Songs Of Silence

Richard Misrach's Spectacular 'Desert Cantos' Grace The Center for Creative Photography.
By Margaret Regan

CANTO, IN ITALIAN, is the word for song. In English, it's the name for each section of a long poem, like the cantos of Dante's Divine Comedy.

For almost 20 years, California photographer Richard Misrach has been engaged in a lyrical visual examination of the deserts of the American West, a project he quite rightly calls The Desert Cantos. Like the hero of an epic poem, Misrach has journeyed again and again into the heart of the nation's dry country, in a long sweep from Texas to Oregon. The thousands of images he's shot on these excursions have been organized into 18 separate cantos, each one a piece of the larger photographic poem. The short names of the cantos compress into a single word a world of meaning: The Terrain. The Inhabitants. Clouds. Fire. Skies.

About 200 pictures from this major work are now on view at the Center for Creative Photography in the stunning exhibition Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach. Curated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this mid-career retrospective for the 47-year-old photographer marks the first time all 18 of the cantos, and their prologue, have been included in a single show.

Gorgeous and extraordinary, the masterful color photographs of this epic, some measuring as big as 4-by-5 feet, endow the degradation of the post-wilderness West with a luminous, ironic beauty. Or as the poet W.B. Yeats might have put it, Misrach's photos capture the "terrible beauty" of the region's bomb craters and fake lakes, road scars and raging fires, Winnebagos and desert debris. In his hands, something as mundane as the red dining chairs and tables set out on the bleak sweep of Utah's salt flats ("Outdoor Dining, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah," 1992) takes on a meaning way beyond the literal. Like the row of non-native palms aflame in a desert scrub ("Desert Fire No. 1" (Burning Palms), 1983), the weird furniture in the wilderness suggests the tragic mismatch of our civilization with nature.

As Dante had the poet Virgil lead his readers from the Inferno to Paradise, Misrach guides his viewers through photographs documenting the deserts' heavenly beauty and their descent into hell. The pictures themselves are quiet and still, like the archetypal imagery of classic poems. The few people in them are types, generic soldiers or tourists or poor people. Despite this timeless quality, the pictures embody a barely concealed rage. Misrach calls himself a "pissed-off citizen," furious about the uses to which the deserts have been put. The whole of Canto IX: The Secret brings to light the abandoned sites in western Utah where the American military conducted the final research on the first nuclear bomb. He says the government still denies what went on there, but such pictures as "Shrapnel, Wendover Air Base, Utah," 1989, tell the lurid tale. Scraps of rust-colored bombs lie like mutilated corpses on the sickly yellow earth.

Misrach is nevertheless captivated by the deserts' austere beauty, their big skies, the transfiguring light of their golden sunsets. He's made a number of photos that are almost purely picturesque. Canto XVII: Deserts is a series of classical compositions charting the variegated loveliness of deserts, from Arizona's green Sonoran to Utah's white Salt Flats. A rugged 1991 picture called "Southern Nevada" is a monumental work worthy of the 19th-century explorer photographers. In the distance are dry tan rock peaks under a cloudy sky; in the foreground, a diagonal slash of red earth. And the pictures of Skies, the final canto in the series, are almost odes to pure color, like the orange glow under inky midnight blue in "Mecca, California, November 4, 1994, 6:29 a.m." But in almost every case, there's a hint of disturbance. That sky may owe some of its remarkable color to pollution. And it's just possible that erosion is compromising that red earth in Nevada.

Most of the time, though, the disturbances are straightforward. The Flood and Desert Seas chronicle belligerent human efforts to change natural ecosystems. "Submerged Trailer" shows hapless Winnebagos half under water in a flooded fake lake. In "Lake Mead No. 1, Nevada," the blue of the fake lake is a mere sliver in the grand sweep of a landscape of pale brown hills and chalk-white cliffs of the background. This picture is beautiful but deadpan. The lake has no business being there, but the colors and light of a desert sea are no less beguiling than those of a natural seashore.

Curator Anne Wilkes Tucker deals with these ironies in a catalog essay called "A Problem of Beauty." It's a problem and a criticism that has long bedeviled photographers. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange made grinding poverty beautiful, and through his extraordinary skills Misrach beautifies the horrors that he sees. But beauty does get our attention.

There's something mesmerizing about a picture like "Desert Fire No. 249," 1995, in which a line of golden flames stretches all across the long horizon, relentlessly consuming the scrub grass in its path. It's a poetic image to be sure, but it's poetry with a dramatic punch. Dante may have created God's hell, but it was a work of the imagination. In these photographs, documenting events that are all too real, Misrach shows how the West is creating an Inferno here on earth.

Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach continues officially through December 1 at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona; but the gallery will not open on December 1, the Day Without Art, an international observance held in memory of AIDS deaths. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information call 621-7968. TW

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