Since 1975 Richard Misrach has been photographing the deserts in the American West. Earlier segments of Misrach’s Desert Cantos depicted various aspects of the desert landscape such as man-made fires and floods, and events such as the space-shuttle landing. The previous Cantos addressed the state of our man-mauled environment through lyrical metaphor; the recent work from “The Pit” is unmistakably political. Juxtaposed with the monumental 40×50” prints, the following text sets the tone:
On March 24, 1953, the Bulloch brothers were trailing 2000 head of sheep across the Sand Springs Valley when they were exposed to extensive fallout from a dirty atomic test. Within a week first ewes began dropping their lambs prematurely– stunted, woolless, legless, potbellied. Soon full-grown sheep started dying in large numbers with the same symptoms — running sores with large pustules, and hardened hooves. Horses and cattle were found dead with beta burns. At final count, 4,390 animals were killed.
Initial investigation by government experts indicated that radiation was the cause. However, when the Atomic Energy Commission recognized the potential economic and political liability, all reports and findings were immediately classified. The AEC did not provide a public explanation — a dry year and malnutrition were blamed.
By combining historical facts and photographs of contemporary scenes, Misrach takes poetic – or rather political – license with the representation of events. These photographs, strangely elegant while sombre and brutal, recall a long history of elegiac art, though these specific photographs serve to forewarn more than to commemorate.
Considered one of the most significant and influential photographers working in color, Misrach in his recent work evidences an extraordinary sensitivity to light and its atmospheric effects on the land. His use of the cumbersome 8×10” view camera fills the photographs with dense and rewarding detail. Misrach has received numerous fellowships and awards including three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1973, 1977, 1984), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and the International Center for Photography Award for outstanding publication of 1987 (Desert Cantos, University of New Mexico Press).