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Richard Misrach’s Photographs Speak Volumes about Katrina’s Devastation

The photographs in Richard Misrach’s “Destroy This Memory” series showing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are like the disaster in one way: They came about unexpectedly.

Misrach is an artist known for lush, large-scale color photographs created with an 8×10 large format camera — a behemoth compared to its modern digital cousins. The photos in “Destroy This Memory,” however, were shot with a consumer-quality, four mega-pixel pocket camera, a device Misrach originally intended to use for “note-taking.”

The artist spent three months documenting the devastation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but it wasn’t until he returned to California and reviewed his digital images that he was struck by their power.

“[The smaller camera] allowed me to do things I could not do with the bigger camera,” he said, “and one of them was the sort of artless… raw communication that does parallel that actual writing on the walls.”

Artist Richard Misrach narrates a slide show of images from ‘Destroy This Memory’:


“Destroy This Memory” comprises 69 color prints showing graffiti messages Katrina victims and rescue workers scrawled on homes, cars and public buildings as a means of communication and expression in the post-disaster Gulf Coast region.

Below: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Photo by Thomas R. DuBrock

MFAHexhibit.jpgMisrach donated his work to five museums across the United States — including the New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the National Gallery in Washington D.C., the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The series is currently on show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and opens Saturday at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The series has also been made into a book, published by Aperture.

Despite the unexpected impact of the images from his pocket camera, Misrach initially resolved to put the photographs aside and release them 20 years after the disaster, in 2025, so they could be pondered in posterity. (Misrach’s coverage of the 1991 Oakland, Ca., fires will be released in 2011.)

“I did not want to exploit this tragedy,” said Misrach.

“People were really suffering, and it was in the current historical moment and I didn’t feel comfortable putting the work out. But I also thought about, actually, early Civil War photographs. And I thought, ‘Gosh, those war photos at the time must have been very, very strange’ — to have people going to photograph battlefields and dead people and so on. And yet today, we value those photographs. I mean, they are just some of the most precious historical artifacts we could have in American history.”

A midnight epiphany, compounded by the artist’s sense that people needed to see what had happened, drove the artist to release the images earlier than anticipated.

“One night I woke up and the whole project just came together,” said Misrach. “I thought it should be the people’s words, their voices, with as little a footprint as I could have.”

The current exhibits are therefore devoid of any additional written mediation or explanation by the curators or the artist. There is no introduction to the works and there are no titles. There are no page numbers in the book, and the museums who were bequeathed the photographs were forced to name their respective exhibits themselves.

“The rescue workers and the people that lived there themselves…wrote these things. I felt like it was their voice,” said Misrach. “I just felt that it was important to have their words as much as possible.”

An image showing a house that bares the phrase “Destroy This Memory” serves as the central photograph of both the exhibit and book because it reminded the photographer of the subversive slogan of 1960s political activist Abby Hoffman, “Steal This Book.”

“It was like somebody saying, ‘We don’t ever want to remember this’,” said the artist. “I’m suggesting that I understand that this is really a problem, but we need to keep these memories.”

The series will be on exhibit through the rest of the year and into 2011. All royalties and sales of works in the series will go towards the Make It Right Foundation, a charity that builds homes for those displaced by the disaster in hopes of relocating them to the region.