Consuming landscape: road imagery and distortion

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Photography as past resurfacing

To bring about echoes of the past is an inherent quality to photography as a medium. The prevalence of the “thing that has been there” (ce qui a été là)25 is even more striking and confronting when related to capturing occurrences of disaster. This resurfacing phenomenon— that the beholder cannot control—transforms into an imposed confrontation and forces the beholder into acknowledging and accounting for what the photographs show and tell. Misrach’s photographs—disseminated with many representations and forms of disaster—make it hard for the beholder not to consider the subject matter they are facing.
Besides, to interpret photography as past resurfacing also implies an interconnection between past and present, the past disrupting the present. Photography therefore participates in the process of actualisation of disaster since it brings past events to a present audience.

Layers of history: embedded disasters

Some photographs are constructed as a mise en abyme of disasters. Thus, one photograph can encapsulate several disasters which are presented as layers; the resurfacing past has to come through these different levels. This is especially the case for the series inscribed in a continuous realisation of disasters.
In the series Petrochemical America, two photographs allow for a reflection on embedded disasters. Community Remains, Former Morrisonville Settlement, Dow Chemical Corporation Plaquemine, Louisiana (Figure 1) addresses petrochemical pollution as well as the heavy racial and segregationist past of Louisiana. It represents what is left of the settlement of an African American community on the foreground—namely housing pads—while in the distance, the silhouette of a chemical corporation comes forth through a thick layer of mist which filters the light, making it look yellowish. These rectangles of cement and dirt seem meaningless and unimportant, nonetheless they are the focal centre and the main subject matter of the photograph. A caption—or rather a minute paragraph—goes with the photograph and testifies Misrach’s will to tell the story of these people forced to be relocated:
In 1932 a rural African-American community, established since 1870 at a riverside settlement called Australia Point, was displaced by the Army Corps of Engineers in order to build the levee, and relocated in Morrisonville. In the 1950s Dow Chemical expanded into the area, and residents began to complain of mysterious odors, headaches, and other health ailments. Eventually, the company installed special radios in homes so the plant could inform people of highway evacuation routes in the event of a spill or accident. By 1989, Dow had decided to buy out most of the residents in the area, dispersing what was left of the original community in order to establish a “green” buffer zone. All the buildings were demolished.
The way the tittle is constructed also corroborates this movement from past to present, this movement out, with the words “remains” and “former” directly coupled with the name of the corporation. From the start, Dow Chemical is presented as having overcome the settlements. Thus, the text is complementary to the photograph and confirms what the beholder can already sense while simply looking at the photograph. Their successive dislocations have been erased and materialised by a layer of sediment, reduced to disappear with time, swallowed by the industrial sprawl. When Misrach intentionally associates this caption to the photograph, he might intend to use the function of photography in its acceptation of showing the width and the realness of a phenomenon. It becomes tangible and concrete through the effect of “bearing witness” provided by photography. In other words, although photography is a construct and results from the photographer’s own choices and technical parameters, there is an inherent mechanism that makes the beholder more likely to believe that what they see has some part of truth in it. Photography and reality have peculiar bonds and Misrach’s strategy to inscribe his Petrochemical America photographs in historical and scientific grounds27 not only accounts for the disasters represented but brings their issue to an audience.

Post- (and pre-) disaster landscapes

When it comes to punctual disasters—that is to say for Destroy this Memory and the Oakland-Berkeley Fire—Misrach never inscribes his photographs within the realisation, the climax, the very moment of disaster. Rather, he comes on the scene of disaster after they have occurred, and focuses on the aftermath, the impact, everything that is purely post-disaster. This temporal discrepancy necessarily provokes differences if compared to photographs which were taken closer to the disaster or even during the disaster. The very tension of the disaster has decreased, a sort of disturbed and sick calmness has come back, it is time to look for what happened and to make sense of what just unfolded.
For the Oakland-Berkeley Fire, Misrach, who lived nearby in Emeryville, decided to photograph the hills a few days after the fire ended. Such a major firestorm was widely covered by the press, and photographs from its epicentre are available to draw comparisons to those taken by Misrach. Two photographs by Karl Mondon for the East Bay Times29 will thus be considered.

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1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath

On the 19th and 20th of October 1991, a bush fire ignited on the hillsides of Oakland and Berkeley in California. It ended up killing 25 people, injuring 150 others, and destroying about 3,500 homes and 1,520 acres of land. Misrach felt personally close to this specific disaster since he owned two studios in Emeryville as well as a property in the Oakland-Berkeley hills. Furthermore, his photographic studio was assaulted by flames twice causing the loss of a great number of his negatives.45 Thus, the event resonated in him in a peculiar and intimate way so that he felt compelled to go and document the aftermath. To begin with, he created a first form of distance between the disaster and the time the photographs were taken when he decided to wait for two weeks before going on the hills with his camera. While the memories of the event and the shock of hundreds of burned houses was still vivid, the fire and smoke had disappeared, and the place had been deserted. Thus, from the very moment he chose to photograph, the hellish images packed with flames and smoke—such as those previously mentioned by Karl Mondon (Figures 4 and 5)—had already vanished. A second layer of distance came from the very subject of the photographs. During the gallery talk for the opening of the exhibition, Misrach pointed at the television news which were “overwhelmed with spectacle” so he started “feeling reluctant” about putting out the work and feeding this information overflow.46
This project can be set apart from the rest of Misrach’s work as being the most intimate. Several elements corroborate this small-scale dimension. Indeed, while the fire covered a rather concentrated and local population, its joined photobook publication is also the smallest print run with one thousand printed books. Hence, this series of photographs is turned foremost towards the inside of the community. In addition, the photographs were revealed during a double and simultaneous exhibition. Two museums from the affected area hosted the photographic series at the same time: the Oakland Museum of California and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.47 To keep up with his initial intentions, Misrach also chose to donate the photographs to the museums and all benefits to local non-profit organisations. Therefore, the whole process gravitates around the scale of the community.

Table of contents :

I – Temporality of disaster: seizing a phenomenon
1. Reminiscences
1.1. Getting hold of a process
a. Disaster and disasters
b. Process and subject intertwined
1.2. Photography as past resurfacing
a. Layers of history: embedded disasters
2. Peripheral time
2.1. Disaster and delay
a. Post- (and pre-) disaster landscapes
b. A time of delay
2.2. Uncertainty and disaster
a. The anticipated moment
b. Nuclear uncanny
3. Distance
a. Temporal distance and reception
b. 1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath
c. A few words on temporal distance and genre
II – Spatiality of disaster: imprints on the American landscape
4. Traces
4.1. Capturing absence (subtracted matter)
a. Ghostly presence
b. Beyond the frame
4.2. Signs to decipher
a. Consuming landscape: road imagery and distortion
b. Intericonicity: consuming images
5. Materiality and immateriality
5.1. Focus on matter
a. Tangible photographs
b. Elements
5.2. Beyond matter
a. Representing toxicity
b. Skyscapes
6. Mapping America’s wasteland
6.1. Surveying the state of landscape
a. Documents
b. Maps
6.2. Reversing landscape
a. Anti-landscape
b. Reassessing landscape photography
III – Aesthetics of disaster: sensitive paradoxes
7. Confronting aesthetics
7.1. Sublimity of disaster
a. Burke’s sublime
b. Contemplative sublime and Americanness
c. Variations of the sublime
7.2. Towards the uncanny
a. Defining the uncanny
b. The issue of the uncanny landscape
c. Uncanny and disaster
8. Uncanny poetics
8.1. Aestheticisation of horror
a. Redefining beauty
b. “Canto VI: The Pit”
8.2. Uncanny and liminality
9. Making sense of the senseless
9.1. Recreating the sensitive experience of disaster
a. Process of luring in
9.2. Beyond a photographic experience
a. Collaborations and mixed media
b. Self-narrative


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