1991: Richard Misrach's Vision of the Oakland-Berkeley Fire

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In simultaneous shows at the Oakland Museum of California and the Berkeley Art Museum, Richard Misrach exhibits for the first time a 20-year-old collection of photographs in 1991: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath. The images, taken by Misrach in the weeks immediately following the firestorm, document scenes of devastating destruction, capturing in still and un-peopled frames the markers of ferocious violence.

Driving through the recently cleared streets, Misrach made 200 exposures on an 8-by-10-inch view camera and then tucked the negatives away. In a decidedly anti-commercial move, he chose to categorize his Oakland-Berkeley fire photographs as historical documents that needed to be protected. Fearing they would simply become part of the news cycle if released at the time, he was also curious about their ability to remain relevant in the long-term. "It was a gamble," he said at a recent preview event, "to think that 20 years from now, people would be interested." Fortunately, in his (and my) opinion, the images "have stayed strong and true," despite being sequestered in a time capsule for the past two decades.

The images on view in OMCA's darkly-lit gallery are large and luminous. (Berkeley's exhibition differs only slightly in content, but vastly in setting: their galleries are tall white cubes.) The collective color palate is what one would expect -- ashy grays and charred black branches -- but moments of unexpected color pull the viewer around the room. The showstopper of the exhibition is an 8-by-10-foot close-up of a child's tricycle, its orange, yellow, and blue plastic melted grotesquely. The enormity of the print (nearly floor to ceiling) envelops the viewer completely.


Many of the photographs capture bitter ironies: a "SOLD" sign remains erect in front of rubble; patio furniture sits calmly as arranged, the broken concrete deck ahead dropping sharply away; a garage door remains firmly padlocked shut, the house it belongs to gone. In a number of photographs, chimneys stand completely alone. They resemble obelisks, acting as ad hoc memorials to what was lost. The scenes are, as Misrach has described them, eerily post-apocalyptic, but small gestures evince the presence of life and the very beginnings of recovery. For the many "LOST PET" signs affixed to blackened telephone poles, there are an equal number of photographs of half-eaten bowls of cat food.

While most of the photographs capture poignant individual narratives pieced together through the scattered remains of a home and its contents, a few more expansive shots pull back to show the extent of the damage. The exhibition, though representing the aftermath of a sudden tragedy, is a quiet and contemplative space. This is due partly to the temporal remove, but also to Misrach and OMCA's efforts to make 1991 a community-centric exhibition.

The firestorm killed 25, injured 250, and destroyed nearly 4,000 apartments and homes, leaving 5,000 people homeless in a single day. The show's curator, Drew Heath Johnson, believes everyone has a story to contribute to the legacy of the fire. OMCA visitors can record video reminiscences elsewhere in the museum (which then play on a monitor in a corner of the 1991 gallery) and leave behind photos and notes on a billboard, but these opportunities are a bit too run-of-the-mill for such an exceptional show. Thankfully, Misrach created an elegant "Elegy Book" as an alternative. The thick tome rests against a wall in the center of the exhibition space, waiting for written memories to fill its empty pages. At the close of the exhibition, 14 large-scale photographs, 26 smaller prints and two Elegy Books will be split between OMCA and Berkeley.

Maintaining the fidelity of the images in relationship to the location of the firestorm has been an overriding concern for Misrach. As a result, the exhibitions themselves act as gifts to the affected communities, allowing the museums to stake a claim as hubs of relevant cultural accomplishment. I cannot testify as to how these images will read to those who lived in the Bay Area in 1991, let alone those who experienced the fire first-hand, but from the point of view of a more recent transplant, this exhibition is a moving artistic and historical document of a local disaster.

1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach is on view through February 12, 2012 at the Oakland Museum of California and through February 5, 2012 at the Berkeley Art Museum. For more information visit museumca.org.

All photos: Richard Misrach; courtesy of the artist, Oakland Museum of California and Berkeley Art Museum.