Richard Misrach, Man-Mauled

A photograph’s relationship between form and content is an uneasy one, particularly where the beautiful is concerned. Many questions follow: Is the subject itself already beautiful or has the photographer made it just appear beautiful? Is the resulting image a cliche? interesting? challenging? misleading? grotesque?

Responses will depend upon what is wanted from a photograph mixed with pre-existing ideas about what is normally considered beautiful and appropriate to be looking at.

Richard Misrach actively works with this uneasiness and has made beautiful photographs of the ‘man-mauled’ desert as part of his ongoing Desert Cantos series. For Misrach, beauty is a useful tool which engages viewers and enables his photographs to avoid categorisations as news (he is an artist, not a photojournalist). He likens his approach to the tradition of history painting and so hopes that their beauty and non-newsworthiness will ensure their longevity and repeat visits.

The contrast between beauty and subject matter is nowhere more opposed that in The Pit, a series of photographs showing animals as refuse, dumped in the desert in ‘dead-animal pits’.

Richard Misrach
Dead Animals #1 © Richard Misrach

The opportunity to photograph masses of dead animals arose again during 2001/2002, as UK farmers responded to a Foot and Mouth outbreak. An agricultural crisis which saw over 3.7 million animals killed.

The Abyss © Clive Landen

Peter Marlow
Foot & Mouth Disease in Cumbria. 2001 © Peter Marlow

So what to make of this approach? This beautiful horror.

I’m not yet very sure.

I don’t believe that Misrach is making poetry of the holocaust when he makes beautiful such grotesqueness. His approach is not immoral or distasteful.

Dead animal pits exist and should not be ignored. They should not be put out of sight so we can eat burgers and steaks with an unburdened conscience.

However the action of beauty is not yet clear. It softens the blow of shock, but how does it change my feelings towards farm animals and the accepted practices of keeping them?

If that is what is wanted?