‘A Lot of My Work Is Very Tough’: Watch Photographer Richard Misrach Mine His Archive to Find Beauty Hidden in Suffering

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the “Extended Play” film “Richard Misrach: Never the Same.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

When the Pritzker Psychiatry Clinic commissioned photographer Richard Misrach to make all of the art for its San Francisco-based campus, he was shocked. The artist is one of the most accomplished contemporary photographers working today, but his subjects often tend toward darkness, as he is quick to note.

“A lot of my work is very tough,” the artist admits, and a few of his subjects “could be a potential trigger”. These include so-called Cancer Alley—the 85-miles along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where over 150 petrochemical refineries are stationed, and where residents are 50% more likely to develop cancer—as well as the border wall in Mexico, and military bombing ranges. Not exactly soothing stuff.

But when Misrach got the call from the Pritzker Clinic, in the middle of the pandemic, and was unable to undertake his usual extensive road trips to shoot new material, he turned instead to his vast archive of prints and negatives. In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the Extended Play series, Misrach explains how his thwarted travel plans prompted him to reevaluate decades worth of work.

Production still from the “Extended Play” film “Richard Misrach: Never the Same.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

Production still from the “Extended Play” film “Richard Misrach: Never the Same.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

When I look back on my works, it’s a time machine” Misrach says, “It triggers memories that otherwise are gone.” Although the artist’s is best knowns for bearing witness to troubling scenes of environmental degredation and human and animal suffering, looking through some 30,000 negatives and shelves upon shelves of contact sheets, Misrach realized that he had captured moments of beauty and serenity too. “You see these small figures in this vast sublime ocean and you realize how vulnerable we are,” he explains.

Using digital tools in Photoshop, Misrach was able to create wholly new works of art from images shot decades before. “Photographs, when they’re made, can shift meaning with time, and often do.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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