In 1980 Richard Misrach began an ongoing series of photographs entitled Desert Cantos, in which he records various stages of man’s impact on the desert. Dead Animals #1, 1987/1998, is part of this body of work, but it comes from a subcategory entitled The Pit, the most controversial work in the series. These pictures show sheep, cows, pigs, and horses that have died suddenly from mysterious causes and are then dumped in open burial grounds throughout Nevada. In the images, the animals are distended and contorted in various stages of decay, the cause of their deaths questionable. The area around the animals is scattered with industrial rubble—spilled oil and other liquids, metal drums, and plastic containers—indicative of our injured environment. But the picture is also remarkably poetic and beautiful. Misrach has framed the shot to create a harmonious composition of shapes and colors, emphasizing the warm earth tones of the land and the livestock. By making work that evokes both beauty and destruction, Misrach walks a thin line between aesthetics and politics.
The Museum’s collection includes three other photographs by Misrach, also from Desert Cantos. Desert Fire #136 (Agricultural Control Burn), 1984/1998, depicts a fierce blaze—not a natural occurrence, but a human decision to tamper with the land, the burning off of old crops in order to reuse soil. In this picture the sun glows through a haze of smoke and flames, creating an eerie sense of disaster. Flooded Gazebo, Salton Sea, 1984/1998, and Salton Sea (Brown), 1985/1998, show California’s largest lake, considered a natural wonder and famous for its oddities. It is a terminal lake that originated in 1905, when a Colorado River canal designed to bring water to California’s Imperial Valley burst and flooded the region. In Flooded Gazebo, Misrach contrasts brown, wooden, half-flooded structures with reflective, ice-blue water. Calm though obviously damaged, the site is completely uninhabited, bringing to mind images of war-torn villages. In Salton Sea (Brown), the bottom half of the composition is divided almost equally between land and sea, and the top half is sky. Misrach cropped out anything that is clearly manmade; however, the body of water itself is unnatural.
Throughout its history, the Salton Sea has been ill-fated. It has no outlet, and therefore continues to elevate, flooding nearby homes and businesses that once flourished along its shores. . . . It is one of California’s most productive fisheries, supporting an abundance of thriving fish and wildlife. The water is rich in nutrients, yet the salt levels and overcrowded conditions make the lake an unstable ecosystem. In the 1950s it was filled with game fish and became a popular tourist site, but as problems have arisen, it has become a point of contention. The divide between those who want to save it and those who await its final demise makes it a perfect source for Misrach.
Using photography to document man’s impact on nature is a practice that has fallen in and out of favor throughout the medium’s history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan and Ansel Adams who portrayed the “great American West” conveyed a majestic and heroic terrain, untouched by man. There were also photographers during this period who documented manmade alterations to the landscape, like factories and railroad tracks, in order to boast about urbanism and attract potential settlers to developing American cities. By the 1930s, ravaged lands—farms and coal mines—were documented by photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project to express the trauma and devastation of the Great Depression. But in the latter half of the twentieth century, perceptions of the traditional American landscape have been directly overturned in the hands of artists like Misrach, who became a photographer in the 1970s.
Of the concept behind Desert Cantos Misrach has said, “The desert is a larger metaphor for our times.” In The Pit, the desert is shown to be a perpetual dumping ground for dead animals. Their bodies decay and go back into the soil, which implies a diseased food chain for future American dwellers, and perhaps for us now. Misrach uses the macabre to point out the effects of limitless expansion, portraying Ansel Adams’s great American West in a different light.