Richard Misrach’s early work and Border Cantos


From Art21. A pioneer of large-format color photography, Richard Misrach has photographed the American desert for decades, examining the impact of human activity on the natural landscape. From his Berkeley studio, the artist recounts his early work, “Telegraph 3 AM,” in which he depicted the homeless population of 1970s Berkeley. Disillusioned with the commercial success of his photographs that he hoped would instigate social change, Misrach turned to the deserts of southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. Creating otherworldly images of cacti and rock formations and unsettling pictures of military bombing ranges, nuclear test sites, and man-made fires, for his ongoing “Desert Cantos” series, Misrach explains how “our culture stands out in very clear relief in the desert.” The artist recounts the origins of his “Border Cantos” series, which focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the artifacts left behind by migrant crossings. This segment follows the artist as he travels to remote parts of the desert, photographing the visual contradiction of the ominous wall against beautiful landscapes and collaborating with the composer Guillermo Galindo to create installations and musical performances that utilize the items found in the desert. Collectively, Misrach’s work chronicles the places where nature and culture collide, highlighting where beauty and ugliness exist side-by-side.

“Borderlands” premiered in October 2020 on PBS. Watch now on PBS and the PBS Video app:

Learn more about the artist:

Cite this page as: Art21, "Richard Misrach’s early work and Border Cantos," in Smarthistory, January 7, 2021, accessed May 23, 2024,