This Week In Photography Books: Richard Misrach

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last week, I wrote about conflict of interest. Or at least I mentioned it. Which was a first.

These days, when everybody is connected to everyone else, it becomes much more difficult to speak the truth. We become co-opted by our relationships, occasionally, and I do wonder how often I’m affected.

I’ve worked hard to write with honesty in this space, and I hope it’s branded me a straight shooter. (Or more likely a big-mouth. So be it.)

Where am I going with this? I’m currently in the second article of a short series about the Medium Festival of Photography. It was founded by a very good friend of mine, and I went to review portfolios for APE and Lens, and to deliver a public lecture about my work.

As I’ve already written, the festival was truly exceptional. Will you believe me, knowing I’ve got a personal connection? Medium certainly invited me knowing I’d write about my experience there. (Which was overwhelmingly positive.)

But what about the bad stuff? Will I be critical, or will I keep my mouth shut? I’ve been asking myself that very question. What to do?

It’s funny, but the one dark mark on my time there had nothing to do with Medium, per se. And still I feel awkward sharing. But I will. (Can’t. Stop. Fingers. From. Typing.)

I almost-met a fellow artist and blogger at Medium, and was seriously put off by his boorish behavior. I’ve already written about his book, and reviewed it very positively. So there was no prior bad blood.

Doug Rickard, who appropriated and photographed images of poor people on Google Street View, gave me the velvet-rope-ignore-treatment, on three separate occasions. I was taken aback, as it had been a while since anyone pretended I didn’t exist, from such a short distance. (18 inches. I could practically smell his breath.)

Mr. Rickard lectured directly after me, and came very close to shoving me out of the way to get to the podium. He didn’t even muster the obligatory head nod, or half smile, that most civilized people would. It was like a microcosm of high school. He was the burly jock, and I was the black-clad artsy kid, not significant enough to acknowledge.

I write this knowing many of you will read these words as vengeful. I’ll show him! (Shakes fist.) Who does he think he’s dealing with? It’s inescapable, that you’ll think this.

I should add, Mr. Rickard was a pretty big guy, like a Sacramento version of an amateur SoCal motor-cross racer. (Replete with a flat-brim, bro-style baseball hat.) He might genuinely try to kick my ass. So that’s another reason to keep my moth shut. In addition to looking petty, and disappointing my friend Scott.

So why dish? Because I think the mere fact that I feel this uncomfortable telling the truth, after years of bragging about my propensity to do so, makes this a worth-while endeavor. And it’s also a hugely teachable moment for the rest of us.

There is no privacy anymore. It’s gone. Mourn it as you will, but it’s not coming back. Our behavior is a reflection of our brand, and our reputation. No matter how successful you are, you need to treat people well, or it will come out. Whether it’s Terry Richardson facing boycotts, or this dick Doug getting outed on the Internet.

My lecture, just before his, focused on the genuine effort necessary to see symbols in the world and embed them in art. To recognize connections. To choose to make meaning from life, whether you believe it resides there inherently or not. We say it every day, right? We’re all connected. What does that even mean?

I’d mentioned Mr. Rickard’s work in my lecture, as I showed a project I’d done in 2006-7, in which I photographed the computer screen. The resulting photos were absurd and random pixelated portraits, fragments from jpegs I’d stolen from various dangerous parts of the Internet. I don’t typically show the pictures, as I felt the series was too derivative of Chuck Close’s aesthetic. I gave Mr. Rickard a shout out for getting it right.

And of course, Mr. Rickard was also a member of Richard Misrach’s young artist salon. We reported on that after Mr. Misrach’s lecture in Tucson last year, when he’d shown work by several younger Bay Area artist friends of his. I felt awkward telling you guys about it, as it seemed like the epitome of the incestuous behavior at the heart of this now-rambling article.

My pixelated portraits might go over well one day, or I might keep them in a drawer. Regardless, I haven’t seen that many things quite like them.

So you’ll appreciate my shock at reaching into my book stack, and discovering “11.21.11 5:40pm,” a new book by Richard Misrach, published by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. (Whose Gallery Director I know from his days in Santa Fe.) If you’re ready to hear about a book, congratulations. You made it. And what day is it now? (I delivered the article to Rob on 11.21.13)

This book is strange, and you likely won’t want to buy it. It’s conceptual enough that it might seem too narrow for a collection, given the price. (Or perhaps it’s meant mostly for collectors. What do I know?) But it also happens to be one of the most interesting books I’ve seen in my time as a book reviewer.

It opens with a view of a couple down on a beach, seen from a terrace above. I was immediately reminded of Mr. Misrach’s other ocean-and-beach-based projects. That’s where the similarities end.

We notice that the young couple is taking a dual-selfie. Or joint- selfie? A couplie? What’s the proper nomenclature here?

No matter.

Each subsequent page turned reveals a closer version of the previous photo. It devolves to pixels, and then the black of a presumably singular pixel. (Like the deep black of that awful Sopranos ending. David Chase: you’re better than that.)

Then. A surprise.

The image begins to resolve again. Pixels. And then a pixelated portrait. Finally, the image is sharper still, and we see that we’re looking at the portrait of the couple. The one that they actually took of themselves.

What? How did he get that? What the f-ck is going on here?

Awesome. A little worm-hole gem. So odd and smart and surreal. I love it. But will you want to actually own it? That’s another question.

It’s taken me almost ten days now, since I returned from San Diego, to get my head together. It’s forced me to ask some hard questions.

You’ve got to make up your own mind about how much you think I’m holding back, these days. I’d like to think I put my integrity out there each week, but this is one big icy-yet-twig-strewn slippery slope. It’s new territory, and through this column, you’ve come along for the ride.

So I hope to continue to earn your trust, and I’ll endeavor to keep it real. But there are now layers to be parsed, and I accept that’s going to happen. Medium expected I’d be me, and I’m sure they’re now thinking that if the worst thing I can say about them is that one of their lecturers was rude…they’re doing pretty well.

It’s helpful to be reminded, though, that we need to take a hard look in the mirror. In a networked world, in which we all become beholden to one another, it’s good to be conscious that it’s happening.

We need to be willing to speak its name. Like Voldemort. Or Beetlejuice. Or Ron Burgundy. Who’s now shilling for Dodge. You dig?

Bottom Line: Fantastic, conceptual book by a major art star

To Purchase “11.21.11 5:40pm” Visit Photo-Eye

Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. It’s a one trick pony for sure- but one helluva trick! One I’d be willing to pay for, if I had the money to pay for it.

    Maybe ol’ Rickard was just having a bad day, or maybe he truly is a dyed in the wool asshole, I’ll defer to you on that. But then, none other than Josef Koudelka proved himself one when he chose to speak only about “the land” when it came to his most recent work- as if you can divorce “the land” from everything else it is a part of. And you can add Salgado to the list, defending the mining company who funded him that continues to rape and plunder the land unabated. Not to mention Ron Haviv who defends selling his photos to weapons manufacturers- the aftermath which he can then photograph in the most humanistic manner.

    And did I mention…

    • Stan,
      Once again, I appreciate that you engage with this column, and the world of photography in general, with a critical eye. We don’t always agree, but you continue to engage honestly.

      jb

  2. I think it is not the picture of the couple, yet the device looking back at them (since it is reversed); gives a sense of being watched from afar as well as from the device in their hand. Kind of creepy, I like it.

  3. FYI the couple on the beach, they are Richards son and daughter in law who were vacationing in Hawaii with Richard.

  4. blake andrews

    I think the actions of Salgado and Haviv are easier to interpret, since they are the obvious result of conscious strategies over time. Josef Koudelka’s non-speaking about something seems way more fuzzy to me. And interpreting the silent gesture of a colleague as cold shoulder involves even more guesswork. Maybe the lack of expected head nod or verbal salutation was an act of aggression. Or possibly just a non-event. Hard to know for sure. But in any case, its public documentation might be interpreted as a shot across the bow.

  5. scott Rex Ely

    What would the art world be without drama?
    Isn’t this whole review thing the epitome of a self fulfilling prophesy?

  6. Drama aside, I like the concept of this book, but would only think of buying it if it had, maybe, five or six other similar stories included… When I first saw it, I assumed that was the case and went to the link to investigate more, thinking I might buy it if the price was right.

    p.s. It’s ‘motocross.’ One word, no ‘r’ after moto. :-)