- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

The guy in the colorful trunks, his eyes shut, floats on his back in the shallow water just beyond the beach. Is he a vacationer cooling off in the waves or a drowned corpse being washed ashore?

Such ambiguity teases the viewer in most of the 19 lush photographic seascapes now on view at the National Gallery of Art. In one picture, dark shapes below the ocean’s surface suggest both a benign reef and a menacing threat to the lone swimmer in the frame. In another, danger is far more subtly expressed by long shadows encroaching upon a sunbather sprawled on a bright towel in the sand.

These disquieting, yet seductive images were shot by Richard Misrach, a Los Angeles photographer known for capturing landscapes devastated by pollution. Though not as compelling as his earlier series, they expose a similar imbalance between humans and nature through scenes of tiny figures and vast oceans.

Initiated by the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibit is perfectly themed for summer with its monumental beach-going scenes, which are a refreshing change from the denser historical photography shows of late. However, in focusing on images by a contemporary photographer unfamiliar to most visitors, the museum misses the opportunity to showcase his talents more broadly by omitting his more provocative environmental work.

Mr. Misrach, who will talk about his photography at 2 p.m. Sunday in the museum’s East Building auditorium, calls his exhibited series “On the Beach.” He took his inspiration from the title of British-born writer Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel about survivors of an atomic war awaiting death on a Pacific island. Influences also came from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when “people seemed more vulnerable and fragile,” he said during a preview of the show.

The photographer started the series unintentionally in 2002 while on a vacation in Oahu, the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands, and returned to the same hotel over the next three years to continue shooting unsuspecting tourists and locals on the beach. “I found I was photographing the same people every year,” he said.

Snapping the photos from the balcony of his hotel room, Mr. Misrach eliminated references to the horizon and sky so that the people in his pictures look insignificant or like they are lost at sea.

Accentuating the contrast between the puny figures and vast landscapes is the heroic scale of the prints - some measure 6-by-10 feet. They were enlarged from negatives taken with a large-format camera, an 8-by-10-inch Deardorff, to capture all sorts of details, from facial expressions to footprints in the sand.

In one of his rare group shots, Mr. Misrach documents beachgoers like an observant social anthropologist to show how they form self-sufficient islands within the sand. The couples and individuals are surrounded by their beach stuff - flip-flops, boogie board, raft - but remain separate from their neighbors by safety zones of empty space.

In other scenes, the photographer reinforces the feeling of solitude by digitally removing swimmers and sunbathers from the frame after taking the picture. One example is the last print showing a gold-flecked ocean during a sunset. Figures were erased to leave only an unseen diver´s legs extending from the water. who fell into the sea after his wings were melted by the sun. As in all his work, Mr. Misrach celebrates the austere beauty of nature. Three of his seascapes are completely devoid of people to concentrate on the ways sunlight glints off the ocean at various times of the day. Accented with patterns of troughs and swells, the photos resemble creased sheets of paper or drawings of sketched wavy lines to oscillate between the real and the abstract.

These water shots and some of the inhabited scenes lack the danger-in-paradise metaphors conveyed elsewhere in the exhibit, but the pictures are still worthy on their visual merits alone.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: “Richard Misrach: On the Beach”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: through Sept. 1; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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