Through a Different Lens

We don't need more pretty pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. So why is one of the country's finest documentary photographers taking hundreds of them?

Misrach finally decided to shoot the bridge for a handful of reasons: to see if he could present it without falling into tourist-guide clichés; to keep a diary of sorts of his life as he turned 50 and moved into a new home; but mostly because he found the sheer beauty of the landscape hard to resist. "From the front porch, the world is spectacular," he says. "It's amazing. I could've driven through the hills and gotten better locations, but that's not what this was about."

The results will be published later this month as Golden Gate-- a $50 coffee table book. Despite the title, the bridge itself is actually the photos' least relevant subject; in the shots taken from Misrach's Berkeley perch, it looks downright puny. Shooting from the same angle with the same lens every time, Misrach captures the range of colors created by the fog, light, and darkness in the distance (color images are available at arenaeditions.com). "I consider it his Monet series," says Lewallen. "But even though you're looking at something that's breathtaking, there's another story there."

That other story goes back to the anxiety Misrach felt about his Telegraph Avenue photos: a well-to-do photographer taking pictures from a privileged location -- ofa privileged location. "I don't think it's guilt, but I'm very aware of the contradictions. I don't feel badly about it, I just feel it's complicated." To that end, he commissioned an essay from Richard Walker, a UC Berkeley environmental scholar, on the history of profiteering and pollution that accompanies the life of the Golden Gate. Misrach isn't deluded that the message will get through to everybody -- who actually reads a coffee table book? -- but it's there if anybody chooses to explore it.

That plays into criticism that is often leveled at him, that he has taken some of the world's ugliness -- the pollution and destruction of the environment -- and made it seductive and beautiful. "People have asked me why I don't photograph that evidence of class [disparity] in the neighborhoods, and to me that's hitting people over the head with the obvious," he says. "There's a challenge in making people think of the less obvious.

"Works that aren't explicitly political are political too," he counters. "There's a line of thinking that things are either obviously political or they're pretty. Period. But the mushroom cloud is one of the most sublime visual experiences in the world -- and it's death."

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