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'1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach'

September 25, 2011 |  1:39 pm


Bay Area photographer Richard Misrach has been exploring man's complex relationship with the natural landscape for nearly 40 years. In October 1991, fires blazed through his home turf, burning 1,500 acres in the hills of Oakland and Berkeley, destroying nearly 3,000 homes and killing 25 people.

A week after the devastating firestorm, he drove around the post-apocalyptic-looking landscape snapping photos of the aftermath. He stored them away out of respect for the victims.

Misrach has donated 33 of the (mostly) never-before-seen images to the Berkeley Art Museum and Oakland Museum of California Art, which will show "1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach" simultaneously in October.

Misrachblue"I wanted it to be more about the history, a slow meditation and reflective commemoration," said Misrach of his decision to wait 20 years and put distance from the event.

"The 10th anniversary may have been too raw," said Drew Johnson, curator of art photography at OMCA. "He's been very sensitive and respectful toward those affected. The timing is right now." Although none of the pieces are for sale, a limited-edition book published by Blind Spot ($75) is available, with all proceeds donated to charity.

An equally strong body of work is reflected in both museums' collections consisting of stark vistas and intimate details of destroyed homes. A congenial coin toss, alternating the seven picks, decided the varying selection from the series. From those, Misrach printed one 8-by-10-foot photo each of their choice.

Misrach uses a 19th century 8-by-10-inch view camera that allows more fine detail and grain. "It's a quieter way to study and contemplate views of our world," he said. He notes Civil War photographers such as Alexander Gardner as his biggest influences. "Their images are powerful and tell history like no other form." He likens images of lone, crumbling chimneys to similar ones in photos of Gen. Sherman's march through Atlanta.

Both institutions were also given 26 images that are installed in a grid.

Meltingtrike "This gives his body of work a different dimension," said Lucinda Barnes, chief curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. Handmade elegy books allow visitors to record their comments and share experiences.

Concurrently, the Berkeley museum is presenting a mini-retrospective of Misrach's work from its collection in another wing.

Born in Los Angeles, Misrach began his career in the early '70s documenting street life on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. Other notable works focused on the petroleum industry's toxic wastelands along the Mississippi River, an ongoing series called "Desert Cantos" and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

 "His landscape images encompass a political and social tension in a beautiful way that compels us to look and think about who we are and how we live," said Barnes.

The exhibition is on view Oct. 12 through Feb. 5 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Oct. 15 through Feb. 12 at the Oakland Museum of California.


Book Review: Destroy This Memory

— Liesl Bradner

 Images:  Untitled (OF 3-91: Binnacle Hill, with Highway 24, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge in background. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. Untitled (OF 68-91: Hydro-Seeded Landscape) University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. Bottom: Untitled (OF 107-91: Melted Tricycle) lent by the artist. © Richard Misrach 1991.