Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through June 29

By Stephen Longmire

The fate of America’s west has preoccupied American landscape photographers for at least two decades. Whether it’s the deadpan minimalism of “new topographer” Robert Adams, the reenactment of 19th-century photographic land surveys practiced by Mark Klett, the postmodern play of John Pfahl, or the surreal dramas of his fellow colorist Richard Misrach, today’s prominent American landscape photographers focus on the environmental politics of land use in the west as a way of appraising the fate of Jefferson’s dream of a second America across the Mississippi. All photograph the west–as Walter Benjamin said of Eugene Atget’s photographs of Paris–“as if it were the scene of a crime.” Yet the widespread agreement among these photographers about the way the west has been decimated by hasty settlement and industrialization has not discouraged a legion of amateur and commercial “nature photographers” from producing idyllic pictures of wilderness–and with far greater popular success.

Misrach in his stunning color photographs of the American desert–his Desert Cantos, now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art–is more polemical than any of his colleagues, fingering the ubiquitous military on the land as the embodiment of the threat. Drawing on literary models–this work relies heavily on linguistic associations to achieve its full range of significance–Misrach calls his monumental series of cantos an “epic.” But that’s an interesting stretch. The term “epic” is usually reserved for tales of a hero’s exploits, and there are rarely people in Misrach’s pictures (except in their ever-present effects), much less heroes. The only possible heroic presence is the land, on which are inscribed the conquest and ruin Misrach suggests. An epic can also be a poem about the making of a nation, but ironically the Desert Cantos are about the unmaking of America, about the covert conquest of open space for dubious purposes.

The current exhibition, on loan from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, gives a fuller view of the Desert Cantos than previous exhibitions and publications, which excerpted from one to four cantos at a time: this is an opportunity to glimpse Misrach’s epic as a growing whole; these photographs, with their juxtapositions and contradictions, function as evidence in his ongoing fictional history of a place called the west. “Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach” includes samples from the first 18 cantos; since the show was conceived, Misrach has gotten three new cantos under way, one of which he previewed in a lecture at the MCA in April. Asked when he will be done with the Desert Cantos, Misrach said he did not expect them ever to be finished, though he may one day stop work on them.

“Epic” and “canto” aren’t the only literary terms Misrach uses to describe the project. In his lecture he often called individual photographs metaphors, going so far as to say, “All my work is about finding metaphors in the land.” To Misrach, the ammunition test site the navy used illegally in the Nevada desert, Bravo 20, which he photographed in the mid-80s to produce his fifth canto, “The War,” is a metaphor for American militarism. Presumably he means to suggest that this desert of relics, of half-buried bombshells and targets, is in fact a battleground. Among the wreckage is a yellow school bus with its engine burned away, identified in the title as Personnel Carrier Painted to Simulate School Bus. The strangeness of this juxtaposition, children going to school among the bombs, powerfully suggests the civilians who became targets of American military violence in Vietnam–and, Misrach implies, on the home front. It’s an extreme suggestion that will leave some unpersuaded. That hardly seems to matter. These photographs aestheticize protest the way playwright Sam Shepard aestheticizes argument, to the point where polemic seems the natural medium of expression.

Once the Desert Cantos had taken shape as an extended artistic project, Misrach added a pictorial prologue, with images comparing the American desert to the landscapes of Egypt and modern-day Israel. Like many of his metaphors, this one is at once suggestive and problematic. Many places in the American west were named after places in the Holy Land–as if the west were an arena for reenacting the Old Testament long before Hollywood realized this dream. Nineteenth-century Americans often conceived the west as a promised land of renewed resources, to which they would be led as opportunities for prosperity in the east and midwest diminished. Modern analogies abound as well, though many are equally loose. Israel and America are both modern nations founded as sanctuaries of freedom, and both are exceptionally militaristic in defense–some would say in defiance–of these ideals. Some of the wars rehearsed in Nevada have been fought in Israel, a primary recipient of American weapons. In the end, though, the similarity that grounds Misrach’s comparison is simply the geography of the two places.

Misrach in the first four cantos takes as his structuring principle the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. These cantos fully establish the eeriness of the desert. The first canto, “The Terrain,” is a collection of landscape photographs, many reminiscent of those made in the late 19th century in government-sponsored surveys by photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins. With his 8-by-10-inch view camera and wide-angle lens, Misrach’s equipment is as reminiscent of theirs as a modern photographer’s could be, and his balanced, distant views bisected by the horizon are in keeping with the earlier photographers’ documentary styles. Color is Misrach’s one wholehearted modern technique, and he uses it lavishly, favoring the warm, golden glow of the edges of desert days.

“Canto II: The Event I,” points to the skies: the landing of the space shuttle at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California in 1983. Unlike most of the Desert Cantos, this one focuses on a discrete event and was shot over a period of days, not years. Misrach approaches the landing as a ritual, photographing the vast crowd gathered to watch the spaceman drop from the sky. In only one image is the shuttle itself visible–barely. Most of the photos concentrate on the ridiculous ends to which people must go to survive here: the spectacle of RVs lined up across from “comfort stations,” for example–cagelike portable toilets set out by the military. In another image a military man in camouflage fatigues stares back at us from the distance through binoculars, suggesting the constant, suspicious presence Misrach finds on the land. (“I knew we had a problem with the army when I saw them wearing jungle camouflage in the desert!” Misrach remarked when this slide came up in his talk.)

In the third and fourth cantos, “The Flood” and “The Fires,” seemingly natural disasters are made oddly beautiful. The fires in fact were set by people–whether for agricultural or vandalistic purposes, Misrach makes no distinction. “The Flood” depicts a site of environmental scandal in California: the Salton Sea, a prehistoric seabed refilled early this century by a diversion of the Colorado River. Misrach photographed a more recent flood in the vicinity, a result of this same river’s mismanagement, that forced the evacuation of whole towns, which remained submerged for years. Returning repeatedly, Misrach caught the surreal spectacle of streetlights, gas stations, and house trailers emerging from a glassy pool. In one of the series’ most ironic images (featured on the cover of critic Jean Baudrillard’s Cool Dreams), an empty swimming pool sits at the edge of the Salton Sea: there’s no water where you’d expect it, and plenty where there should be none.

The danger of a concealed military presence, the subject of 6 of Misrach’s first 18 cantos, never seems far from his mind. But he modulates this ever-present threat carefully, ironically. “Canto VIII: The Event II” further undermines the solemnity of the shuttle landing in 1983 by connecting it with images from a subsequent performance-art festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert: out-of-context comic sculptures sitting on parched salt flats are reminiscent of the expectant RVs. Some photos show absurdly large blow-up croquet balls, including one colored like a globe and sagging from loss of air: Desert Croquet #1 (Deflated World). The games these photos depict are based on deadly serious metaphors–still, the images confirm the playfulness of Misrach’s art and his belief that photographs can only allude to the horrors that concern him.

The most controversial of Misrach’s “wartime” cantos is certainly the gruesome “Canto VI: The Pit,” photos taken in the late 80s of a dump site in northern Nevada for dead animals from nearby ranches. Because Misrach could get no satisfactory explanation for the existence of the unmarked site, he added to the series of distressing photographs of rotting corpses a brief written account of the sheep that were among the earliest downwind victims of above-ground nuclear tests of the 50s in the Nevada desert. Texts are often essential in establishing Misrach’s frame of reference–but that frame can easily come unfixed. By suggesting that photographs of one site can be used to illustrate another, he effectively stages a “documentary,” almost as the performance artists do in “Canto VIII.” This approach from a photojournalist or a strict documentary photographer would be libelous. But Misrach employs the rhetoric of “documentary” imagery to visualize a hidden history at the same time that his lush colors in these grisly pictures announce his distance from a traditional documentary. These dead animals stand in for all who died because of nuclear testing in the west–though they might also be seen as a commentary on the violence of ranching. Like Margaret Bourke-White’s photos of corpses stacked at newly liberated concentration camps, Misrach’s of these mass graves may be memorials to those whose deaths went unrecorded. But they unequivocally establish that Misrach is not simply a reporter of historic events; he’s a storyteller who bases his fictions in the real world.

When he’s not staging forgotten tragedies, Misrach is drawn to the hidden places where environmental calamities began. The hangar of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, at Wendover Air Force Base in western Utah, photographed in “Canto IX: The Secret (Project W-47),” is a metaphor as rich as the bombing range of Bravo 20. Here no violence is visible except in the graffiti, written inside a mushroom cloud as if it were a cartoon thought bubble: “Eat my fallout.” Misrach’s uncanny, unnerving ability to discover graphic beauty in such sites amounts to a form of protest all his own, in the face of the horrors he narrates and re-creates. He’s been accused of “aestheticizing horror,” of “making poetry of the holocaust,” but his approach is more deadpan than that: he simply observes the perversity that even devastation can be attractive. Surely this is another reminder that this photographer is more storyteller than reporter. The story he tells may bear a striking resemblance to what many call “the truth,” but it also undermines the positivist hope of getting to the bottom of the matter.

Misrach discovered a particularly rich piece of evidence in 1988 at the nuclear test site in Nevada: two copies of Playboy magazine that had been used for target practice. The magazines represent a hot spot of cultural violence, enacted this time not on the land but on images. “Although the women on the covers were the intended targets,” Misrach wrote in his brief text accompanying “Canto XI: The Playboys,” “all aspects of American culture, as reflected inside the magazines, were riddled with violence.” These aspects include misogyny, racism, and exaggerated visions of machismo, all enacted in mythic cowboy country. At first Misrach simply included the magazines in gallery displays, but he found that viewers didn’t respond to them as he did, so he rephotographed the magazines page by page: a model for how he would like to work, simply calling attention to what he’s found. But his simplifying sleight of hand is what convinces us that the violence with which these images are shot through may be the equivalent to an atomic blast.

As if in response to the accusation that he aestheticizes horror, Misrach explores aesthetics–and with characteristic hyperbole regards these magazine images as advertisements for questionable but fundamentally American values. Surely this is not true of all images–his own, for example, are one step removed from such blatancy. That step is the difference between collaboration and criticism, he seems to insist. But some might see Misrach wavering back and forth across that line. The sheer size of the prints he has a lab make for him (ranging from 20-by-24 to 48-by-60 inches) suggests a celebration of grandeur and wealth oddly reminiscent of the forces responsible for the overdevelopment of the west, forces whose contemporary counterparts have elevated Misrach to art-world stardom. This must be a tricky position to be in, and it may help explain his withdrawal from politics in his most recent photographs.

Lately Misrach has turned toward a less ambivalent celebration of natural beauty. In “Canto XII: The Clouds (Non-Equivalents)” he set out to rebuff Alfred Stieglitz’s images of abstract cloud forms as “equivalents” of his own emotion. Misrach maintains that his clouds are anything but subjective; in fact he considers them records of particular places and times, landscapes without land, and points out that, rather than being pure, many of their colors are caused by pollution. True though it is, that moral seems tacked on. To most viewers these will simply be beautiful photographs–unlike John Pfahl’s photographs of factory smokestacks in the 80s, which show the discomfiting beauty of pollution in context. In “Canto XVIII: The Skies” Misrach takes cloud studies a step further toward abstraction. Each of these enormous prints shows nothing but the shifting colors of sky above a certain place at a certain time: they look as if Mark Rothko had taken to the skies. The juxtaposition of so grand a subject with so specific a place and time is odd, as in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s recent photographic seascapes, which take their titles from all the world’s oceans but always look alike. At 7:05 PM, March 22, 1995, we learn, the sky above Paradise Valley, Arizona, turned many colors, from gold to midnight blue. These 48-by-60-inch prints are large even for Misrach; printed in editions of one, they seem to insist each moment cannot recur.

Misrach’s most recent canto, the 21st–too recent for this exhibition but previewed in Aperture magazine–takes an even grander view: he catches the stars twirling in the heavens. These are marvelous technical accomplishments, exposures of many hours that show the very powers of the universe at work. More accepting than the photographs in earlier cantos, these reveal that nature remains nature whatever we do; even the atom bomb is a wonder of nature. This may not be a particularly consoling view, but the color and movement of the night sky are consoling. Rather than suggest the conquest of outer space, as Misrach might earlier have done, his star pictures revel in a grand act of wonder. The cold war is over, Misrach’s sky studies seem to announce, and oddly enough we’ve survived.

It’s hard not to see this most recent series as an epilogue, but the Desert Cantos remains a work in progress–a brilliant, even megalomaniacal one. This is a structure big enough to house all Misrach’s artistic concerns, but its overall coherence remains hard to judge. Few photographers have assigned themselves projects so dense and varied, or allowed them to unfold and grow as they do themselves. The relationships between Misrach’s individual cantos are now as involved as those between sections of multivolume novels by Balzac and Proust. To have managed this in photographs is an impressive, almost epic feat. He has made a world, full of beauty and unrest; now he pauses to watch it spin.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Desert Canto III: The Flood/ Desert Canto XI: The playboys.