching for cactus, especially some that looked miraculous. She said there was a place near Tucson that has incredible stands of cactus. So I figured I would aim for that. I drove all the way to Tucson, but I couldn't locate it. I asked someone at a gas station if he knew where these stands of cactus were. He didn’t know what I was talking about, I said, well, forget it. I started driving home and about 20 minutes outside of Tucson, going into the hills. I saw what looked like pointillistic gestures on the mountain. I thought, that's weird. What is that? My intuition said that is the place to go. So I got off the freeway and I started driving and about I5 or 20 minutes later I realized it was these tremendous stands of cactus. Through some back passages I went over the hill and found myself in the Saguaro National Monument, where you find stands of cactuses like you would find forests of redwoods or pines.
PB: Does intuition generally play a role in your work?
RM: I am always relying on instinct and intuition. The best work I have done has been work like that rather than work that is intellectually calculated.
PB: Any examples?
RM: In my most recent work I have had a number of weird encounters with fire. I am very skeptical of the way we package Eastern ideas and I don't fed comfortable with them, but these encounters are so coincidental that in some ways it can’t be coincidental. I am not sure what to do with them. I am skeptical but I get involved with them and I see where they lead me; they lead me to amazing things.
PB: That fire business. I know you had a fire in your Emeryville studio. And then there was a fire at a printing lab where you lost a lot of negatives, then this fire series out at the desert...
RM: Well, for instance, the fire at the Emeryville studio was on February 18, 1978, and the fire at lmagechrome — the lab that had all my negatives — was on February 18, 1982. On February 18, 1983, in the early morning — I didn't even know it was February 18 — I was in the desert. There was a grove of palm trees I wanted to go take a look at and photograph. I went at dawn and walked around and looked at it. The light wasn't right to photograph, so I went back to Palm Springs to the museum and did some work there, and later in the afternoon I decided to drive back out. I was driving out and I saw this huge plume of smoke. So I went over and found this fire that was so dramatic I couldn't help but photograph. It wasn't until later that night that I realized it was February 18th. That really shook me up. Bizarre. And those three events are only a scratch in the surface. On February 1, 1984, I went to Hawaii and I wasn't even gonna take my camera. I had been in Hawaii for a week when I flew to the big island. That night, the minute I landed, the volcano went off. We called some friends to see what was happening. Nobody else had even seen it shooting up a 1500-foot fountain of lava. The volcano had been dormant for 100 years. We went and picked up my friends and took them and showed them. I photographed it the next morning at dawn and by late afternoon the eruption had stopped.
When I photographed the space shuttle in 1983, I took one photograph of the shuttle landing. If you are shooting an 8x10 camera you obviously can't stop a space shuttle in motion, but I did want to take one snapshot for my son. I found out three days later that when the shuttle was landing, the interior of the cabin broke into flames, which they put out. I'd love to see if the time of the fire correlates with the time I actually released the shutter. A lot of coincidence.
PB: Good lord. That is really incredible. Back to the early desert work: a book was published without Title or text. Why was this?
RM: Actually. Lew Thomas was a big influence and we were good friends at the time. We were having these meetings in my studio about once a month with about 12 people. Nearly everyone there was involved in the photography language or conceptual art at the time. I was about the only one at the time working on "straight photography," very traditional image making. One of the things I felt was the absence of text was in fact the most powerful text you could have. Text that isused in photographic books is usually very superficial and arbitrary and has little to do with the work inside the book. Text titles serve to code the book to influence the reading of the book. Irealized I would rather use a photograph as the title, an actual visual image as the title, rather than a word or words. Normally you have a title page or, say, a dedication to mom and dad, that doesn't have anything to do with the work. Normally the text is on the back of the book or the wings of the book — you know, quotes from curators, critics, and writers — and that is hype. None of that has anything to do with the book. So I went page by page starting with the cover and decided what text was really needed. And page by page I would just feel I didn’t need anything and the last thing to give up in terms of text was page numbers. My gallery really wanted it to have page numbers. They said, how would collectors be able to order prints? They're all pictures of the desert, and there is no way to distinguish them. The page number would allow the collectors to say they want the image on page number 32 or plate number 46. I realized that doesn't have anything to do with the communication of the book either. At first, I was not going to have anything on the spine, except Lew said you gotta have it or it won't be a book. There are a few things that have to be in a book in order to be a book, and it was a book, not a portfolio of reproductions. Those critical things we put on were the Library of Congress number, the ISBN number, the retail price, the publisher, and a copyright symbol with my name next to it. All on the spine. Everything else was eliminated. That was the reason behind it, part of it was to remove the noise. The stronger rationale was to point up the misuse of language and text and to draw attention to the fact of the use of text.
PB: From this work there is a shift to color and much larger images, and you began to work m a rectangle other than a square. How did that come about?
RM: l was using a 21/4 camera. When I was in Hawaii working on that project, photographing the jungle vegetation, my camera broke and I didn't know it. It kept vignetting the bottom third of the frame. I got back and most of the images were lopped off at the bottom. I pay a lot of attention to accidents. You can go prepared and the world always provides so much and then you have to rely on chance for probably 90 percent of everything that happens, which is one of the things I like about the photographic process. So in the case where the bottom of my film was chopped off, I liked what I could do with it. I took it where I could. I printed the work larger and it got me to a rectangular format; it became real interesting.
PB: Do you print your own color work?
HM: I did. Then I stopped. Sometimes I print my own contacts. I don't have the equipment to print the large prints. It isvery expensive.
PB: How do you feel about that?
RM: No problem at all. In fact, if anything it has freed me up. Sometimes I wish I were printing. I like printing, and I could probably get a little better results with some of my prints. But I have a wonderful printer who taught me everything I know about printing anyway. Ninety-nine percent of the time she does wonderful work. It just gives me so much more time to shoot, which I think is best. For me in the last three or four years I feel a growth in my work, the evolution of my seeing dramatically speeded up because of the time I have spent shooting.
PB: How do you feel about the "fugitive'' qualities of color, the fact that it will fade over time?
RM: It bothers me, but it has recently been improved dramatically. I don’t know if you know about the new Ektacolor Plus materials.
PB: You print most of your work on the Ektacolor Plus paper?
RM: Yes, and before the Plus came out, on Ektacolor 78. I did a dye transfer portfolio and I had Ciba-chromes made from negatives and they were all right but they weren't as beautiful. They didn't have subtlety and beauty. They didn't correspond to what I was trying to do. The Plus paper is better now; it's supposed to last a lot longer. It's discouraging to think all the work you are doing might fade, but I'm not doing it for posterity or to make money at it or all that other stuff.
PB: What do you do with your negatives? Do you keep them refrigerated?
RM: Some I keep frozen. Ones I am working with I have to keep on hand. The ones that are important to me I keep in a safe deposit box in the bank. I have them spread out.
PB: You lost a lot in the fire?
RM: Yes, I lost about 3,000 8x10s and 1,000 21/4s. I lost most of my Hawaii work. Most of my Greece work. All my Louisiana. About 3,000 negatives from the Desert Cantos project. I did have 8x10 contacts of that project. In fact, some copy prints from the contacts will be in the show at the Houston Center for Photography. I was hoping to do more of that. I'm going to save all those. Maybe five, ten, fifteen years down the road I'll really be able to save them with the new technology.
PB: The fire must have been a devastating experience.
RM: It was bad, but it wasn't as bad as you would think. The thought of it is unbearable, but the reality.... You just have to keep working.
PB: In this current desert work, how do you get around, how do you cart your film around, what's your general procedure?
RM: I've got a VW van that I go around in. I have three big picnic ice chests. I don't keep ice in there, but I keep the film in there. Generally, if it's cool during the night, the coolers will stay cool during the day. Once I shoot the film, I'll wait a few days, and when I have 50 to 100 exposures, I'll pack them up and ship them express to L A. and the lab will develop them.
PB: And do you have a little dark space in the van?
RM: Yeah. I have windows that have black curtains and I unload and reload film every night. Block off everything, pull over and find a relatively dark place, and change film in there. It's a pain in the ass.
I really like the ease of working with 21/4 and not dealing with the weight, slowness, changing film, and all that stuff. But I've learned a lot about patience.
PB: Tell me about this new work, Desert Cantos.
RM: I've been working on it for about five years. It's the most extended project I've ever been involved with. It keeps expanding in scope, which I really like. The more I work on it, the more layers evolve, and I don't see an end in sight at this point. "Canto" simply means subsections of a long song. In literary history, there is a long tradition of cantos — Dante, Ezra Pound, and so on. With Dante, and particularly with Pound, they were epic projects that took lifetimes. I think Pound worked on his Cantos for 35 years, maybe even more. Recently I found an obscure book from about thirty years ago, on his cantos, talking about what the problems were and the epic nature of the work, the kind of criticism that he encountered, the difficulty of looking at the work because the work is very dense; it's very difficult to understand. You almost have to read it as a dream as opposed to any progressive, linear, rational thought. Once you realize that, it changes your whole attitude. It had a big impact on how I designed the structure of this book that's just coming out. And I see it as an epic project for me — there are so many layers to this thing. I think the ultimate goal here is using the desert both as a place and as a metaphor, dividing the two; one is visually powerful, and it's a real place, loaded with symbols and meaning. At the same time, because of the extreme nature of the desert, the harshness of the desert, it becomes a strong metaphor with association to the Bible and the history of literature, science fiction, the Twilight Zone . . . The desert is always this big metaphor for life and death, and God and the Devil. I think there's something apocalyptic about the desert. The forces there are powerful.
I also want it to be a contemporary view, I don’t want it to be some sort of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo It's very different from my earlier work, very contemporary and specific, hopefully specific.
It's different than, say, Robert Adams’ work, in the sense that I think it's more accepting of the current status of the place There have been a number of books that have been very influential on my feelings in the work that I've been doing. Probably the main book is the one called The Desert, that was written in 1900 by John Van Dyke. He came out here, and spent three years wandering in the desert, writing about the aesthetes of the same desert I’d been working in, which is the Colorado Desert in Southern California. He talked a great deal about the beauty of the place, and he predicted what they'd be doing with the desert to try to cultivate it and all that, but that the desert would take over and reclaim itself, and that there would be “a return to the wasteland." In a very positive sense, in the apocalyptic future — our big scare, the bomb, and all that — the only hope there is, if our worst fears were to come true, is that the earth will sustain itself. Nature in a way will stay intact, and provide hope, even though our own lives will be totally destroyed. That sounds pretty dramatic, but there's something there in the desert that constantly reminds me of that. It makes one aware of a bigger scope of things, not just our own immediate struggle. And the struggle for survival reveals itself everywhere I go in the desert. Whether it s a fire, a flood, or a roadside business just trying to make it, or the landscape torn up by the dune buggies. It's all human folly in a very transient sense, and that shows up in the desert.
PB: Will there be a text with this book?
RM: I’m not sure exactly what it will be, but there definitely will be a text. Originally for each canto, I was going to write a short thing, but that felt too heavy handed. So I think I'm going to let the photographs do the talking for me. The first book will probably be out next year.
PB: So this will be a series of books.
RM: Yes. The second book is about ninety percent done, and it'll be out probably a year to a year and a half after the first one. The first book will be the first four cantos, which is The Terrain, The Event, The Flood, and The Fire. The second book will introduce the inhabitants of the land.
PB: Will there be a third or a fourth?
RM: There might be a third book, I'm not sure yet; that remains to beseen. It's still in the early stages, we'llsee how that evolves.
PB: And it’s all in the Colorado Desert?
RM: Yeah. There are a few photographs that were taken outside the Colorado Desert. At this point my interest is expanding - it's not necessary that the Colorado Desert be the only place I work, but it's been instructive to confine myself to that one relatively small area, probably a hundred mile radius. Everything was there, floods and fires, this incredible landscape —everything was in this one area.
PB: As far as survival goes, are you pretty much self supporting in terms of print sales?
RM: Yeah, pretty much since 1978. It's generally been a combination ofprint sales and teaching here andthere. The last couple of years havebeen the best.
PB: How do you feel about teaching?
RM: I’ve thought about that a lot. Making a living has always been month to month and it's always been very tight. I've been in debt several times over this whole project. I taught at U.C. Berkeley for a quarter and I taught at U.C. Santa Barbara for a quarter last year and I love teaching but it interferes with my work. It sounds like a luxury, but to do good work I think you have to do it all the time. I should be photographing and working every day. It's what we’re all supposed to be doing. As the support system grows, maybe more and more people will be able to do that. But if it gets to the point where I can't sell enough prints or supplement my income in one way or another I'd probably teach.
PB: You have relationships with a number of galleries?
RM: Yes, Light Gallery in New York, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. I had Delahunty Gallery in Texas but they've moved away from photography. I've had a number of other galleries but I'vepretty much pulled it back to a few.
PB: Relationships have generally been good?
RM: Generally, they’ve been awful. With the exception of Fraenkel Gallery and Bob Mann at Light Gallery; he's been wonderful. I've several bad relationships with some New York galleries. I have a lawsuit against Dan Fear's Silver Image gallery in Seattle. It's an awful business and photographers are not treated too well; they're really exploited a lot.
PB: What have been the main problems with galleries?
RM: Irresponsible payment, irresponsible follow through. Mainly gallery dealers. The gallery business has very few bright, enlightened gallery directors who really know a lot about photography and love photography. Many of them got into the business for the wrong reasons. Generally, it s very difficult to make it in photography because photographic prices are not that high and it's a lot to pay for the overhead and a lot of these galleries get behind and when they get a payment they pay their own bills and payment to photographers gets behind and they don't let you know that they've sold things and you have trouble getting paid and so on and so forth. There are a lot of problems with that. For awhile there was a boom and everybody jumped on the wagon and there were galleries opening up all over the place and the boom stopped and they got caught with their pants down.
PB: How does your personal life work, living with people — you're married to a photographer?
RM: We're separated now, but for a long time we had a great relationship. She was a photographer, we traveled together, she gave me great feedback for my work. But when we had a child, the financial strain and difficulty, the fact that I travel so much with my work, put a lot of pressure on the relationship. I think when I had my son, it was an awesome sort of transforming experience, it changed my priorities in a very positive way. I came in touch with a lot of things that I never knew before. Fires and children have a way of impacting on one's ideas.
PB: Any other major influences? Film, at all?
RM: It’s always been a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Paris, Texas was incredible. It relates greatly to what I've been working on. But that happens all along, a film here, a book there. Again, these things seem to really happen at the right time. There’s always a timing to how a book will just land in front of my face out of nowhere, a film will come up, or another photographer’s work like Frank Gohlke's from the aftermath of the tornado in Wichita Falls. Incredible things like that happen all the time. When I saw Rothko’s paintings, that reminded me of something I was doing in the early desert work. I saw that after the fact, but it comes to mind as a body of paintings that was almost identical to some real minimal desert work that I was doing.
I think it was Michael Bishop who said, you take a pinch here, a pinch there, and shake it up, and serve it.