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A Closer Look -- 1991

cover of 1991
Richard Misrach's Desert Cantos is certainly one of the most celebrated bodies of work by an American photographer in the past 30 years. It is series that I continually look to. I am impressed at how many times Misrach has successfully changed his approach and evolved as an artist since photographing such an epic tale. For the viewer, his new book published by Blind Spot is a revisitation to Misrach's style of documenting the deterioration of a human imprint on a landscape. It's beautiful in its sadness and is an eye-opening reminder at how life can change in an instant.

1991 is a documentation of the Oakland Firestorm that took place between October 19th-20th, 1991. The devastation was tremendous with 790 structures becoming consumed by the fire in the first hour, a home igniting every 11 seconds. In the end more than 3,000 homes and over 400 apartment units were destroyed and an estimate of up to 30,000 people were evacuated with another 10,000 left homeless. To state the obvious, it is a staggering number. Right after the fire, Misrach crossed into the fire zone with his 8x10" view camera and photographed what he found. This work has largely been unseen prior to this publication and concurrent exhibition due to Misrach's consideration for the families affected. My assumption is that this delay in showing the work also has to do with how personal this series of images are for the Berkley based artist.

from the book 1991
from the book 1991
Unlike the first volume in the Blind Spot Series -- Stephen Shore's The Hudson Valley -- 1991 is a large book, large enough to display the full frame 8x10" negatives with a little room left over. Throughout the book are also a number of triple gatefolds, simply displayed, but telling of the tragedy of Misrach's narrative, one that tells several sides of the catastrophe of loss. There are scenes of destroyed homes and cars, and also photographs of food and water left out for pets alongside signs hoping that someone find will their missing cat or dog. These images grab at your attention, allowing the viewer to consider what they would need to leave behind with only minutes to flee. 

from the book 1991
from the book 1991
To me this book feels like a classic. Sure, the photographs were taken more than two decades ago. The subject is singular, although it holds many complexities. But it speaks to the timelessness of misfortune, a disastrous event that has happened before and will certainly happen again. While I have enjoyed and admired Misrach's evolution of photographic practice, it is also nice to step back and visit this newly released older body of work. -- Antone Dolezal

Purchase a copy of 1991