Richard Misrach: Being(s) 1975–2015


Richard Misrach: Being(s) 1975–2015

By Brian Karl May 19, 2015

This Fraenkel Gallery survey of more than thirty years of Richard Misrach’s photography primarily features small, isolated human figures in larger land- or seascapes. In much of the artist’s most famous work (not included here), for example Cancer Alley (1998) and Desert Cantos (1981–2001), human presence is indicated through occasional signs of intervention: tire tracks, contrails, an abandoned-looking building. By contrast, in Being(s) 1975–2015, the presence of humanity is marked by actual human bodies. Ultimately, however, the vastness of the natural expanses (large bodies of water, parklands, deserts) and the conditions of weather (wind, tide, clouds) relentlessly prevail, overwhelming the tiny, tenuously balanced figures.

The prints are mostly large-scale, and some, such as the nearly twelve-foot-long Playas de Tijuana #1 (Crowded Beach), San Diego, California (2013), are vast. A couple, including IPS #0134 (2011) and Untitled (Silver Reverse) (2002), are more modest in dimension, barely more than twelve inches high or wide. Many of the works were shot years ago and only recently printed for this show. Misrach has left visible frame-number marks from the decades-old film in some prints to highlight the shift in photographic tools and techniques from analog to (increasingly) digital. 

Misrach’s technical and compositional treatments produce a distancing effect that imbues the human figures with a kind of impotence. These treatments include negative reversals, polarization, silhouettes, the withholding of details of expression and individuality, and the dwarfing of human beings in proportion to their surroundings. The pathos produced by such approaches makes clear that however gorgeous the abstract colors and light might be, not to mention the physical settings themselves, we humans are extraordinarily puny and vulnerable, none of us here to stay.

The deployment of these techniques varies in the degree of interest provoked and the resulting success of the overall work. Sometimes an effect becomes more the subject, superseding the image itself, as in Untitled (Psychedelic Lance #2) (2007), or it helps to make up for an otherwise mundane composition, as in Untitled (Ophelia Reversed) (2003). There are a few explicit nods to the history of the art photograph and the technical processes associated with it, for instance the expansive homage of Untitled (After Man Ray) (2003), in which Misrach uses a solarizing effect on an image of scattered miniscule heads and bodies like cutout figurines, more inserted than suspended in shallow waters, shot from high above—a much wider scope than Man Ray ever took on.

Another print in the show, Untitled (9740 #FC) (2007), employs a similar technique to even greater effect. Here the dark silver tinge makes the isolation of the anonymous figures still more poignant as they float in the near distance, proximate yet still far from one another, in ocean waves near the shoreline. The darkness resulting from the image’s treatment turns the choppy crests into a brownish sludge, suggesting a view through a portal to another physical or perceptual reality—a universe where humanlike creatures move through a viscous medium somewhere between liquid and solid.

In IPS #0134 (2011), Misrach certainly achieves more with less in the blackened, cutout-like, silhouetted figure, whose burry edges seem stencil-painted on the white field of a wall, much like a street sign for a waiting pedestrian, albeit one without hands or feet. This stripped-down representation flirts with abstraction, given its minimalist withholding of information in terms of both the figure’s details and surrounding context.

Richard Misrach. Untitled (Psychedelic Lance #2), 2007/2015; pigment print; 26 1/2 x 60 5/8 in. © Richard Misrach. Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

The greatest exception—or variation—on the theme of alienated figures in natural settings in this survey is the aforementioned Playas de Tijuana #1 (Crowded Beach), San Diego, California, whose gauzy colors and masked human identities are interrupted by the vertical slats of a forbiddingly tall border fence between the human subjects and their photographer (and us, the viewers). The visual barrier created by the physical barrier generates a different kind of distancing effect, resonant with the runoff of the alienation created by national borders and disparate social, cultural, and economic class positions.1 The partially hidden people enjoying themselves on the beach on a sunny day come across as dynamic and compelling despite the occlusion of so much detail regarding the individuals. There is real life here, however fragmented, vulnerable, and fenced off. The industrially produced colors of the bathers’ seaside clothes are a visual riot, and the energy imparted from so many people clearly in motion is undeniable. Other depictions of more isolated figures in this exhibition don’t quite achieve the elusiveness, vitality, and vulnerability of “being” that this last image manages to distill so intensely.

Being(s) 1975-2015 is on view at Fraenkel Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through May 30, 2015.


  1. This work is part of a series about the border that Misrach will be debuting more fully in a multimedia collaborative project with the composer Guillermo Gallindo at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2016. The exhibited works will feature emphatically the ephemeral subjects and desolate milieu associated with border crossing and border contention.

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