Looking Back

Richard Misrach

November 1, 2016

Photograph by William D. Murphy, photographed by Richard Misrach with his iPhone


We asked Richard Misrach to tell us about a picture that meant something to him, and why. Border Cantos: Richard Misrach | Guillermo Galindo is on view at the Amon Carter Museum  of American Art through December 31. 


A couple of years ago my daughter-in-law Erica gave me a small lantern slide for Christmas, two thin pieces of glass (3.25 x 4 inches) with a photographic transparency sandwiched within, featuring a 1665 painting of Burgomaster Jan Six by Rembrandt.

Held in my hand, it is simply an opaque piece of glass with a narrow border of masking tape. On the right side is a signature label with background information including florid penmanship with the title of the painting and its author. But hold it up to the light: the text recedes and an image emerges like magic. This masterpiece of art history, even in its tiny manifestation, explodes with energy and luminescence.

One can only begin to reflect on the conceptual puzzle of this rich artifact. What I am looking at is a small, monochromatic reproduction of a sumptuous Rembrandt – a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as Walter Benjamin so aptly framed it. And now the mechanical reproduction has a life of its own. It is no longer part of an art history slide presentation from the turn of the 19th century but has transformed over the last century into a sculptural object of renewed vitality. Where has it been all these years? Where did Erica find it? Why did she select it for me? On Erica’s trip from New York the piece suffered a blow and cracked. She was beside herself. But I love the crack. If we are lucky to live long enough we accumulate scars. This Rembrandt is all the more unique and beautiful for it.

And what of the photographer, William Dennistoun Murphy? I had not heard of him, but a Google search reveals an impressive career. He was involved with the New York Camera Club, exhibited often, and was even reproduced twice in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Notes. Despite the fact that he is not well known, this small work of his lives on.