American fine arts photographer Richard Misrach has produced beautiful pictures of disturbing events, from pollution to fires to dead animals. Author Kenneth R. Fletcher talked to Misrach about his latest exhibition, "On the Beach."
How did the events of September 11, 2001 inspire a series of beach pictures?
September 11 changed the way I looked at the world, but these pictures are not about 9/11. They were influenced by it. That's a really big distinction. These photographs are about how people are able in the face of huge tragedy to continue on and do things and have a good time and play and relax on the beach.
What were you doing on September 11?
I was at the Corcoran [Gallery of Art] when we heard what was going on in New York and also that a plane had just hit the Pentagon. They evacuated the Corcoran Gallery and we all left and rushed back to our hotels. I saw people in suits running from the White House, which was very eerie and strange. The next day or so we couldn't leave, we couldn't fly out or rent a car, couldn't do anything. We were stuck there. I knew my son was in New York and I was trying to catch up with him. Finally I was able to make phone contact, so I decided to go up there and take him out of New York and go to a friend's house to stay. [When I got to the city,] it was like a Blade Runner night. I went in at night past blockades. There was ash falling from the sky but all the kids were out. It was really bizarre and surreal.
But instead of photographing New York and Ground Zero, you went to Hawaii and photographed the beach from your balcony. How do the images from "On the Beach" differ from your previous work?
For thirty or forty years I traveled in the desert. I'd travel in my Volkswagen bus for two or three weeks at a time, throw all my equipment in there and go around and chase the light looking for pictures. ["On the Beach" is] just the opposite, staying in one place with the idea that the pictures have to manifest themselves in front of me. It's a different way of working.
Shooting pictures from a hotel balcony certainly seems very different from driving around the desert.
It was totally fascinating to see the world from this perspective. You don't normally do that. I learned a lot on all kinds of levels. On the other side of that, there would be many hours where I was standing with the sun beating down on me for three, four, five, six hours a day. It was work. I had to be on call all the time because you never knew when something was going to happen.
What were you hoping to capture in these images?
I was looking for a sense of stress or ambiguity in people's expressions. This was after 9/11, and one of the things I noticed was that suddenly everybody looked different. They were having a good time but there was a weird tension. We were so conscious of what happened here and what was going on in the world that I saw people being more vulnerable in the ocean. I tried to capture moments when they weren't as comfortable in the ocean as you might think. It's very subtle and most people won't notice it. But if you look at a lot of the pictures you'll start to see that people's expressions are not quite that comfortable.
But there are other images—such as the one where a man is throwing a woman into the water—that appear happy.
I was really lucky. I saw this guy throwing her three times. It is joyful. It's not just about some sort of tragedy. The fact that there's happiness going on there is okay with me. This series of photographs is about our relationship to the sublime. The fact that you don't get the horizon or any kind of sense of context. You just see this vast sea and these people interacting with it. It is much more about our relationship to the bigger sublime picture of things. The sublime of the ocean to me is a really powerful metaphor.