Untitled (Ocotillo) (1975)

Work by Misrach and scores of other photographers will be on view during Photo L.A., at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium from Jan. 19-21.


Photography is a dialectical art, often progressing through a sequence of apparent contradictions. Consider Richard Misrach's career.

In the early 1970s, he was photographing people on the streets of Berkeley in the wee hours of the morning. Working in the dark in that urban environment, it would have made sense to use a strobe, the way Weegee had used a flash in New York. Instead, Misrach asked his subjects to stand still in the available light for as much as a minute.

Eventually, he says, "I felt the need to escape from civilization and fled to the desert." In this setting, it might have seemed logical to work only with natural light. But now Misrach used a strobe to silhouette the plant forms he photographed. This one looks as unnatural as a bolt of lightning shooting out of the ground instead of down from the sky.

Ultimately, in a series Misrach called Desert Cantos, he went back to time exposures to photograph the sky itself. These pictures reveal the course of the stars in their orbits to have a beauty that even Misrach might not have realized was there, had he not discovered it so circuitously.

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