Richard Misrach: Photographing beauty can be tricky

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Photographer Richard Misrach talking at Berkeley’s David Brower Center which is showing an exhibition of his work. Photo: Tommy Lau

“It’s impossible to photograph clouds for their beauty anymore. We know too much about what is going on,” said photographer Richard Misrach wistfully on a recent weekday evening.

He should know. The Berkeley-based photographer has made a name for himself capturing striking images of man’s impact on the planet — which includes the creation of natural-looking clouds by oil none other than oil refineries.

The David Brower Center, a downtown Berkeley hub for environmental and social action, is currently showing a selection of the photographer’s images taken at Mississippi River’s Cancer Alley, in conjunction with related work by landscape architect Kate Orff.

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Norco Cumulus Cloud, Shell Oil Refinery, Norco, Louisiana, 1998. Photograph © Richard Misrach, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles

This year the Brower Center chose to honor Misrach with its annual Art/Act Exhibition award — presented to an artist who has demonstrated extraordinary achievement at the convergence of art and activism.


Based on the book Petrochemical America (Aperture 2012), the exhibit’s mash-up of dramatic Misrach photographs and Orff’s gorgeous “throughlines” – speculative drawings using research and data mapping – brings into focus the complex economic and ecological forces that have shaped the industrial landscapes of this Louisiana area.

Misrach was originally invited to shoot in Cancer Alley in 1988 by Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. His photographs highlight the significant pollution the petrochemical industry has wrought on the communities along what is also known as the Chemical Corridor.

Misrach returned to the area 22 years after his original assignment, in 2010, and was disappointed to find that little had changed.

“I would have expected that environmental regulations or even broader environmental awareness over the decade would have had some impact on the region, but that has not been the case,” he told Berkeleyside. “In recent years, there have been numerous accidents, toxic releases and poor practices, not to mention the devastating Deep Horizon oil spill which occurred just as I was revisiting the area in 2010.”

Misrach is currently working on a new projects — including experimenting with negatives and iPhone photography and shooting in Hawaii. Meanwhile ‘Petrochemical America’ provides a stark reminder that, in some areas, time has effectively stood still.


‘Petrochemical America’ is on view at the Hazel Wolf Gallery in the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, downtown Berkeley, through January 29, 2014. Gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Sundays, 10am-1pm.

Related:
With elegy book, community becomes part of exhibition (10.13.11)
Richard Misrach: A focus on the after-story (08.01.11)

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.