Richard Misrach is nothing if not patient.
When, in 1997, the renowned photographer moved into a home in the Berkeley hills and decided to capture his new view of the Golden Gate Bridge, he didn’t just take a few dozen shots and leave it at that.
Rather, over the course of three years, he shot hundreds and hundreds of photographs. The result was Golden Gate [Aperture, 2005], 85 beautiful meditations on the iconic bridge seen through the seasons from a single vantage point on his front porch.
Similarly, when Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Misrach took his time before making the journey to New Orleans to document it. He waited until October, after the turmoil and drama had abated, to capture images of a post-storm calm that were no less dramatic.
But the most striking evidence of Misrach’s self-discipline must surely be his decision to wait 20 years before revealing the fruits of one of his major photographic projects. It is only now that the photographer is unveiling – in some cases printing for the first time — the photographs he took in the aftermath of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm.
His images will be shown at two exhibitions opening in October — at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California – scheduled to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the devastating fire.
“I didn’t want to release the photographs straight away,” Misrach says, speaking in his studio, a cavernous space in an artists’ cooperative in Emeryville where he has worked since 1976.
“The meaning of photographs changes over time,” he says, explaining that he aims for his work to be the opposite of reportage or journalism. “Photographs can be really exploitative and I don’t want to be part of a media circus. History shifts the meaning.”
Misrach concedes it’s a gamble to wait for so long before unearthing work from storage. Out of the some 40 images in the upcoming exhibitions, and the book that will accompany them, only five have been exhibited before, in 2005.
“It’s interesting: I don’t know what I’ll see. And I’ve forgotten the logistics – was it three days after the fire when I took the photos, or four?
“But it feels right,” he continues. “The photographs are more poignant now.”
Misrach speaks in the same vein about the images he created of the eerily empty streets of New Orleans two months after the hurricane had careened though.
“I am attached to Louisiana and didn’t want to be part of a spectacle,” he says.
Granted a press pass by The New York Times Magazine, Misrach took a small 4MP Canon Powershot digital camera and shot most of the photographs almost on the hoof, a far cry from his trademark approach of using an 8 x 10 camera to produce painstakingly composed photographs that emerge as large-scale prints.
“I took 2,000 photos on the fly – sometimes from the car. It was the after-story, and it was post-apocalyptic,” he says. A number of images taken with a bigger camera have yet to be released.
The photographs, published in Destroy this Memory [Aperture, 2010], show the messages that officials and homeowners spray-painted onto houses, cars and scraps of board after the storm — whether to record the extent of the devastation or in reaction to it. The scrawls — warnings, pleas, even jokes — show a very human response to ruined lives.
“I am here, I have a gun,” reads one; “Help! Help!” another; “Looters shot – survivors shot again,” is written in capital letters on a piece of plywood propped up against a tree; “RIP Thomas Burke, aka Tab,” is marked in blue chalk on a boarded-up garage.
“They are like primitive text messages,” Misrach says. “People’s graffiti showed both anger and humor and together they built a narrative.”
Misrach gifted full sets of the New Orleans prints to five museums and donated royalties from the book to the Make it Right Foundation.
He has also donated two full collections of the Berkeley-Oakland firestorm images to the Oakland and Berkeley museums that are exhibiting them this fall.
Misrach’s Berkeley roots go deep. He cut his teeth working with photographer Roger Minick at the ASUC Studio, a student arts facility at UC Berkeley from where he graduated in 1971.
“The first time I saw photographs as art in the studio I knew that’s want I wanted to do,” he says. “Roger held my hand. He was 22 and I was 19 but he seemed ‘so old’ to me. I looked up to him like a father figure.”
Misrach recalls how he started by working as a lab assistant at the studio – “a glorified janitor” he clarifies — mopping floors and cleaning up chemicals so he could use the facilities for free once the lab was empty at night.
“I would work from 11 p.m. through the morning,” he says. “They were lean times, I was house sitting and living in a van.”
Misrach’s first book “Telegraph 3am” [Cornucopia Press], black-and-white shots of street people taken on Telegraph Avenue, was published in 1974.
He went on to produce a highly regarded body of work — shooting in deserts at night, on the parched Bonneville salt flats, and in Mississippi’s Cancer Alley – his lens always focused on man’s relationship with nature, and bringing a socio-political edge to all his images
Misrach is considered one of this century’s most acclaimed photographers and is work is represented in more than 50 major museum collections around the world.
These days, the huge prints propped up around his studio and stacked flat in layers, like so many outsize millefeuilles, bear testament to the fact that he is experimenting. He says he has not used film for the past three years, and is working with digitally scanned negatives. “I’m moving from representational to experimental. I like the kind of work that always stretches me.”
The politics and culture of Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, the writer Myriam Weisang Misrach, have affected him profoundly, he says. Some of his earliest photographs were taken while he was being tear-gassed at anti-war riots on the Cal campus in 1969.
“Being in Berkeley was critical. My interest in aesthetics and politics merged and have been fighting each other ever since,” he laughs.
“If it weren’t for Berkeley I would be doing pretty landscapes.”
“1991: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach” is at the Oakland Museum of California, October 15, 2011 through February 12, 2012, and at the Berkeley Art Museum, as well as a companion exhibition, “Richard Misrach: Photographs from the Collection”, from October 12, 2011 through February 5, 2012. An accompanying exhibition at OMCA will allow visitors to share their memories of the Firestorm.