From 2001 to 2005, Misrach made a series of large-scale photographs of swimmers and sunbathers in Hawaii that he titled On the Beach. Shooting from an upper floor of an oceanfront hotel, he eliminated all references to the horizon and sky in order to record people immersed in the idyllic environment. Yet despite the beauty of the scene, a strange sense of disquietude pervades these photographs: Lone swimmers are often presented without reference to the shore, as if drifting far out at sea, while groups of waders frequently appear to be fleeing some unknown danger. And even those on the beach can look drowned and washed ashore.
Simply put, the photographs are phenomenal - and huge. One is even six feet by ten feet. The pictures on the web like the one above do not do these works of art any justice. Standing in front of them you do get a sense of man's utter "smallness" in the world and a strange feeling of loneliness and insecurity. And that is exactly what Misrach was trying to portray. He began the project shortly after September 11 and wanted to capture the mood after those stunning events. Misrach has written: "My thinking about this work was influenced by the events of 9/11, particularly by the images of individuals and couples falling from the World Trade Towers."
Misrach told us that he was in Washington, DC on 9/11. Disoriented like the rest of the nation, he headed back home to the West Coast and out into the desert, a location he has made a career of photographing. Not able to find a subject that fit his mood, he decided to continue with a pre-planned vacation to Hawaii where he found the inspiration he was looking for.
None of the nineteen images are posed and none of them have names, though Misrach said he has given them nicknames such as "Handstand" and "Falling Girl." He is right that naming them would take away from their power and influence on the viewer. Instead, he wants his photographs to be "Rorschachs" that allow each person to feel something unique and personal while gazing at these images.
Like so many works of art, the best thing to do is just go and see them for yourself. At the National Gallery through September 1. For more information, click here.
On a side note, Misrach was inspired to name his exhibit after the book and film "On the Beach," a story that tells the experiences of Australians waiting for the nuclear fallout to reach them after World War III destroyed the Northern hemisphere. You can watch the trailer here: