If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Richard Misrach, Border Cantos

Video by Art21 

A pioneer of large-format color photography, Richard Misrach has photographed the American desert for decades, examining the impact of human activity on the natural landscape. From his Berkeley studio, the artist recounts his early work, "Telegraph 3 AM," in which he depicted the homeless population of 1970s Berkeley. Disillusioned with the commercial success of his photographs that he hoped would instigate social change, Misrach turned to the deserts of southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. Creating otherworldly images of cacti and rock formations and unsettling pictures of military bombing ranges, nuclear test sites, and man-made fires, for his ongoing "Desert Cantos" series, Misrach explains how “our culture stands out in very clear relief in the desert.” The artist recounts the origins of his "Border Cantos" series, which focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the artifacts left behind by migrant crossings. This segment follows the artist as he travels to remote parts of the desert, photographing the visual contradiction of the ominous wall against beautiful landscapes and collaborating with the composer Guillermo Galindo to create installations and musical performances that utilize the items found in the desert. Collectively, Misrach’s work chronicles the places where nature and culture collide, highlighting where beauty and ugliness exist side-by-side.

Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/richard-misrach/

CREDITS | Executive Producer: Tina Kukielski. Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Directors: Rafael Salazar Moreno and Ava Wiland. Producer: Ava Wiland. Editors: Rafael Salazar Moreno and Russell Yaffe. Director of Photography: Rafael Salazar Moreno. Production Services: RAVA Films. Assistant Curator: Danielle Brock. Associate Producer: Julia Main. Post-Production Coordinator: Alexandra Lenore Ashworth. Design & Animation: Momentist, Inc. Composer: Joel Pickard. Additional Music: Amalia Mondragón. Advising Producer: Ian Forster. Additional Art21 Staff: Lauren Barnett, Lolita Fierro, Joe Fusaro, Meghan Garven, Jonathan Munar, and Emma Nordin. Additional Photography: Elan Alexenberg, Robert Biggs / Phoenix Drone Pros, Gina Clyne, Adrian Gutierrez, Nick Kraus, Christoph Lerch, and Alejandro Almanza Pereda. Tijuana Field Producer: Yadira Avila. Location Sound: Ariel Baca, Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach, Nikola Chapelle, Michael Cottrell, Rayell Abad Guangorena, Veronica Lopez, Baili Martin, Nathalie Piché, Chris Tolan, and Ava Wiland. Production Assistants: Ben Derico, Jake Grossman, Jacquelin de Hoyos, Keira Kennedy, Zac Settles, and Jorge Villarreal. Digital Intermediate: Cut + Measure. Post-Production Producer: Alex Laviola. Colorist: David Gauff and Jerome Thélia. Post-Production Sound Services: Konsonant Post. Re-Recording Mixer & Sound Editor: Gisela Fullà-Silvestre. Online & Conform: David Gauff. Additional Animation: Andy Cahill. Assistant Editor: Jasmine Cannon, Jonah Greenstein, and Mengchen Zhang. Translation: Ava Wiland and Russell Yaffe. Video Quality Control: Jonathan Hansen. Artwork Courtesy: Tanya Aguiñiga, Guillermo Galindo, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Richard Misrach, Postcommodity / Cristóbal Martínez & Kade L. Twist, Bockley Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery, Pace Gallery, and Volume Gallery. Archival Materials: AMBOS Project; Antimodular Research; AP Archive; Aperture Artbound / KCET; Isaac Arnstein / Cinewest Archives; Jenna Bascom, Courtesy of Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Border Art Workshop / Taller de Arte Fronterizo; Cecilia Brawley; Critical Past; Cory Doctorow; Sam Wainwright Douglas / Big Beard Films; Benjamin Duffield / Fierce Bad Rabbit Pictures; Filmoteca UNAM; Jason Grubb; John McNeil studios; NASA; Pond5; and Jack Snell. Public Relations: Cultural Counsel. Station Relations: De Shields Associates, Inc. Legal Counsel: Barbara T. Hoffman, Esq. Interns: Shane Daly, Grace Doyle, Eda Li, Daniela Mayer, Jason Mendoza, Nikhil Oza, Anika Rahman, Ana Sanz, Sara Schwartz, Victoria Xu, and Sadie Yanckello. Major underwriting for Season 10 of "Art in the Twenty-First Century" is provided by PBS, National Endowment for the Arts, Lambent Foundation, The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Toby Devan Lewis, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Henri Lambert, Nion McEvoy & Leslie Berriman, and Sakana Foundation. Series Creators: Susan Dowling and Susan Sollins. ©2020 Art21, Inc.
Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

[gravel crunching] - It's kind of a magical process, the photographing process. [soft music] Just follow me and I'll let you know if I see a snake. - Okay. - I'll come out here. I'm looking at the light. I'm looking at the content. I'm--I'm thinking about everything at once. In the end, I'm kind of working it instinctively. All right. After all these years of--of doing that, I'm--sometimes I can feel the photograph. It's-I think it's, like, more like the way a poem works. It's a number of words together that once you put them together, it kind of triggers things. It's not always obvious. It just keeps--it keeps haunting or hounding you in a way. When I first started making serious photographs, I wasn't thinking about social documentary and political work, but because I was exposed to everything around me, in the late '60s, the whole world was just going wild with politics. I saw this kind of idea of taking these tools, this language of fine art photography and applying it to the street. And I began the "Telegraph 3 A.M." project that way. I think I was 20, 21 years old then, 22. That was kind of the first major project that I really learned the language of photography with that project, and it was by kind of just going back over and over and over again, just learning, making mistakes and going back. But once the book came out, I started realizing that I thought I was gonna change the world with this work by showing people things that they hadn't seen before. But in fact, it just helped my career. That just felt-- that felt wrong. After "Telegraph 3 A.M.," when I was kind of disillusioned with my own work, or my effort, I said I'm not gonna photograph people, and I was looking kind of in search of the miraculous. Rather than thinking about the political world, I wanted to go and remove myself from it all and just go on this-- this journey. I just got this idea one night. Cactus were these mystical forms in the desert, and then I was gonna go and photograph them, and I started photographing at night and experimenting. Not yet, but soon. I really like working at night. It gave me a fresh language that very few people had ever used in photography. That was that moment. That was--that was it. That was the turn--I'm getting chills, actually. [solemn music] For me, that became a place where my mind just--just took off. I had fallen in love with the desert. I didn't know at that point that I would ever be thinking about the political consequences of the desert. Those are not issues that were in my consciousness at that point, and when I did go back without a political agenda, then I started noticing things that I didn't even think about. Things like military bombing ranges, the nuclear test site, space shuttle landings, manmade fires, manmade floods. I was constant reconciling this idea of the beauty of the place and ugliness exist side by side in the American desert west. The desert was a vast stage where everything that happened there kind of projects onto the rest of America. I was also at the same time reading Ezra Pound's 50-year-long epic poem called "The Cantos," and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I was trying to do was create an epic poem in photography, taking these photo essays, putting them together, and renaming them as "Cantos." "The Desert Cantos" started in 1979. Now I'm "Desert Canto Number 40." The way all my desert cantos start, I make one picture and it suggests the possibilities of the others. And I just saw this blue barrel and the blue flag in the middle of nowhere. I just photographed it. I didn't even know what it was. Wasn't until many years later I learned that different humanitarian groups would put water out for migrants coming across the border. I decided to do a whole series of them, and I would find these in every state, you know, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. So this photograph was the first one that gave me the idea that's kind of became the border cantos. So I spent the next five years traveling along the U.S.-Mexico border from the coast where the wall goes into the ocean all the way to the Texas Gulf of Mexico. One of the things I've learned from the series is that until you go see this place yourself, you have no idea what's really going on there. You look out in the distance there, you can see the end of the wall, so we're--it's gonna take a little while to drive there, but we're on our way. The walls end. It just stops abruptly. And there's not a Border Patrol agent in sight. There's only 680 miles of actual wall along the 2,000 mile border and they generally put them in areas that are densely populated. And the idea is, is that, if they push people out to the ends, it'd be so dangerous for them to cross into wilderness area that they would die. So they would--it would be so dangerous that people wouldn't go. It would discourage people from actually going across the border. That didn't work. In fact, many people-- more people have died since they built these walls with these ends. [soft music] It's a beautiful landscape here. Very pastorale, you know. It's just kind of remarkable how lovely and miracle the landscape is and it's--it's weird to have the--the wall just kinda breaking it up. Seems sinister. [disquieting music] When I first met Guillermo, he was performing an instrument that he created-- that he had made out of objects found on the border. I had just photographed the effigies along the border and a light went off, I went, "Oh, my God, this could be a great collaboration." [bang, string music playing] - It's interesting because we have the-- the same aesthetic and the same way to approach the border issues. If you see art of the border, sometimes it's about taking certain political view about it. But our work is more about opening spaces. It's about absence. [somber music] People is not there, you know, it's just the evidence of what happens, what keep happening. - You take a minute, stop and think about this crucifix that you find--why is that there? What were they running from? All along the border, you'd find human artifacts. It's devastating. Just--sometimes its fields of them. I wanted them to be like scenes of the crime, so I would photograph them often just with my cellphone. Straight on, just like evidence. And then Guillermo turned them into instruments. So I use different photographic strategies to convey ideas. For the wall, often I'll wait to the perfect light, and you know, I'll come back and photograph over and over and over. I want to create that monumentality of the anti-monuments. I want to make them so beautiful that you have to look and think about them. To really slow down and consider and just think, this doesn't look right. Is--is it right? It's hard for art to really solve problems, but I've come to believe that art is a really important way of communicating not only with current generations, but future generations. Some of my work, whether it's a Telegraph Avenue, whether it's "Petrochemical America," the photographs of Cancer Alley and the Mississippi River corridor, or the Bravo 20 bombing range, or the Oakland fire in 1991. Those things will remind you of something that we may very well forget. All my photographs are about America, and that's both the challenge that it faces, the problems with it, but also its beauties, and I think it's all there. It's all there. It's exquisite land. It's exquisite country. And the future of the country depends a lot on how we think about places like this. What do you think? I wish we had some food for you. Hi, sweetheart. Hi. Do you want to go home with me? Can I pet you? Maybe not, huh? Is this goodbye? Bye-bye. Hasta la vista, baby. [laughing]