Scenes of Devastation: Richard Misrach 1991
On the 20th anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm, the East Bay’s renowned photographer unveils his haunting images.
© Richard Misrach
Richard Misrach was driving on the freeway when he saw the plume of smoke in the hills. But the photographer had no intention of shooting the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm.
A few days later, Misrach, who was living in Emeryville at the time, went up to the hills with a friend, “almost like a tourist.” It was then, when he saw the extent of the devastation, that he realized he had to return alone to document it.
“I was awestruck by the apocalypse,” he says. The landscape was deserted, and the signs of loss were plain to see. Misrach wandered the empty streets for several days with his decades-old 8x10 view camera, creating work that only now, 20 years later, is being revealed.
More than 30 photographs will be featured this month in the exhibit 1991: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach, shown simultaneously at Oakland Museum of California and Berkeley Art Museum. Apart from a handful of images that were shown in New York in 2005, the firestorm photographs have not been in the public eye.
It’s not the first time Misrach has delayed the release of his work. He did the same with his post–Hurricane Katrina images that culminated in the book Destroy This Memory. His rationale for waiting is rooted in the philosophy that drives his work: His images are of historical record, not reportage.
“I don’t want to be part of the media spectacle; it’s not about the firefighters and the flames,” he says. “My work is contemplative, quieter.” He cites Mathew Brady, the 19th-century photographer who created a vast, mesmerizing visual archive of the Civil War, as an inspiration. “Brady recorded history for posterity, making a tragedy timeless,” he says.
But there was another reason Misrach held back on revealing the firestorm images. His local roots run deep. Misrach graduated from UC Berkeley in 1971, after working with photographer Roger Minick at Cal’s ASUC Studio. His first book of photographs, Telegraph 3 a.m., was a collection of black-and-white shots of street people taken on Telegraph Avenue. Since 1976, he has worked from the same studio in an artists’ collective in Emeryville. And he now lives—with his wife, writer Myriam Weisang Misrach—in the Berkeley hills. The community that was hit by disaster 20 years ago is very much his community—and he wanted to show it his respect.
“This was in my backyard. It was a major trauma and had a huge impact on many families,” he says. The firestorm was one of the worst fires in California’s history, claiming the lives of 25 people, injuring 150 others, and incinerating some 3,000 homes.
“These are very personal photographs for Richard,” says Lucinda Barnes, chief curator and director of programs and collections at Berkeley Art Museum, who says organizing the exhibition was a close collaborative effort involving the photographer and Drew Johnson, curator of photography at Oakland Museum of California. Both Barnes and Johnson were aware that the shows would be an emotional experience for many visitors. “The exhibitions will be a commemoration and a time for the community to get together and remember what happened,” says Johnson.
With that in mind, Oakland Museum is providing visitors with the opportunity to record their memories of the fire, using both audio and video. Meanwhile, Misrach, working with local bookmaker John DeMerritt and Boon graphic designer Brian Scott, has created two elegy ledgers for the museums, with photographs inside. “Visitors will be encouraged to leave comments or sign their names,” says Misrach. “The books will be part of the exhibitions and be kept in the collections.”
The exhibitions and the photographs at their core—prints of which Misrach has donated to both museums—will act as a living legacy.
1991: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, at Berkeley Art Museum, October 12–February 5, bampfa.berkeley.edu; and Oakland Museum of California, October 15–February 12, museumca.org.
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