Thursday, November 17, 2011

Richard Misrach at the Berkeley Art Museum

Today, I went to see the Misrach exhibit of photos taken after the 1991 Berkeley/ East Bay Fire. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fire, BAM/PFA and the Oakland Museum of California are presenting forty photographs from the series, including fourteen large-format images. The shows are the result of Misrach's donation of 33 prints to each museum earlier this year, and mark the first time the series has been publicly exhibited; it was only five years ago that Misrach began to make prints from his nearly 200 negatives of the fire's aftermath.

 To be honest, I didn't expect to be moved but I was, almost to tears in some places. The show brought back memories of walking down Post Street on a breathlessly sultry day and wondering where the black flakes were coming from that were covering the side walk.

Later that day, I heard about the catastrophic fire and went with friends to Twin Peaks to see the ominous cloud engulfing the East Bay.

I remember the confusion and the heroic efforts of the fire and police departments - people who were later vilified by the likes of the mega-millionaires that I worked for at the time. I remember the finger pointing and also, the genuine sorrow of those who had lost family members and all, a life time of of memories.

I think that the home of Adele Bischoff, the wife of the late painter Elmer Bischoff, was burned out, losing years of paintings and drawings.

The blame game went on for some time - egged and abetted by our local media that had found a topic that they would spin to their heart's content.

I am glad that Misrach waited 20 years. His rationale for the long delay was also rooted in the philosophy that he said drives all of his work: his images are for the historical record, not reportage. “I don’t want to be part of the media spectacle,” he said. “I want to transcend the news.”

For those who lived through the destruction, the memories can still be painful - powerful images of child's tricycle half melted by the heat, a fire blacked staircase, bowls of pet food left by some optimistic pet owners, a tranquil blue swimming pool reflecting the charred remains of a tree.

The large (some 5' or 6' by 5' or 6')  images are visceral, gut wrenching in their portrait of the destruction. The photographs are all the more effective for showing the devastating aftermath. One wall of the exhibit is lined with smaller photographs, which pull you into the frame by their smaller size. His skill proves that you don't have to photograph sturm and drag to convey the extent of the disaster.

The fire was one of the worst in California’s history, killing 25 people, injuring 150 others and destroying about 3,500 homes — one every 11 seconds.

At a gallery talk that Mr. Misrach gave at the Berkeley museum on Oct. 12, Curt Karplus, 80, rose and asked how many survivors were in the room. He and his wife had lived only by leaping from the balcony of their Hiller Highlands home. “We jumped, and within two seconds the house went up like a matchbox behind us,” Mr. Karplus said.

Both exhibitions include handmade elegy books inviting members of the public to leave their memories of the fire, or simply sign their names. The books will become part of each museum's permanent collection. The Oakland Museum even will have a story booth where people can share their fire tales.

The exhibition, “1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath: Photographs by Richard Misrach,” is being shown at both museums. The Berkeley presentation closes February 5 and OMCA's closes on February 12.

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