It was the light that drew Richard Misrach into the desert, back in the 1970s. He’d been photographing hippies in San Francisco, but portraits made him uncomfortable. He didn’t like the power imbalance, how the camera told his story more than theirs. In the desert he found a more resilient subject: sky and sun and stone and dust, and the scars of civilization. Here was a difficult beauty, one that he could interrogate endlessly. He’s been shooting it ever since.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Misrach’s family used to drive through the Mojave Desert on their way to go skiing in the Sierra mountains. “I used to be freaked out by it,” he recalls. “It looked so empty and scary.” But it was that very minimalism that captivated him when he rediscovered the desert as an adult. Misrach recognized a unique photographic opportunity in the barren, light-soaked landscapes of the American West: “I think of it as a stage, and whatever’s on the stage, it highlights that. Because it’s so open, whatever you see is foregrounded.”
From the beginning, he’s always gone out on foot. “The desert demands that you walk it,” he says. Misrach carries an 8×10 camera over his shoulder and wanders until he finds something. “If you’re in the forest, you follow a path,” he observes. “But the desert is a different story. You can turn in any direction and nothing changes.”
When he started, Misrach would get an idea about something to shoot and then go hunt for it. “Inevitably, I’d come back and the pictures weren’t strong enough,” he says. So he changed his strategy. Instead, he chased the light.
“I would look at the weather prediction. In the desert, you usually get pretty monotonous day-in, day-out sunshine and things like that. But when a storm was coming or a certain area was going to be hit with clouds, I would head for it.” Along these sojourns, he would usually come across some human intervention in the landscape: man-made fires and floods, space shuttle landings, nuclear test sites, and the like. Misrach speaks lovingly of places like the Bravo 20 bombing range in Nevada. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” he says. “It’s the apocalypse. And yet the space, the light, the texture of the earth… it surpasses that. Side by side you have destruction and beauty. I needed to convey that.”
Misrach’s landscapes often have a political dimension. He’s been shooting the American border wall since long before Trump made it a rallying cry. “The wall doesn’t work and never has,” he says. “People go over it, they go under it, they go around it. It’s just a political symbol.” Misrach has dubbed it an “anti-monument.” Unlike the Statue of Liberty, which is a symbol for welcoming the poor and the needy, the border wall signifies the exact inverse: “It says, ‘Go away, we don’t care about your problems.’”
As Misrach’s work evolved, humans began working their way back into his images. “I often use a small figure in a vast landscape to give a sense of scale.” This technique has led him on an unexpected healing journey. Like so many after the 9/11 attacks in New York, Misrach was devastated by the images of people jumping from the buildings. ‘Those really got to me in a big way,” he says. “Their posture as they were falling through space was so existentially powerful.”
He began to notice that people floating in the ocean seemed to express a similar posture. “It made me think about that human scale, this little figure in the vast sublime.” Since 2001 he has alternated his walks in the desert with trips to Hawaii, where he shoots with a telephoto lens from the eighth-floor balcony of a beachside hotel, often for weeks on end. “Whereas in the desert I’m roaming and chasing the light, in Hawaii I’m in one spot. I’m at the still point of the turning world. I’m just going to let whatever’s in the world come in front of me.” From his perch, he can watch life’s whole pageant: baptisms, weddings, even surfboard funerals. But mostly he looks for the ones who float—embraced for a moment by the ocean’s endless sublime.