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...

“The Golden Gate Bridge is a cliché,” says Richard Misrach. “No serious photographer would be caught dead trying to photograph that.”

Richard Misrach is a serious photographer, generally considered one of the finest in America — he's been mentioned in the same breath as Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Alfred Stieglitz. Across a 30-year career he has garnered a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fistful of NEA grants, and exhibitions in museums from the Smithsonian Institution to the Centre Pompidou. And that level of international esteem doesn't come from taking cute snapshots of tourist magnets. Misrach's work instead focuses on some of the country's most desolate and poisoned environments — desert bombing ranges and polluted rivers. His images are both arresting and painterly, sweeping panoramas of irradiated desert sand and gorgeous green streams of toxic filth.

But however politically charged his works are, there is no getting around the irony that those photographs of desolation have also made Richard Misrach a successful man; they often sell for upward of $35,000 apiece. In 1997, he and his family moved from the windowless Emeryville photo studio where they were living into a home in the Berkeley hills facing the bay. Suddenly Misrach had a view. Now, he could wake up in the morning and see that sparkling, clichéd vista of the Golden Gate Bridge. He could have friends over for dinner and watch the starry, clichéd vision out there in the distance. He could return home from another expedition to the harsh and ruined desert and gaze at that rust-colored cliché of a bridge, and the clichéd blue sky and clichéd blue water surrounding it.

One day Richard Misrach went out to his front porch, set up his tripod, installed his camera, and pointed it at the Golden Gate Bridge. He took a picture. That was at the end of 1997. Hundreds of pictures later, he's not done yet.

Misrach's studio is tucked in an industrial corner of Emeryville. The walls are graced with some of his recent works — large shots of salt flats and long exposures of the night sky. Boxes of old photos are piled in the main room, and over in the corner hangs a framed issue of Time magazine from the '80s, whose cover he shot. It was the only time he accepted a commission to take photos.

It's a short drive to the studio from his Berkeley home, and the difference between the neighborhoods became increasingly obvious to Misrach on a daily basis after the move. “I lived in Emeryville for 20 years, which is known for seediness, gambling, prostitution, drugs, the whole works,” he says, leaning back on a couch. “You drive up through the Berkeley hills, and you're driving through economic strata, class strata, all the way up to the top.”

Misrach's early works were an attempt to present that seediness. His first book, Telegraph Avenue, 3 a.m., was a collection of stark black-and-white photographs of the street urchins, addicts, and hippies populating Telegraph in its post-Summer of Love desolation. Published in 1972, it brought Misrach his first taste of success and critical acclaim, but also a discomfort with what he now calls “victim photography,” the idea of capturing other people's suffering and then showing it at fancy gallery openings. So terrible, how these people live. Another wine spritzer, dear?

“I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to do socially relevant work, and I found the two fighting each other,” he says. So Misrach went to the desert. In the wastelands of Nevada, California, and Utah, he began to work on his “Desert Cantos” series through the '80s. In bright yellows, oranges, and reds, he captured the beauty of those wastelands, even while the accompanying captions and essays pointed out how they were ravaged by the military. The bombing ranges in Nevada and Utah offered a cornucopia of ironies: a burned-out school bus used for target practice, abandoned swimming pools, and, most strikingly, a pair of Playboy magazines some military folks took shots at, with holes blasted through the airbrushed centerfolds inside. Another series showed irradiated livestock deposited in dead animal pits — a horrid soup of death that collided violently with the wash of brilliant colors Misrach found there.

The art world was seduced. “There's kind of a thin boundary now between the visual arts and photography,” says Constance Lewallen, senior curator for exhibitions at the Berkeley Art Museum. “Large-scale photography is being presented the same way paintings are, and Richard was well ahead of the curve on that.”

And with the awards and globe-trotting exhibitions, Misrach's works became “luxury items,” as he puts it. “I couldn't afford to buy my own work.”

At Misrach's Berkeley home, it's 67 steps uphill from the garage to his front door — he counted. After a while, even if he was just carrying in the groceries, he began noticing not only the gorgeous view he possessed, but also how it was constantly transforming itself. “By the hour, or even by the minute, the spectacle of light was in constant change,” he says. But that didn't mean he immediately thought of shooting it; the last thing the world needed was another set of pretty pictures of the San Francisco Bay.

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 “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 — of a 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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