The Tainted Desert : Richard Misrach’s Photographs Document the Beauty and Ruin of the American West

<i> Sean Elder is a free-lance writer living in New York. </i>

IN JUNE OF 1986, photographer Richard Misrach and his German shepherd, Kodak, took a walk through the desert. It was not unusual terrain for them, but Misrach moved gingerly. He was scanning the landscape for more than a great shot: Scattered about were hundreds of unexploded bombs, varying in weight from 25 to 2,000 pounds. He knew how to distinguish between the live ones and the dummies. Live bombs were covered with what looked like alligator skin, or were painted with blue stripes, or had fuses on one end. But Misrach noticed that the alligator skin was peeling off of some, that the blue stripes had faded on others and many had their tails buried in the sand. Even the dummies, powder blue and Day-Glo orange, contained a smoke charge that could take your hand off.

After several nerve-wracking hours, Misrach’s confidence increased, his photographer’s instincts overriding his fear. He took out his 8 x 10” view camera and began capturing images of the blighted landscape: the bombs, half-buried in the earth; craters, large and small, some bleeding a brilliant red fluid; demolished tanks, jeeps and trucks--even a yellow school bus, its insides charred black.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 9, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
“The Tainted Desert” (Nov. 4) misidentified the name of a photographic exhibit up last month and this at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Bravo 20: A National Park Proposal,” the title of the exhibit, depicts an area of the Nevada desert that had been bombed by the U.S. Navy for 33 years, not 40, as the magazine reported. JMA Architects & Engineers in Las Vegas was also misidentified in the article.
--The Editors

This stretch of the Carson Sink Desert in Nevada was not a military site. This was public land that the Navy had been bombing illegally since World War II. Although Misrach knew that he had every right to be there, he strained his ears listening for Navy jets, which could return at any moment, strafing and shelling as they pleased.


Richard Misrach has been photographing the desert of the American West for more than 15 years. He has been hailed by critics as one of America’s most distinctive and original nature photographers because, among other things, he is not afraid to document the realities of the planet.

Man has left his mark on Misrach’s landscapes: Power lines cut across the pristine scenery, satellite dishes wink in the distance, animals lie bloated, having drunk from toxic sumps. The images are formally beautiful, but the message is grim: Misrach considers humanity’s assault on the earth a “failed stewardship.” And in Bravo-20, the Navy code name for the Carson Sink Desert, Misrach has found a metaphor for his concerns.

With “Bravo-20: The Bombing of the American West,” Misrach is doing more than documenting tragedy through art; he is trying to galvanize people into protecting public lands. An exhibition of his photos, scheduled to open Nov. 19 in San Francisco, will travel across the country this year, to coincide with the release of the “Bravo-20” book (Johns Hopkins Press). Both will also contain a history of the bombings and the project (by Misrach’s wife, Myriam Weisang Misrach) and a proposal by the photographer about what to do with the land: Turn it into a theme park, complete with a Boardwalk of Bombs and a Devastation Drive.

A VERY APPROPRIATE suggestion for a boy from Los Angeles.

Misrach, 41, spent his wonder years in the upscale neighborhood of Westwood. His father owned a sporting goods business and his mother was a homemaker. Many of his schoolmates at University High were movie brats and lived lives of unconcerned privilege. Then, in 1967, Misrach enrolled in UC Berkeley.

“Berkeley was going through tremendous upheaval,” Misrach recalls. “I’ve never grown as quickly as I did in that year; it sent me on a spiral of challenging a lot of the values my parents held.”

Though he entered the university as a math major, Misrach soon switched to psychology and began a thesis on “altered states of consciousness.” He also fell in love with photography.

His role models were Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, whose WPA photos of the ‘30s documented the lives of the nation’s downtrodden. Like Lange and Evans, Misrach wanted to make a statement. He had a dream in which faces of burnt-out street-people who were overrunning the city appeared and disappeared. He thought, “I should photograph this, these people, this culture that I’m part of and yet not part of.” The results--stark, depressing black-and-white pictures of young people seemingly not long for this world--were published in “Telegraph 3 A.M.” (Cornucopia Press).

“In the end I didn’t really do anything that affected social change, and my art wasn’t particularly great art,” he says. “I came out with this coffee table book that had the greatest intentions yet somehow fell flat.”

At 24, Misrach gave up his graduate work in psychology to pursue photography full-time--but not the art /propaganda he had dabbled in. Like many people in the counterculture nationwide, his concerns were turning mystical.

“It sounds sort of hokey,” he says, “but I just sort of discovered the desert.”

Scouring California, Nevada and Ari zona in a VW van, Misrach camped out, taking photos of the landscape, always at dusk or dawn, which he calls “the crack between the two worlds. It’s a very magical time. But I brought artificial light.”

Those early photos bear little resemblance to any other desert photography, including Misrach’s later, better-known work. The light is glaring, intrusive: The photos look like snapshots taken by Martians from the open doors of their saucers. “At that point I was rebelling against traditional landscape photography, like Ansel Adams, and doing exactly the opposite of what he would do,” he says. “I was vandalizing with artificial light.”

Misrach describes those morning and evening hours alone in the desert as a sort of dance: He would hop about in the darkness, trying to beat the light (or darkness), popping flashes, shooting hundreds of rolls of film.

“I felt like I was working out a language where I could talk about things in a very different way,” he says. “And that became more important than showing the ills of society. But I think all those elements ended up coming out later.”

During the mid-1970s, his work began to appear in a number of group shows and to gain recognition, but Misrach subsisted largely through menial jobs and a couple of National Endowment for the Arts grants. In 1975, he got his first one-man show, at the International Center for Photography in New York. Overjoyed, he drove across country for the opening--and found not a single person there.

“I was just blown out of the water,” he says. “It was absolutely brutal. There wasn’t one person. And there was a holographic show upstairs that was mobbed.”

By 1981, Misrach had married and became the father of a son. His reputation as a photographer continued to grow. That year, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which funded a trip to Greece and a series of spectral images of the Parthenon and other ruins. He was photographing in color by then, forsaking the 35-millimeter camera for the broad-eyed 8 x 10”. He experimented in swamps, forests and the desert, using less artificial light and framing his shots less rigidly, letting nature claim its own definition.

A new quality began to creep into Misrach’s work: a darker edge, a sense of things going awry in the natural world. “I became very future-conscious once my kid was born,” he says. “Everywhere I looked, particularly in the desert, I started seeing these incredible symbols of our failed stewardship of the environment.”

Small incidents--animals killed by toxic waste, fires started by carelessness--began to loom large. These discoveries gave his work a raison d’etre that it had lacked. “I felt like I’d developed a language and now I had something to say.”

Misrach’s language found its expression in the series “Desert Fires,” photographed in the mid-’80s and later included in his book “Desert Cantos.” Misrach had never noticed fires in the desert before, but driving south of Joshua Tree National Monument one day, he saw smoke. “I drove an hour to get to it and there was this big fire raging. ‘Desert Fire Number One.’ And in the next two years, everywhere I went I saw fires. Now those fires had always been there, but it’s selective inattention. And once you notice it, you cannot not pay attention to it.”

He had a similar epiphany about the military. In 1983, he was arrested while photographing around the Marine Corp Air Station in Yuma, on the Arizona-California border. His film was confiscated, and he was interrogated for hours. “They threatened to expose or destroy all my film,” he says. “And I’d been on the road for a month. I was really pissed off.”

While photographing a Tucson desert shortly after his arrest, Misrach was startled by some low-flying Navy jets. Soon, it seemed, the military was everywhere. “From then on I just couldn’t avoid running into large tracts of remote land that had been ruined by the military.”

In June, 1986, on one of his desert tours, he met Doc Bargen, co-founder of Concerned Rural Nevadans, a group of citizens who believed that the the Navy was intruding on public land and airspace. Bargen mentioned to Misrach a piece of public desert the Navy had been bombing for 40 years. Would he like to have a look?

The next day, Misrach followed Bargen and his partner, Dick Holmes, out to Bravo-20. Bargen and Holmes were intent on making the destruction one of the military’s worst-kept secrets. Misrach, with his national reputation, might be able to help. Misrach returned again and again to photograph the wasteland.

While researching a naval request for increased air rights in the state, Holmes and Bargen learned that the Carson Sink Desert belonged to the Bureau of Land Management. In fact, the BLM was involved in a squabble with the Navy that began in 1973 when the agency allowed Standard Oil to do some exploratory drilling in Carson Sink. A team of shaken engineers returned to inform the government that it could keep that piece of land, thank you: Standard Oil was not interested in filming post-apocalyptic movies.

Embarrassed by the disclosures of Holmes and Bargen, the Navy admitted in a congressional hearing in 1985 to having illegally bombed the land--and then tried to get it withdrawn from public use, permanently. In November, 1986, Bravo-20 was withdrawn until the year 2001; its fate and ownership will be decided then.

Meanwhile, the recently divorced Misrach had found an ally (and soon a romantic interest) in San Francisco journalist Myriam Weisang, who had written a piece on him for a national magazine. Misrach, who was already planning a book, needed a writer to tell the background story. He recruited Weisang.

The military’s need for desert training ground is obvious (especially now, with troops deployed in the Middle East), but what angers Misrach and Weisang about the Navy’s use of Bravo-20 is the arrogance of co-opting public property. One military official said of the area: “It’s a desert out there. Nothing grows on it.”

ADMIRERS OF MISRACH’S earlier work may find the Bravo-20 photographs rather static. While the “Desert Cantos” images were notable for its contrasts--red fires on sand-white terrain--and elements of surrealism--an empty swimming pool in a flooded desert town--the mood of the Bravo-20 shots is relentless.

Misrach’s proposal to turn the area into a park, an ode to military excess, adds a little whimsy. But the plan has serious support from UMA, the largest architectural firm in Nevada, which donated a model of the park to the exhibition.

Advance orders of the book are numerous, but some galleries are wary of booking the show; NEA grants are important, and “Bravo-20” is nothing if not political. Misrach, however, resents any implication that his work is unpatriotic. “The whole idea is of checks and balances,” he says. “The military should not abuse citizens’ rights, the law or the environment.”

But he doesn’t like the label “political artist.” “When people address me as an activist, I get very uncomfortable,” he says. “I’m trying to be a responsible adult, using the media and the language I developed to address things I care about. I mean, I still make pictures of clouds for the sheer stupid beauty of them. But I don’t think I’ll show those.”

Photos Courtesy of Jan Kesner Gallery