The Berkeley Art Museum is showing the photography of longtime Berkeley resident Richard Misrach, an artist perhaps best known for his images of bomb testing sites in deserts in the American West. The BAM show includes only some of those sometimes gruesome pictures of irradiated livestock corpses – via open books under tabletop glass – while emphasizing the chronological ends of Misrach’s career.
The early work, called “Telegraph 3AM” – black-and-white pictures of street culture taken along Telegraph Avenue in 1971-72 when Misrach was an undergrad – has been pushed into a small room off Gallery 2 at the museum. To visitors, walking into that room is an afterthought while examining the large, brilliantly colored prints of his newest work, “Golden Gate,” shot in 1997-2000 from his home in the Berkeley hills.
Misrach sees the “Telegraph 3AM” series as the lesser of the two. In 1971 he was 22 years old, learning the medium and the market of photography with those pictures. The Dorothea Lange-like images of hippies and radicals along Berkeley’s historically charged one-way street are marked more by despair than the political hope that the radical movement a few years earlier. Many of the gaunt faces stare into the lens with dulled and dazed eyes. One wonders if they are angry or hungry.
Berkeley residents might take a moment to identify the buildings along the famous Avenue or Julia, the bubble-blowing poetess. But most of the pictures are faces of forgotten street denizens. Like “Satan,” a cross-eyed poet wearing a fedora, or “Hawk and Dog,” a pair of men – one black one white – looking like leather-jacketed thugs.
Not all the photos were taken on Telegraph, and not all were taken at 3 a.m., but the title speaks to an epicenter of counterculture and of a time of night shared by both the disoriented and the liberated. Looking into the faces – or at the arm of a junky or the body of a naked young woman lying in a tent – conjures Kris Kristopherson’s famous line sung by hippie siren Janis Joplin: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In the picture “Alan,” the writing is literally on the wall: two listless in a tiny attic apartment, underneath a beam on which is scrawled, “part of our lives is waste…the other is want.”
Misrach said he doesn’t think of “Telegraph 3AM.” as an artistic achievement but rather a work of social documentary. The pictures on which both Misrach and the museum direct their attention is “Golden Gate,” 30 large-size prints (40x50 inches) of the Golden Gate bridge taken over a three-year period from the same point of view of Misrach’s own home in the Berkeley hills.
The series is in no way like “Telegraph 3AM.” The content, formal representation, and Misrach’s motivation behind taking the pictures are worlds apart from black-and-white social documentary. To make “Golden Gate” Misrach did not move his tripod for three years. It is exactly the same position 30 times over. The dazzling achievement of the pictures is the spectacular changes of light and color played out in clouds and mist and fog and the vagaries of atmospheric nuance. The pictures are not, as the title suggests, about the Golden Gate, although the bridge is centrally represented in each picture, but about the air around it.
Misrach’s consistent composition separates his photographs of the Bay Area’s most well known object from tourist postcards. The Golden Gate – with Alcatraz and Angel islands, the book ending spits of San Francisco and the Headlands, and the Berkeley pier poking up from frame’s edge – takes up about 10 percent of the bottom of the image. The vast majority of the each picture is the sky, huge and dramatic with its operatic cloud formations and supernatural color displays. But it is not supernatural; it’s perfectly ordinary if you look at the right time.
The simplicity of the idea – shoot the same view hundreds of times – is contradicted by the complexity of the medium. It’s the job of a camera to capture light in an instant, and in essence, to freeze time in emulsion. With repetition “Golden Gate” expands the instantaneous shudder-click into the successions of moving time.
“Day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute, the change in light was phenomenal,” said Misrach in the museum’s Gallery 2. By photographing the same vista over and over he has represented what “Telegraph 3AM,” and photography is resistant to.
There is an impossibly diverse range of images available from his one vantage point, and we want to project feelings into those images: claustrophobia, happiness, dread, awe. Nature, of course, is like the mechanical camera in being totally neutral.
Misrach’s beautiful abstractions lend themselves to the pondering of essential aspects of the medium. Light, time, point-of-view are the issues at hand. And Misrach’s images are beautiful in their formal precision and extraordinary color. He acknowledged that their beauty might distract from implied social and political message hidden in them.
Although the Golden Gate is a public object, getting a good view of it presupposes a certain privilege. Misrach said he was self-conscious about driving from his studio in the Emeryville flatlands to his home high in the Berkeley hills. In that commute he moved not through an aesthetic strata but an economic and social strata. He was able to take hundreds of pictures of that view in three years because he lived in a neighborhood with a great view of the bay.
His books of desert photos, the ones of bomb-test craters and dead-animal pits, all have accompanying text to explain the environmental and political context of the pictures. Even his “Telegraph 3AM” wordlessly connote the social culture of the early 1970s. While “Golden Gate” is a collection of gorgeous color and abstract shape, aesthetic and social issues are buried within them. Misrach knows it: “Photographs are complicated things.”