In Photographica Deserta – The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach
‘One of the reasons that the proposition ‘the desert is where God is and man is not’ does not mean much to me is that, puzzled to know what I am doing in the desert, I hope to find illumination of what other men have been doing in the desert, why they did it, and why they thought it proper to do so. And there may be a bigger issue here than the identifiable activities of particular individuals and organisations. I begin to wonder what men have to do with the very existence and continuance of deserts; and if their presence is not more vital to deserts than that of the various gods that men have brought in with them.’
The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach illustrate a central dilemma for photographers with a social conscience. This dilemma is twofold. Firstly, there is often a wide disparity between form and content in a photograph. And secondly, this dichotomy frequently undercuts photographer intent, resulting in ambiguous meanings and making the photographic medium – contrary perhaps to expectations – a relatively weak carrier of narrative information. The camera in particular has a disconcerting tendency to beautify the most nominally unprepossessing of subjects, a tendency which must be fought against assiduously by the photographer seeking to elucidate and indict the world’s ills. For example, the distinguished co-founder of the Magnum picture agency and the first Allied photographer to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, George Rodger, was photographing corpses in that hideous place when a sudden untenable thought struck him. He had been ‘arranging’ his lifeless, emaciated subjects in his viewfinder, forcing these victims of iniquities almost beyond our imaginings into artful compositions. Rodger, in his own mind, found himself guilty of aestheticising horror.
To be sure, Belsen is an extreme example. Rodger was there primarily to bear witness, to ensure that such crimes were not beyond our imagining, to make them concrete. Almost any reasonably sharp, well exposed photograph would have fulfilled that essential task, for the nature of the subject-matter simply overwhelmed all other considerations. In a less extreme case, one could defend Rodger’s transgression by advocating that a more artful image would resonate longer in the mind of the viewer, thus bearing witness more eloquently. Good art perhaps serves the cause of propaganda more efficaciously than bad art, but that is an argument to which we shall return. However, if attempting to make any propagandist statement at all, except at the crudest, most blatant level – sufficient, of course, at Belsen – the photographer is faced with a formidable difficulty. He or she is constrained ineluctably by the static, monocular vision of the camera, a constraint which essentially reduces the space/time complexities of the world to a two dimensional abstraction. Susan Sontag demonstrated the problem succinctly by quoting Brecht’s example of the Krupp factory:
‘A photograph of the Krupp factory reveals nothing of that organisation. In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.’
The photographer can, and must have recourse to devices which suggest the knowledge that is missing. The building could be made to loom over its surroundings or the photographic frame, to suggest power. It can be made to look menacing, or soulless – whatever the skill and desire of the photographer might encompass – but that does not take us beyond the rather obvious and superficial. Essentially the photograph per se is profoundly limited if it is required to say anything concrete about the political and social forces which brought the edifice and organisation into being. To compile a critical photographic record of a subject like Krupp, the camera must be taken inside, physically and psychologically – an evident problem, not to say near impossibility. Then – even if one had collected the ‘inside’ story, in order to collate the photographs and structure them into a viable narrative – other forms of document, most probably the written word, would need to be brought into play. The result might then fulfil sociological, political, and historical objectives, but would it be apposite to term it ‘photography’? Some indeed with primarily political agendas have ‘written off’ pure photography as a viable means of expression for precisely these reasons.
And yet, however problematical, photographs clearly are powerful and seductive vessels of visual communication. So, aware that the medium is a suspect witness, photographers have tended to convey their truths in other ways. The best of them have endeavoured to make their cameras function both as witnesses and vehicles for metaphor and symbolic speculation. In short, they have intended that their photographs attain the complexity and condition of art.
Richard Misrach has been photographing the western deserts of the United States for the last fourteen or so years with a large format, 10 x 8 inch view camera and colour film, doggedly compiling an enormous, multi-faceted body of work that undoubtedly will be considered one of the major photographic achievements of the nineteen-eighties and nineties. He terms this longterm, ongoing project The Desert Cantos. The Italian term was used to denote that the vast enterprise has been broken down into individual thematic essays or ‘cantos’, which together make up the whole work, or ‘song cycle.’ Some of these cantos consist of only a few images, while others run into hundreds. Some may be regarded as ‘documentary’ in mode, some more metaphorical. Some may be considered aesthetic in intent, some ‘political’ – though as an ambitious and intelligent photographer, aesthetics are never pursued at the expense of politics, or vice versa. Misrach’s goal may be said to be a search for the photographic Holy Grail, to fuse reportage with poetry. To progress -as he put it – ‘from the descriptive and the informative to a metaphorical resolution.’
Paradoxically, as he has achieved this aim, the narrative content of his pictures has become more concrete. For as he built up the numbers of images and themes, as he witnessed more of the degredations perpetrated upon the wilderness by uncaring and unthinking man, he became politicised.
‘In the past when I travelled, I used to look for the light, the beautiful forms. Now I cannot escape the fact that every facet of the landscape is suffused with political implications.’
In addition to politicisation by empirical observation, as it were, Misrach has also become mindful of the criticisms levelled at photography, particularly modernist photography, by the postmodernists and critics such as Susan Sontag, Victor Burgin, and Alan Sekula. This has left its mark not only upon Misrach, but many of the recent crop of American landscape photographers, who no longer look to images that reflect only the sublime and transcendent vistas of romantic tradition. The current generation, in their very real appreciation of the western territories, tend to temper wonder with irony, to leaven romanticism with hard nosed reality, and are fully aware both of the land as a site for political action and the landscape as an imagistic construct.
The crucial difference might be illustrated by comparing the approach taken by Misrach in The Desert Cantos with the work of the doyen of modernist American landscape photographers – Ansel Adams. Remarkably, both artists share similar political aspirations for the landscape, whatever their personal politics in other spheres. Each has evinced a love for the western landscape and each, both through the agency of his work and by direct political action, has sought to halt the process of environmental destruction. Artistically however, they are poles apart, or perhaps more accurately generations apart, a dichotomy which, in view of the fact that both have valued the propagandist side of their work, has resulted in a number of ironies that the thoroughly postmodern Misrach at least might appreciate. Both Adams and Misrach have employed the classic 10 x 8 inch view camera for maximum clarity and informational value, but whereas Adams utilised a heightened, even operatic black-and-white mode of expression, Misrach employs clear, lucid colour. More significantly, Adams photographed only the virgin wilderness, unsullied by the hand of man, a landscape exuding a timeless beauty and universal grandeur. No roads or aircraft trails in the sky taint his images with evidence of the industrial hand of man. The Yosemite of Ansel Adams never showed the hotels and camping lodges and trailers and – to Adams the worst of all – the tourists who crowd the valley floor. Even the odd environmentally friendly Sierra Club backpacker, perhaps a member of Adams’ own party, is seldom allowed to intrude into his pristine images.8 Misrach, by contrast, shows the desert as it ‘really is’, littered with the tawdry evidence of twentieth century civilisation – the grimy gas stations, the neon signs, the dingy diners, the ramshackle tract housing and ill-conceived industrial developments, together with all the detritus generated by this wholesale exploitation of nature. As Reyner Banham put it so aptly in his introduction to Misrach’s first volume of Desert Cantos:
‘The desert that Richard Misrach presents here is the other desert. Not the pure unsullied wilderness ‘where God is and Man is not,’ the desert of Christian purification and American longing, but the real desert that we mortals can actually visit – stained and trampled, franchised and fenced, burned, flooded, grazed, mined, exploited and laid waste. It is the desert that is truly ours, for we have made it so and must live with the consequences.’
The work of Ansel Adams is a romantic fiction, an extreme idealisation, a magnificent lie – so magnificent that many have persuaded that it is indeed the truth. Its ironies, which might be appreciated by the image sophisticate and were certainly not lost on its creator, are not intended for general consumption. The tens of thousands who visit Yosemite each year, lured in part by Adams’ images, can miraculously ignore what lies before their very eyes and see the Valley through the master photographer’s optimistic vision, a spectacle of God given magnificence, untrammelled nature as pure as the water cascading down Bridal Veil Falls. For Richard Misrach, however, God is less of an immediate issue than the purity of the water cascading down Bridal Veil Falls. Just how pure is it? Is it the tainted residue perhaps of acid rainfall? Is it perhaps contaminated by industrial waste which has leached into the aquafis? For Misrach’s recent investigations have taken him far beyond the transcendent legacy of Adams, far beyond the untidy domesticising of the landscape with tract developments and industrial sheds, theme parks and golf courses. The kinds of interventions which caused Ansel Adams to beat his breast in horror, while hardly insignificant and not exactly celebrated by Misrach, may pale in comparison to those legacies of the Fission Age, which may be invisible but might be visited upon future generations like the Mark of Cain. Ironically, this deadliest pollution of all – unseen, silent, airborne – might actually make a visual contribution, causing the spectacular atmospheric effects which heighten those much admired National Geographic desert sunsets.
‘If Misrach’s works needed any justification, their educational and moral value would provide it. But educational and moral values alone do not make great art, or art of any sort. Vision that strikes a human chord in the viewer, and the technical proficiency to make such resonances felt, are what make art happen – the open eye, the cunning hand, the thinking brain, all working together.‘
Richard Misrach’s earliest cantos set the framework for the style, though not the psychological tone for the whole work. The first few essays are elemental, concentrating upon the primal forces – earth, wind, fire, and flood. But even here, at this early stage of the project, these natural forces are viewed neither as wholly ‘natural’ nor as morally neutral. There is a clear whiff of Old Testament redemption and Apocalypse in the air. Working titles for some of these early cantos – now discarded – such as Space, Scale, Light and Colour, indicate familiar photographic territory, yet their early abandonment reveals that the crucial shift from formalist/ metaphorical to allegorical/political concerns happened almost as soon as the project began. However, to ignore or misrepresent the formalist impulse in Misrach’s work would be to ignore an important strand within the complex motivations driving him, and also to ignore a major reason for the potency of the whole Desert Cantos enterprise. It is significant to note that Misrach was one of the first landscape photographers to switch to colour. He was responsible, along with such figures as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfield and Joel Meyerowitz, for making colour a ‘respectable’ medium for ‘serious’ photographers. He was also one of the first prominent colour photographers to have made notable black-and-white photographs. No one could pretend that Eggleston, Shore or Sternfield are significant workers in monochrome, though Meyerowitz is also an exception to this (admittedly rough) general rule. But Misrach’s first efforts in colour followed directly from his desert monochrome work, which were eerie nocturnal studies, expressive and formalist, in which single objects – cactii, rocks, plants – were plucked out of the surrounding darkness and subjected to the slightly ominous, slightly surrealistic glare of flash. This was very much the kind of formalist photography which takes hedonistic delight in revealing with the camera that which the eye cannot see, and formed the basis for Misrach’s initial style, continuing in monochrome with the flashlit dolmens of Stonehenge and then in colour with the temples of Greece, the jungles of Hawaii, and the swamps of Louisiana. Each series, which form a contiguous and consistent whole, was richly sensuous, mysterious, and decorative in the best sense.
In the Desert Cantos, Misrach immediately made a 180-degree switch of style. His last nocturnal series had relied on a confused mass of objects close to the camera looming out of the darkness, enveloping the viewer with physical presence. Misrach’s new images lacked nothing in either physicality or presence, but the presence was discreet and rather more ethereal, the physicality that of light and space above anything else. In the Cantos, he has tended to step back, employing a middle-to-far distance view, a cool, distanced view that we would tend to characterise as ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’. An aura of sensuality remained however, derived both from the subject itself and the photographer’s willing attentiveness to the spectacular atmospheric effects generated by the singular peculiarities of the desert terrain. The style adopted by Misrach is classically American, closely related to the painting style known as Luminism by virtue of its general horizontality and planar organisation, and in its limpid, lucid colour. Whether or not Misrach was specifically aware of the somewhat arcane Luminist school, many of his images reflect both its pattern and those of other imagistic styles in American landscape art, including the visions of early photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins, who were similarly concerned with combining fact and poetry. Of course, for any American landscape artist Luminism is, one might say, ‘in the air’ – both as a way of depicting things in nature and as a philosophy of transcendentalism – and has effected the way succeeding generations of American artists have approached and pictured the landscape. It is important to note that Luminism was not simply an aesthetic, but also an ethos, an approach to grasping the empirical physicality of the land – in a word, a way of metaphysically possessing it.
The four ‘elemental’ cantos were included in Misrach’s first published volume of work from the project – Desert Cantos. The book ended with Desert Canto IV – The Fires, one of the photographer’s most expressive and powerful essays which, detailing the phenomenon of flash fires, a phenomenon that can be either natural or man-made, would seem to function as an important intermezzo between preceding and succeeding sequences. The preceding canto, Desert Canto III – The Flood, documents in images of evanescent beauty a ‘natural’ disaster, the filling-in of the ancient dried lake bed in Southern California known as the Salton Sea following an ill-managed irrigation scheme along the Colorado River in 1905-1907. On the other hand, following the fire sequence, Desert Canto V – The War (Bravo 20), deals entirely with the malign influence of man at his most calculatedly destructive and is the first overtly political canto, this single, important essay attracting a published volume to itself. Indeed, Bravo 20 stands alone as a complete, autonomous project of some complexity, taking Misrach far beyond the art photographic ghetto. He became actively involved in the political struggle. Other, more concrete forms of evidence were required to support the photographer’s beautiful, damning images.
Bravo 20 documents graphically the effects of over twenty years of bombing by the U.S. Navy Airforce on an area of Nevada desert north of the town of Fallon. Since the Second World War, thousands of tons of ordanance have been dropped on an area of some 64 square miles, some of which was proven to be publicly owned land, thus making the Navy’s action unauthorised. The centre of this destructive activity is a single, dramatic peak sacred to the Northern Pauite tribe, Lone Rock, which has been reduced gradually from a height of over 250 feet to only 150 feet as a result of the incessant bombing and strafing.
Richard Misrach’s Bravo 20 pictures reveal an area of stunning natural beauty, ravaged by the effects of war, if only ersatz war. One outstanding image – Crater and Destroyed Convoy – shows a number of shattered target vehicles, a distant blue line of mountains, and in the foreground a bomb crater filled with rusty red water. It makes a telling, if obvious metaphor, not only for the wounded earth, but for the destruction of real, not mock warfare Indeed, we saw Misrach’s images for real only a year or so later in the deserts of Arabia, when to the overall picture of devastated half-tracks and unexploded ordanance were added burning Kuwaiti oilwells and charred Iraqi corpses. ‘Richard Misrach would have loved Kuwait,’ a photographer friend of mine said sardonically. That remark was neither in such poor taste nor as jocular as non-photographers might suppose. The use of the word ‘love’ with regard to a photographer’s subject, even when that subject is war and disaster, denotes a simple, if ineluctable paradox. Any artist must ‘love’ his or her subject, even if that subject is evil incarnate. ‘Subject’ is that which is close to a photographer’s soul, his creation, and must be distinguished from subject-matter, the raw material which provokes the many passions – love, hate, admiration, excitement, horror, and so forth – that spark the creative act. We saw the paradox at work with George Rodger in Belsen. We see it clearly at work in Misrach, and it leads to the question which is asked frequently of his work. Does the beauty of his images undercut or subvert their message? Further, is it almost immoral to make photographs which are formally beautiful?
Bravo 20 highlights this issue, but not so vividly as Desert Canto VI – The Pit. Like its predecessor, The Pit was shot partly near Fallon in Nevada, and documents several of the animal dumping grounds that are discretely located all over the West for the benefit of farmers who have lost livestock to disease, accident, or other causes. Here, the allegory is violent death. The canto forms the central section of Misrach’s third volume of cantos, Violent Legacies – and like Desert Canto IX – Project W-47 (The Secret), also included – is linked to the issue of nuclear weapons testing, which historically has been focused upon the sparsely populated states of Nevada and New Mexico. The evidence is perhaps circumstantial, but in a codicil to The Pit, Misrach points out that the sheer numbers of animals dying near these sites is far beyond statistical norms and attributable to causes more sinister than the natural wastage which must afflict any husbandry enterprise in semi-wilderness territory.
In The Pit, Misrach makes unblinking images of actual death, his shots of piled-up corpses being moved by bulldozer having obvious parallels with recent history. The pictures are immaculately composed, with carefully controlled colour balances, taken in the scrupulously neutral mode of the other cantos, except that here that the close-up is used much more frequently. That, coupled with the distressing subject-matter, produces a much more emotive, expressive effect. Some have alleged that the haunting formal qualities of these images negate the horror they depict. Consequently there have been accusations that Misrach has ‘exploited’ his dead subjects by utilising the pornography of death. Such allegations, when made against any photographer, are extremely difficult to prove or refute. I confess that I felt a degree of unease when The Pit was shown in a gallery, but crucially it was shown as a self-contained exhibit, without any of the other cantos to provide a fuller context, a situation more all the more acute by Misrach’s 40 x 30 inch prints, which tended to thrust the aestheticised horrors into our faces. It was too overpowering, too much to take, and a mistake, I believe, to show this particular canto above all others without the contextual support of some of the other essays. I feel this not simply because The Pit is an especially charged, emotive canto, but because its emotional range is narrow, highly focused, and extreme. Although it represents a fundamental issue, The Pit does not begin to represent the broad, far-reaching concerns of The Desert Cantos as a whole. Notwithstanding these reservations regarding The Pit – which do not pertain elsewhere – it is surely an important feature of the project that each essay is capable of standing alone. Nevertheless, The Desert Cantos as a totality must be greater than the sum of its parts.
This brings us to one of the most interesting topics concerning The Desert Cantos – ambition in photography – the thorny question of career ambition and more pertinently, ambition in the work. Misrach seems to have attracted more than his due share of unreasoned criticism over the cantos. For example, David Brittain, editor of Creative Camera magazine, raises in a review of The Pit the issue of Misrach’s willingness to sell his self-proclaimed ‘political’ work in the commercial art market. Brittain suggests – though he stops short of stating it outright – that Misrach’s politicisation is a fashionable veneer, and that beneath all the heart-on-sleeve concern lies a calculating aesthete.
‘Political photography, such as Misrach’s, raises many deeply troubling questions…… about the role of photographers, of art galleries, and the conflicts that arise when artistic egos and good causes collide and collude – especially when seductive work is exhibited for profit.’
Well, let us leave aside the question of Misrach’s personal motives. I do not know him, and would not presume to judge upon that issue, although Brittain would seem to come disturbingly close to doing so. Furthermore, I am uncertain from Brittain’s remarks whether he is castigating Misrach for being sanctimonious, or the fact that he exhibits in the ‘right’ galleries or produces expensive, well-made publications. There is an apparent whiff of sanctimony about Misrach, I would agree, but that does not necessarily preclude integrity. Personally, I merely put it down to that fact that I am not wholly in tune with the more transcendental echoes of his typically West Coast approach. The charge of double standards, of effectively colluding with one arm of the establishment – the gallery system – while condemning another – the military – could lead to endless, pointless argument. It is another easy charge to levy and difficult to disprove. Let us say that each individual is radical or non-radical according to his/her own terms. There are many artists one could name who make self-styled ‘radical’ work, but unlike Misrach, have never taken part in direct political action against the military, and whose political ‘street cred’ has not been compromised one iota, either by that or by their active collaboration with the forces of reaction in the commercial art market. Yet something more in Misrach’s work still seems to nag at Brittain and leads him to question its authenticity of vision. And so we return to the awkward question of the disparity between form and content. Many of the images in Bravo 20 and the other overtly political cantos are beautiful, shot either in the early morning or towards evening, when the desert was presenting its finest colours. This, coupled with the pinsharp, seductively detailed textures that only the largest view camera can yield, does lead the viewer, almost in spite of oneself, to take an almost fetishistic delight in the pictures’ surface, disturbingly so in the case of The Pit.
But is that at the expense of content? Does it subvert us from thinking about the full implications of what we are seeing? Do we merely say ‘nice pictures’, shrug our shoulders and make straight for the gallery coffee shop? While not entirely beyond Misrach’s control, the answer surely must be left to the individual conscience of the viewer. The photographer, I would submit, has failed neither viewer nor society in presenting his particular message. It is, after all, a message that beauty and degradation often coexist. Brittain, however, writes that Misrach’s ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it brand of concern‘ does not convince him, and goes on to characterise his work as ‘photography’s equivalent of lead-free petrol.‘ I find it difficult to credit commentary of this nature, which inevitably seeks to force an artist’s vision into that which they would consider the only ‘politically correct’ brand of concerned photography, that is to say one displaying only political considerations and nothing else, particularly any interest in the issue of form. Why, I ask myself, is such a desperately tendentious, monotonous note desired particularly of photography? If Misrach were a writer, compiling an equally polemical and committed discourse on the desert, surely chapters outlining the terrain, even describing its beauty in order to quantify the losses caused by man’s profligate interventions. And I have seldom heard of a writer like John Berger, whose political credibility no one has doubted, being castigated for his elegance of style – indeed he is lauded for it. The double standards I detect at work lie not so much in the photographic oeuvre of Richard Misrach as in the attitudes of some of those criticising it.
In an interview published in Violent Legacies, Misrach gives thoughtful and eminently reasonable answers to some of the conundrums raised by The Desert Cantos. He admits that some of his pictures are more overtly political than others, that sometimes ‘the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex.’ And with regard to the bugbear many seem to harbour regarding his imagery’s beauty, he gives an explanation that satisfies me, although I am fully aware that it might not assuage all doubters:
‘…… I’ve come to believe that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of difficult ideas. It engages people when they might otherwise look away.‘
And he continues:
‘…… the impact of art may be more complex and far-reaching than theory is capable of assessing. To me, the work I do is a means of interpreting unsettling truths, of bearing witness and sounding an alarm. The beauty of formal representation both carries an affirmation of life and subversively brings us face to face with news from our besieged world.’
Part of Brittain’s scepticism, as he argues, is a tendency for Misrach to employ ‘obvious’ metaphors – from the bleeding earth in Bravo 20 to the Holocaust undertones in The Pit, nodding in the direction of innumerable Hollywood references on the way. Perhaps Misrach’s metaphors are obvious – if outlined in trite words – but let us not forget that he is making visual images and they contain many more subtleties than subtleties of metaphor. Misrach is concerned also with fact and form. Consider the work of the painter Francis Bacon, for example. It could be said that he made rather ‘obvious metaphors’, but that was hardly the whole point of his imagery either.
If Misrach is ambitious, and he assuredly is, then to my mind that ambition is focused clearly where it ought to be – in the work. He has attempted a project of immense ambition – possibly one of the most ambitious in the history of the medium – compounded of many ideas, existing on different levels, and subject to profound shifts in subject and mood. He must be judged on The Desert Cantos as a totality, the sum rather than the individual parts. Some cantos, inevitably, will be more successful than others, although there is a remarkably even qualitative standard throughout – of an extremely high order. The project, in its author’s words, has been conceived like an epic poem, or a song cycle. The greatest of all song cycles is Franz Schubert’s Wintereisse (Winter Journey). As the title declares, it takes the form of a sojourn, a quest, nominally through the winter landscape but in essence through the psychological landscape, a dark journey through the complex depths of the human soul. And in order to convey the shifting moods of his protagonist, who will venture from hope to reverie to despair in as little as three stanzas, Schubert utilised a variety of means and modes of expression within the basic song form. There are slow songs, fast songs, lyrical songs, declamatory songs, songs in the minor, songs in the major. Everything is held together by the far from straightforward narrative, and more i as a totality, the sum rather than the individual parts. Some cantos, inevitably, will be more successful than others, although there is a remarkably even qualitative standard throughout – of an extremely high order. The project, in its author’s words, has been conceived like an epic poem, or a song cycle. The greatest of all song cycles is Franz Schubert’s mportantly, by the composer’s ineffable sensibility and sense of form. The whole, it should be added, is suffused with a melancholy beauty.
Richard Misrach has made a complex journey through the American desert, beginning with beauty and discovering politics. He has not, however, discarded beauty, for it was the beauty of the desert whiCreative Camerach first impelled him, and his quest is to see that beauty redeemed. Like the great crusader with the camera, Lewis W. Hine, Misrach surely intends to ‘show the things that should be appreciated, and also the things that should be changed. If at times Misrach would appear to be more deeply engaged in the politics of his enterprise, he will continue to surprise us with a brief return to aesthetic contemplation, but not aesthetic contemplation in isolation, thereby strengthening his timely polemic regarding our stewardship of the land.
I regard The Desert Cantos as one of the most important photographic enterprises of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, not only for its pertinent didacticism but also because it is an admirable demonstration of how to present complex ideas in straight photographic form without recourse to mixed media – they require a scale and breadth which demands assiduousness coupled with a grandness of conception. Few are able to sustain such demands. I applaud the affirmative yet critical nature of the project. I applaud Misrach’s wholehearted commitment to both humanity and art. He has shown, I believe, that art and humanity are not mutually exclusive. Lastly, I applaud his decision, in the face of much opposition, to remain with beauty. I would amplify this by paraphrasing writer Howard Jacobson, who was commenting upon Henri Matisse’s decision to paint odalisques and still-lives in the midst of the horrors of the First World War.
‘A love of what is living can never be an insult to what has died.’
From Creative Camera (1988)