The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Fire Revisited

Richard Misrach
Richard Misrach
Oakland Fire #107-91 (Melted Tricycle), 1991

One week after a deadly wildfire killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Oakland and Berkeley, California in 1991, photographer Richard Misrach photographed the aftermath. “There were no police barricades, and people hadn’t really returned,” he says. “It was just completely devastated, very much like a post-apocalyptic movie.”

Misrach decided early on not to show the work, but on the 20th anniversary of the fire, the photographer is finally unveiling his images in a new book published by Blind Spot, which coincides with twin exhibitions at the Berkeley Art Museum and Oakland Museum of California Art, on view through Feb. 5 and Feb. 12, respectively.

“There was so much coverage, it was almost like a media spectacle,” Misrach says of his decision not to publish the pictures right away. “It seemed like the work might get lost, and I wasn’t interested in the news component. I was much more interested in the history.” Misrach mocked up a few photographs into a book maquette shortly after the fire, but he hadn’t really looked at the series as whole until preparing them for his exhibitions. Citing Civil War photographs as a precedent, Misrach says he wanted to allow his images to serve as historical documents, shifting in meaning with time. “The pictures are not of flames. They’re not of not of people fleeing,” he says. “They’re more quiet, meditative and reflective of our relationship with landscape.”

Richard Misrach’s work is in the collections of over fifty major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is represented by Fraenkel Gallery.

1991–The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath is published by Blind Spot. The accompanying exhibitions are on view at the Berkeley Museum of Art through Feb. 5 and at the Oakland Museum of California from Oct. 15-Feb. 12.

Feifei Sun is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Feifei_Sun or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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