Richard Misrach

at the Art Institute


Peter Hales

at the Public Library Cultural Center

Richard Misrach prides himself on not photographing the classic landmarks of the American west. Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, he says, are nice, but not representative. And they are not represented in Desert Cantos, Misrach’s current show at the Art Institute. The California-based photographer has created fourteen “cantos,” each inspired by a different aspect of the desert; work from five of them is on exhibit.

For one canto, “The Terrain,” Misrach photographed a prosaic west–the west of sagebrush, wrinkled mountains, dusty desert plains. The land is harsh, bright, and exposed, but in these large-format color prints, there is also a surprising subtlety of color, as in a watercolor painting. In “San Jacinto Mountains Triptych,” the scenery is rugged, but not spectacular: there is a mountain range with clouds cupping the peaks, and there are hills and a plain before it. We see all this in three images, each taken in different light. If the scene lacks the sheer spectacle of a national park vista, it is still majestic, if only in its sense of vast space.

Misrach is good at capturing changing light and the subtleties of atmospheric conditions. In the canto “Desert Seas” are several views of the Salton Sea, a desert lake in southern California, that are reminiscent of Turner’s seascapes in the gradation of color and the melding of the air and water tones. The effect is simply beautiful.

Most of these landscapes bear some evidence of human presence. There are roads that scar the flats and railroad tracks that reflect brilliantly the light of dusk amidst dark trees and hills. Still, the spaces are so vast that these intrusions seem almost trivial.

The tone of the exhibit changes in the canto devoted to the landing of the space shuttle at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in 1983. First we see the cracked, dry surface of the lake bed stretching off into a haze beyond which rises a distant mountain range. Then there are a couple photos of the more banal preparations for the crowds expected at the event: a camouflaged Army concession stand, a row of Porta Potties. Most striking is a photo of a group of campers standing beside a pickup, two tents, a redwood picnic table, and a big cooler. In the middle of the encampment is a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes. Set in this barren landscape, the tableau is absurdly reminiscent of a triumphant National Geographic photo of the first explorers to reach some remote arctic site.

But not all mankind’s interactions with the desert are so benign. Misrach’s final two cantos focus on desert fires (set either to clear native vegetation for agriculture or by arsonists) and on flooding at the Salton Sea (caused by irresponsible irrigation practices). Misrach’s photographs of flooded houses, playgrounds, and marinas under clear skies are poignant. Yet they are still suffused with the same delicate color as his other shots of the Salton Sea.

“The world is as terrible as it is beautiful, but when you look more closely, it is as beautiful as it is terrible,” writes Misrach. No single photograph illustrates that leitmotiv better than a large view of an out-of-control desert fire in which the sinuous walls of fire curve through the dark brush, elegant and compelling. But it is a relief to step away from the photo and look elsewhere.

Chicagoan Peter Hales is less ambitious in Gates of Eden, a black-and-white photo exhibit on display in the Public Library Cultural Center. Unlike Misrach, he does take pictures of the famous landmarks of the western national parks, but he concentrates on those scenes that can be comprehended from the window of a Winnebago camper. Hales photographs landscape as sociological phenomenon: scenery exists mainly as a backdrop for human drama.

Often, the result is humorous in its irony. In “Scenic Overlook, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado,” a fat woman in a print dress stands next to two loaded touring motorcycles, her back to the scenic view. She’s taking a snapshot, facing us. The incongruity of her light clothing against a rugged mountain backdrop is ridiculous. In a photo taken near Yellowstone National Park, a motel nestles in some barren hills. In front of it are two white lawn chairs that look out of place in their surroundings. At Old Faithful, bored children wait for the geyser to erupt, while adults look on from inside the neighboring snack shop.

Hales also has a bent for verbal jokes. One shot at an Indiana campground features prominently the slogan “Wilderness by Fleetwood” printed on a camper above a tacky painted mountain range. Before an exhibit building at Florida’s Epcot Center is a sign that proudly proclaims “The Land Presented by Kraft”–an example of corporate chest pounding akin to the “Corporate Funding for Planet Earth is provided by IBM” blurb on the PBS television series.

Underlying the humor of Hales’s photographs is a concern for people and their environment. Hales writes that many people visit the wilderness hoping for “geographical redemption”–they hope to be inspired and purified by what they see. “If they are disappointed,” he writes, “it is in themselves, not in the world they have come to see; nature awaits them, but they feel they have failed her if she does not speak to them.” It is written on the faces of many of Hales’s subjects that they view Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as a duty, something they must see before they can hop back into the car or camper. They’ll be glad to get it over with.

Hales’s photos show a wilderness experience–if you can call the view from a Winnebago or the Old Faithful snack shop wilderness–that has been sanitized and regimented, when that experience should offer freedom from regimentation. In his images of Cal Johnson’s World-Record Muskie Bar and Grill in Hayward, Wisconsin, Hales documents the stuffed animals that have been set up in lighted dioramas next to a jukebox. We should hope that the American wilderness beyond the parking lots and scenic overlooks does not suffer the same fate.