Richard Misrach: The 1991 Fire Aftermath

By David Butow   Wednesday October 26, 2011

On October 20, 1991, fine art photographer Richard Misrach was in his Bay Area studio watching television coverage of the largest urban wildfire in United States history destroying thousands of homes in the nearby Oakland and Berkeley hills. A few days later, while driving through some of the affected neighborhoods, he realized the scenes of devastation were perfect examples of the same subject to which he'd devoted his career. Using his 8x10 view camera, he began carefully photographing what he describes as "a devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape. It was a mediation after the fact," he says, "of our relationship between nature and civilization."


Left: Oakland Fire #104-91, 1991. Right: Oakland Fire #158-91, 1991. Copyright Richard Misrach.

Misrach, who says he is greatly influenced by the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady and his team, immediately thought of the firestorm images in a historical context. "I didn't want the pictures to be part of the news cycle", he says. So he processed the negatives but made only a few reference prints, and in contrast with his previous work, decided not to publish a book or exhibit it until a comfortable amount of time had passed. "This was different," he explains. "People had suffered….people had died. Because it was so close to home it rang a different bell."

The pictures sat in his studio and it wasn't until a decade and half later, after having photographed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that Misrach was ready to seriously revisit his collection from 1991. Like his images from Katrina, Misrach knew he would not sell the pictures except as a vehicle for charitable fundraising, so he began a dialogue with curators Drew Johnson at the Oakland Museum of California and Lucinda Barnes at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM), with whom he has had long-standing relationships. Both were excited to add to the group of Misarach's prints already in their collections. Barnes says the fire aftermath project "seemed consistent with his work of the American West. There are often haunting, frightening scenes of environmental impact and at the same time they're incredibly beautiful."

After editing, Misrach's original plan was to donate seven large prints of different pictures to each museum. Inviting the two curators to his studio to select photographs, Misrach flipped a coin to decide who would go first. "One of us would choose an image and we went back and forth," explains Barnes. It soon became apparent to the three however, that in order to do justice to the collection, all the pictures should be seen together. In a highly unusual arrangement, it was decided that both museums, using two sets of the same pictures, would coordinate what became two simultaneous and similar, but not identical, exhibitions of a single project, to be seen on the 20th anniversary of the firestorm. "With content as sensitive as this," says Misrach, "I wanted to make sure I did it justice."

For Drew Johnson at the Oakland Museum, the show's subject was particularly personal. He was at the museum in 1991 working on a retrospective of a locally-based former Life magazine photographer Peter Stackpole when the fires struck, destroying Stackpole's home along with many of his prints and negatives. Johnson understood the impact on the survivors.  "From the beginning we wanted to incorporate community voices and Richard was very sympathetic (to the idea)," he says. In addition to the prints, spotlighted on medium gray walls, "which invokes the ash", he says, the gallery includes an unobtrusivley-placed television playing video statements from people who suffered from the disaster.

Across town in Berkeley, curator Lucinda Barnes worked with the large, high-ceilinged, multi-level open interior at BAM. Barnes has opened the show with the largest and most "iconic" photographs, which combined with the detail from the 8x10's negatives have a luminescence that allows a viewer who is close in to feel part of the scenes, almost as if surrounded by pale, diffuse natural light. The largest print is 8x10 feet and many are 5x6 feet. Some of these are wide scenes of the ruins of dozens of homes, others are close-ups of charred and melted cars and bicycles. The landscape is mostly tan and bleached, with scorched and leafless trees intermingled with the remnants of human habitation: cars, patio furniture, swimming pools and free-standing chimneys.

Misrach also placed in both exhibits an elegy book, which allows viewers to share their impressions of the exhibit and of the event itself. Fusing aesthetics with social commentary, as well as interactive elements does exactly what art is supposed to do. Misrach says "for me it's a historical moment that tells us a lot about who we are. It's amazing that two museums are showing the work at the same time but are completely different experiences."

1991: Oakland Berkely Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach. Through February 12, 2012 at Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, Oakland, CA. Through February 5, 2012 at Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkely, CA.

David Butow is a photojournalist based in California. Assignments have taken him to Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America. His primary interests are social issues and the effects of public policy at local and international levels. Butow also works extensively in the United States covering issues of politics, education, race, immigration and poverty among others. He has received various awards from World Press Photo, Communcation Arts, University of Missouri Pictures of the Year, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, Photo District News, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, The American Photography Annual, The New York Association of Black Journalists and the Society of Magazine Designers. David is also a regular contributor to DART.