Kenneth R. Fletcher on “The Beach”

Kenneth R. Fletcher

Kenneth Fletcher graduated with a master's degree in journalism from University of Maryland, where he covered agriculture and the environment for the Capital News Service, in 2007. From there, he became Smithsonian's writing intern, contributing primarily to the magazine's Around the Mall section. I recently caught up with Fletcher, who has since left the magazine to freelance from Latin America, to chat about his experience reporting and writing "The Beach," in our August issue.

What surprised you most about Richard Misrach's photographs or his methods?
When I first saw them, I thought they were taken from a blimp or airplane. Because the horizon is never visible, they seem to be taken from high in the air. Misrach told me he had to take them from the balcony of a hotel because his 8 by 10 camera required a longer shutter speed. The pictures would have been too blurry if taken from a moving plane or blimp.

I had also assumed that these pictures were a collection of beach pictures taken in various spots instead of from one hotel in Hawaii. The variations in light and weather conditions created such a range of images. Misrach said he loved that interpretation. Though he was used to driving around the desert to chase the best photograph, in this series he decided to wait in one spot and hope that eventually the world would come to him.

Any interesting bits from your walk around the gallery with Misrach that didn't make the story?
When you see the pictures in a magazine you don't realize how huge they are. The largest are 10 feet long by 6 feet high - most people have never seen a photograph that size. Misrach took me on a tour through "On the Beach" at the National Gallery and pointed out where you could count the toes of a lone swimmer doing a handstand in the big expanse of blue. The scale was important, it showed the expressions on people's faces, their gestures and conveyed the enormity of the ocean.

Because the subjects of the photograph had no idea that Misrach was taking pictures, I wondered whether anyone had recognized themselves in a beach photo. Misrach told me that when the exhibit opened in Chicago last fall, one woman went to the show and saw a photograph of herself floating in the sea, embracing her husband. She was delighted and contacted Misrach to tell him the story. The couple had decided to divorce and were spending one last moment together in the water. She said she didn't want to return to the beach, because she knew that when she left the water their relationship would be over. Misrach said he sensed it was a powerful moment. In the huge picture you can see the emotion on the couple's faces.

Did the photos change the way you look at beaches? If so, how?
The long range, aerial view gave me a very fresh perspective on the beach. Through the eyes of Richard Misrach, people are really vulnerable in this vast ocean. On the ground, you don't see yourself in that context. But there is a lighter side- I loved the picture of all the beachgoers arranged on their towels with their flip-flops beside them. They created such a colorful array on the crowded patch of sand. It's a pattern you'd never notice walking around the beach. I'm sure that next time I go to the beach I'll wonder what I look like from above.

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