Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On The Beach by Richard Misrach

In 2005 when the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco published Richard Misrach’s book Chronologies I thought to myself, retrospective books do not get much better than this.

The printing was beautifully done by Trifolio in Verona. The design is great; contemporary and clean. Fabio Cutro and Dana Faconti of Blind Spot Inc were the two designers on this project and big thank you is necessary. With its clear plastic dust jacket and choice of the full bled ‘beach sand’ image that wraps around from the front to the back cover (and into the inside endpapers…damn sand gets everywhere), it does not announce itself initially as a “photobook.” But once you get inside, there are no texts, just photographs ordered chronologically and spanning Misrach's long career.

It is a challenging design in that it requires the book to be oriented in your hands differently (or on your lap…it’s a heavy one) with the spine appearing at the top of the book. And then towards the end of the book, the last 11 images are turned on the page to take advantage of the full width of the double spread. I like the fact that it forces you to shift the book in your hands when you get to those pictures.

The trim size is large so most images are at least 11 by 14 inches on the page. The choice of paper etc., everything was taken into consideration and done correctly. It probably was a very expensive book to produce but worth every additional cost. If you missed out on this one and you are interested in Misrach then do yourself a favor and avoid looking at a friend’s copy…it’ll just torture you.

So…when Aperture announced that they were publishing a book of Richard Misrach’s beach photographs, I thought that there was no way that they could match the wonderful job done on Chronologies. I was wrong.

On The Beach is as much a work of art as the photographs are themselves. The book brings together 38 images in a super large format book that will not fit on any bookshelf. With a trim size of 16 by 20 inches, the images are huge and necessarily so.

These are images that are about the scale and relationship of man to nature. Misrach amplifies nature’s vastness in his frames so when the tiny human figures seem enveloped by the water and sand, their vulnerability is felt. Seemingly unconcerned or unaware, the figures continue to relax or frolic within a landscape that appears tranquil but for an underlying sense of danger. Our own individual attitudes and relationships with the ocean will determine how much danger one feels but when Misrach turns the water dark, the shoreline is nowhere to be seen and a lone figure is spotted barely noticeable in the waves, the tone is of a threat to life. Nature is in control (and uncontrollable) and to put up a fight would be pointless.

All of the images achieve a vantage point that is high above our subjects but remarkably the photographs are not vertiginous; even when Misrach’s lens is pointed directly downward on the subjects. For me, they achieve a sensation that we are not looking at these views through the eyes of another human being but through the eyes of a higher power. The camera often seems impossibly high and yet does not give away any tell tale sign of how the camera achieves this height. This gives us the impression of floating and observing but being very separate from those on the ground.

The images that include swimmers that have ventured far from shore (Misrach often disturbingly avoids reference to the shoreline) the bathers seem to be venturing out into deep water to either understand something more about the forces of nature or perhaps to learn something more about themselves. One image of five figures wading to shore look as if they have given up the search for knowledge that may be implied by the vast expanse of sea in the opposite side of the frame from where they are heading. They aren’t quite being banished from the sea; they just look a bit defeated by their attempt to cope with it on human terms.

Many of the other images revel in the forms and shapes of the figures on the shoreline or floating in the water. A couple embraces in deep water, a young man floats right in the breakers along the shoreline. In those images, the water is clear and seductive blue; warm and comforting, and people give themselves willingly to the water.

In a brief afterward Richard Misrach writes:

The photographs that appear in On the Beach were made between January 2002 and November 2005. I was drawn to the frailty and grace of the human figure in the landscape. My thinking about this work was influenced by the events of 9/11, particularly by the images of individuals and couples falling from the World Trade Towers, as well as by the 1950’s Cold War novel and film, On The Beach. Paradise has become an uneasy dwelling place; the sublime sea frames our vulnerability, the precarious nature of life itself.

As I mentioned before, the size of this book is impressive and that aspect can be overwhelming. Some of the photographs reach almost three feet long. Admittedly, when I first opened the protective box that the book comes housed in and saw what was in store just from the cover image, I felt like I was going to have to take a few moments and try to breathe calmly into a paper bag.

Aperture and Misrach brought together all of the production players from the Chronologies book for this project. Sue Mendicott oversaw the book’s production and Fabio Cutro and Dana Faconti contributed their vast talents to the book’s design. Leslie A. Martin served as the book’s editor. It is published in an edition of 5,000 copies.

The only problem with the book that I can foresee is simply that it may not physically “age” well due to its extreme size. Readers will have to take extra care in turning the pages as their size increases the occurrence of dimples and creases even with careful handling.

So be very careful (or buy a second copy for the future), this is a book that you will want to last as long as possible.

Book Available Here (On The Beach)

Book Available Here (Chronologies)

Book Available at Aperture