The photos show a barren, destroyed landscape—melted cars, charred trees and freestanding chimneys. They’re all in color, but at first glance some appear to be in black and white because of the desolation wrought by the fire.
On October 20, 1991, a fire ravaged the Oakland and Berkeley hills, destroying more than 3,000 homes and killing 25 people. Days after the fire, photographer Richard Misrach ventured up to the hills from his home in Emeryville with an 8-by-10-inch view camera to chronicle the destruction.
“What struck me the most was the eerie silence of it, the great destruction of it,” Misrach said. “Very post-apocalyptic. It looked like the end of the world.”
The Oakland Museum of California will be displaying 33 of Misrach’s photographic prints of the fire’s devastation from October 15 to February 12. The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will also be displaying Misrach’s photos from October 12 to February 5.
In his photos, Misrach addresses what he calls “the collision between nature and civilization”—how humans change the natural environment. He has photographed the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, as well as bombing ranges and man-made floods, and is well known for his photographs of desert landscapes. His work is often displayed as large color photographs, and the collection at the Oakland Museum is mostly of 5-by-7 foot prints and one is 8-by-10 feet.
Misrach said he felt the need to record the East Bay hills fire for historical purposes because it was such a tragic day, a “Civil War-like event.” There are no flames or people in the photos, just the fire’s aftermath. “There’s a real sense of humanity at the mercy of nature,” said Drew Johnson, the Oakland Museum’s curator of photography.
Instead of publishing the photos immediately, though, Misrach decided soon after taking them to put them away for 20 years. He said the time has allowed for the photos to be viewed in a way that is more contemplative, rather than as breaking news, which would have been the case if they were released right away. “It was really brutal and I didn’t want to just benefit off of that, so to speak, take advantage of that, ” Misrach said of the fire’s destruction. “But I wanted to record it for posterity.”
He entered into informal discussions with the museum right away, with the idea of displaying them 20 years later. Last year he moved forward with donating the photos to the museum. Both the Oakland Museum and Berkeley Art Museum will each keep seven large prints and 26 smaller images for each museum’s permanent collection.
“It’s great art, but I can’t think of an instance where the art has had such a connection to the community,” Johnson said. “We’re already seeing a response to that months before the show is opening.”
Johnson said he expects visitors to feel emotional viewing the photos, and so there’s a lounge area set up for people to sit and contemplate, and also post their own messages and photographs. The museum will have a story booth set up where people can record their thoughts and stories about the fire and an “elegy book” where people can leave their impressions of the photographs or share their experiences.
Misrach said he’s not sure what kind of reaction to expect from people who view the photos. “I don’t know, I’m just guessing, but I think these pictures will trigger memories from 20 years ago,” he said. “It’ll be really interesting to see how that functions.”
Misrach said that looking at the photos now, there are lessons to be learned about the consequences of the way people live, and of where they live. The hills are rebuilt, and Misrach now lives in the Berkeley Hills, which reminds him how delicate life can be. “I look at these pictures and I’m going ‘Look at these roads, they look seem very narrow. Can a fire truck get up there?’” he said. “And all this vegetation. We’re vulnerable. And the vulnerability is right there in the photographs.”
The exhibit opens October 12. For more information about the Oakland Museum of California, go here.