Since the 1970s, photographer Richard Misrach has been known for his haunting large-scale images of desert and sky that collectively, if often subtly, reflect Man’s effect on the World. His most recent work, now on view in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, takes a look at the World’s effect on Man.
Borrowing the title On the Beach from Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, Misrach’s latest photo series also draws on the book’s post-apocalyptic themes: These pictures show people at play and in relaxation at oceanside in Hawaii, but they were made in the aftermath of 9/11, lending them “the intimation of danger in paradise,” according to advance press. The isolated figures, shot from a hotel balcony with no horizon line, reflect the eeriness and ominous fear that Misrach sensed in the national mood following the attacks.
Such an underlying theme is subtle enough to be lost on most viewers — indeed, as the American Photo staff reviewed last year’s On the Beach coffee table book (Aperture, $85), we noticed the book’s huge 11×21-inch span and oddly distanced mood but not its historic backdrop. Like Neil Young’s enigmatic 1974 album On the Beach (also inspired by Shute’s novel), this project follows its source tangentially and with a willfully enigmatic shrug from the artist. And as with earlier Misrach studies of man vs. nature, this work requires a closer look before all the rewards emerge. — Jack Crager