National Gallery: The Runner Stumbles

© Richard Misrach

It had to happen sometime, nobody is perfect. And so the National Gallery which has stunned me with back to back photo exhibitions of Foto Modernity in Central Europe, the Art of the American Snapshot, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, follows up this impressive trilogy with the very contrived and pedestrian “On the Beach” photographs by Richard Misrach meant to show the lingering terror and malaise in a post 9/11 society. The photographs themselves are beautiful large format large scale 10×6 ft; 10×8 ft photographs of people on a Hawaiian beach taken from Mr. Misrach’s hotel room where he returned year after year to pursue this series (I’m totally hip to not suffering for your art – I myself like a good road trip to Kissimmee when the weather gets blustery in the mid-Atlantic).

But the work itself leaves me cold. In part because of the willingness of the docent giving the tour to swallow Mr. Misrach’s statement, hook line and sinker “The people on the beach covering themselves in towels are they not akin to someone wearing a straight-jacket?” Of course! Abu Ghraib! How sublime! “The people in the ocean, alone, isolated [sometimes thanks to the prudent use of the photoshop erase feature] are they not showing fear? angst?” Right! Just like we all did when our skies filled with supersonic bombers in the days following 9/11. I tried to sell the well-healed docent some property in Iowa City (she collects Misrach too!), there is plenty of water there in which to isolate yourself, and is not the rising water like the wrath of the terrorist networks??  Perhaps she did not fall for my spin as I, unlike Mr. Misrach, did not arrive “all California surfer in jeans and a t-shirt.”  Apparently this really impressed her as well.  First impressions, and all that.

Taking me completely by surprise is a review by the WAPosts Blake Gopnik that was very simpatico with my feelings. This is a first! You can read it here.

The work is beautiful. Like a postcard from the beach or a Thomas Kinkade beach scene. The only one that interested me slightly was a picture showing a large group of people on the beach and thanks to the 8×10 negative and the large print you could really examine the details of everyone on the beach. He’s reading the Home Section! She uses Tropicana spf 8! But it’s just like solving a jigsaw puzzle and admiring your work. It’s sort of the mindless suck of the large-format, large-scale photograph.

Full disclosure: I am lamenting the lack of interest in what I call moments in well-known contemporary photography. The waiting for the unscripted that captured within a rectangle resonates in the viewer as a moment of captured history, mundane or not. It seems to me that a lot of tastemakers do not care one whit for this, but prefers static landscapes sexied up under the nomer of new topographics. This is my bias. I like this stuff too, just not so much all the time.

It’s as if the steady stream of imagery as inured us to all but the simplest tableaux, the chaos of the un-orchestrated natural moment gets left behind as our 10 second attention spans fail to grasp it as a cohesive whole. The other thing I take umbrage with is this appropriation of the hot button topics of the day (and I do not mean to diminish their importance by the usage of the term hot button) into art work that bears not even the slightest tangential relationship. I think you can guess how I feel about work derived from taking candy from a baby and then slugged with sexy headlines of the day. I completely appreciate being inspired from our modern malaise and how that can translate into image making – there are many degrees to this-

The fact remains that “On the Beach” is no Guernica.

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11 thoughts on “National Gallery: The Runner Stumbles

  1. Thanks Susana, I am so glad to see your review. When I saw the images on-line, together with their explanation, I could not figure out what the heck was going. I thought perhaps I was missing something,but on the whole,my reaction was similar to yours.

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  2. I really struggle with this myself–this New Topographies approach that pervades contemporary photography today. I bought your zine and Allison V. Smith’s zine, and I was blown away by both. I don’t know if I’ve just spent too much time looking at the other stuff, but I felt, when looking at your work and Allison’s, like there was an energy there that’s become far too rare. It’s not an either/or, of course–there’s room for everyone–but I liked this post because it expressed so clearly what I perceive to be your own approach to photography, whether you intended it to or not.

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  3. Christian, Wow! I love your work – thanks for chiming in. Someday, when and if, I had nothing to lose, I’d love to make a body of work and then paste something ludicrous but sexy explanation to it: this work is representative of my birthing process and how i did not want to leave the womb, and the shock and isolation i have felt ever since being separated from the placenta – to go with pictures of snake holes or some such silliness. It would actually be a fun series, like Martin Parr’s love cubes, paste the artist statement with it’s body of work. Good times!

    Liz, I love new topographies and I don’t place Mr. M’s work in that mode – his is more the succulent 8×10 eye candy augmented by spectacularly topical but completely unrepresentative artist statement and enabled by the curatorial powers-that-be. i want some of that action ; )

    I just lament that i see a redundancy out there and maybe, like you have expressed in the past, it’s because i should get offline and shoot more – which I have been doing (but working with a 4×5 which thus far has totally prevented me from producing anything moment driven but more topographic ironically), but am working on copyright registration right now, so the fingers will wander!!! I totally appreciate you seeing an energy in mine and the divine Ms. Smith’s work that I do feel when I’m photoraphing – a connection to subject, moment, and my own personal statement is the mixture i’m going for. But damn it, the National Gallery just doesn’t buy it – so I guess I’m just bitter!!! ; )

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  4. Yeah, I didn’t think you were saying that Misrach’s project was part of the New Topographics movement or anything. . . . You just said, “It seems to me that a lot of tastemakers do not care one whit for this, but prefers static landscapes sexied up under the nomer of new topographics,” and I took that and ran with it in another direction, as I’m wont to do. 😉

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  5. I’ve long railed against this particular body of work as something truly poor (though admittedly printed gloriously), but it’s just how we do things these days, right? There is so much out there art-wise that rubber stamping the names that are already in the cool club (see every major photo magazine, ahem) is easier than digging through the mess to find something new or important. The very fact that someone didn’t smack Misrach in the face with a large frozen tuna (I can bring one back from Japan if needed, there are millions here) when he made the “9/11 reminded me of a beach” explanation shows how disconnected things have become.

    This conversation actually reminds me again of the sad news of Tim Russert’s passing, and the loss of one of the few broadcast journalists who has the intelligence, bravery, or license to stop the idiotic “left” vs. “right” talking point blitz. Just as in journalism, we need more people who can scream “stop!” and argue for some things to be clear in contemporary photography. Or maybe we should all just pony up to the bar and drink the Kool-Aid.

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  6. Wow. You’re right, everyone needs a Tim Russert. His passing has really cast a pall over this town. Who is contemporary photography’s Tim Russert? We’ve got a lot of Chris Matthews for sho.

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  7. Yes! Exactly, a photographer like Nina Berman can visually contextualize a specific idea/feeling and walks the fine line between being overly literal and overly abstract. Love her work.

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