Richard Misrach on Landscape and Meaning is the latest (as of 2021) entry into Aperture’s “The Photography Workshop Series,” and, like others in the series, it’s something like a visiting artist’s lecture at a small state college somewhere in middle America, where almost no one has heard of the person. There are wildly useful and helpful nuggets interspersed, for those that will benefit, but it’s sufficiently general interest to bring some alumni and locals in that might contribute to the program.
If that sounds like “damned by faint praise,” well, I don’t mean it that way. The series is universally great, with some dips into excellence, and I’ve been gushingly complimentary for all of them. It’s just that the format is fairly well established now, I know very well what to expect, and so a sort of sameness has settled over them.
on Landscape and Meaning, like all other entries in the series, opens with an Introduction, this time by way of a conversation between Lucas Foglia and Meghann Riepenhoff, both of whom currently participate in the long-running “Library Candy” salon with Misrach and others in California. They describe meeting Misrach and finding themselves taken under his wing: one introduced to a collector, who bought work that enabled a few months of concentrated work on a project; the other, as a graduate student, stumbled into an opportunity to share some work with Misrach during a group review, and after which someone from Aperture called up on Misrach’s recommendation. It all makes him sound like a kindly uncle crossed with a generous colleague.
Following the Introduction, the real meat begins. Misrach writes about his background, career and process, each spread composed of some text on one side and an image on the other. Sometimes, he references the photograph directly; other times he talks about process or idea or project or whatever, without directly addressing the picture. The text, as with all the books in the series, is easy reading, and I flew through it in under an hour one Saturday morning.
Misrach, like many professional art photographers of his generation, had the expected trajectory: early years with 35mm led to decades in 8×10, which gave way to medium format digital. Misrach seems thrilled with the transformation, and readily admits to cloning out people and trees whatever from his digital photos, loves the cleaner aspect of digital (no chemicals in the darkroom) and one-time expense. With 8×10, back when he was shooting it all the time, it cost him at least $20 per shot (and it’d be quite a bit more today), every shot, every time, for years and years. He’d go out to the desert, shoot 100 frames, and boom, there went 2000 bucks. With large format digital, once you drop the 10 or 20 or 30 or 50K on a back, it’s all sunk cost after that, well, that and hours and hours in front of a computer screen.*
I don’t begrudge him this transition, and his digital work is no lesser (or greater) than his earlier work on film. Horses for courses, and all that, and if you listen to any professional photographer, art or otherwise, of Misrach’s generation, they mostly all say pretty much the same thing. And, really, it’s not about the tools anyway.
As with the other authors in the series, Misrach has some great things to say about process and all. I was particularly struck by a few points.
All photographs are a collection of facts, but the inflection is different. This is one of the great mysteries of photography: how we bring so much of ourselves to such a simple instrument.Misrach, Richard. ‘on Landscape and Meaning.’ Aperture, New York, 2020. p. 65. (emphasis mine)
…also so much depends on how you edit, what you decide to include in a body of work.
I trust whoever hits me at the moment and take the picture. I rely on the editing process to ultimately hone in on what I’m trying to say. Go out there and shoot everything. Then edit rigorously.
If you read this blog regularly, or, rather, if you’re one of the 2 or 3 people that ever look at any of the pictures I post, you know this is something I could work on… I probably won’t, not for this blog anyway. I mean, I shoot whatever catches my eye, and should I ever make another zine I’ll surely get on the editing train hard. And it’s nice to read an acomplished art photographer talk about process like this, and Misrach shares quite a few rejects.
I used to show Charles Sheeler’s straightforward black-and-white picture of a factory and have students respond to different titles. If you title it Industry, it sounds heroic and beautiful. Whereas if you title the picture Five Hundred Tons of Airborne Pollutants a Year, there’s a very different takeaway. If the image is titled Untitled, it tells you it’s high art.ibid. 93
I have an ambivalent relationship to words and photographs. … There have been periods in my career when I’ve felt that photographs should stand alone, but also times when words seemed critical as a way to attach meaning to a photograph….
Words are important… but only when they’re important, and I would do well to think about that, try to find some pictures that stand on their own. As you may know, I tend to blather on some.
Anyway. As with the other entries in Aperture’s “The Photography Workshop Series,” Richard Misrach on Landscape and Meaning is a great view into a photographer’s working process and thoughts on the craft, and there’s much more here than I’ve gone into.
You can find on Landscape and Meaning direct from Aperture. And at time of writing, they’re offering the entire series thus far—Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors and the Nude; Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation; Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Moment; Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment; Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities; and the new one from Misrach—for a decent price. I have (and have reviewed) all of them, and can more or less recommend all, even if after a half dozen now, they’re becoming a bit samey.
*I’m not convinced of the monetary aspect, but, then, I’d rather be out shooting than staring at a computer screen, so…