Mitch Epstein's current work examines how energy is produced and used in the American landscape. Made on forays to energy production sites and their environs, these pictures question the power of nature, government, corporations, and mass consumption in the United States.
REVIEW Art in America Mitch Epstein at Sikkema Jenkins David Coggins
Mitch Epstein's new series of photographs, "American Power," focuses on the physical evidence of America's relationship with the fuel of modern life. Engaging in what he calls "energy tourism," Epstein seeks out small towns where there are vast power stations, oil rigs, smokestacks and refineries. Yet he grounds his images - 70-by-92-inch C-prints - in the human condition, combining empathy with sharp social observation, politics with sheer beauty.
In Poca High School and Amos Plant, West Virginia (2004), a team of young football players in red jerseys leisurely practice. It's a peculiar sporting pastoral - the surrounding land is dotted with mobile homes, and the field is dwarfed by an enormous power plant with a trio of active smokestacks. We're struck by the casual attitudes of the boys and their indifference to the pollution streaming into the sky, which is part of their landscape and apparently, to them, invisible.
Snyder, Texas (2005) shows a dilapidated gas station set beneath a bank of leafless trees. A faint light issues from behind its pale yellow door, and we see a collection of small salvaged glass bottles lining the windows - the defunct gas station seems to have been converted into a low-end thrift store. The paint on one old gas pump is peeling, another is overgrown with vines. As a portrait of the changing fortunes of American small towns - their vulnerability to demographic and economic shifts, but also their resilience - it is lovely and haunting.
Epstein captures social nuance, but he also creates images of extreme formal strength. A gray sky is the background for two downward streaming clouds of smoke in Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio (2003). Only along the uppermost margin of the frame do we see the tops of the two smokestacks. These landscapes slowly reveal the collateral cost of America's reliance on power (in both senses). That's a freighted subject, but Epstein, who prefers discretion to sanctimony, never loses his assured touch - as a colorist he's unrivaled. Beyond the seductive tones, we're left with indelible reminders of the potential damage, both environmental and, implicitly, political, of our collective behavior. These photographs create a delicate balance, leaving us neither absolved nor privileged.
Mitch Epstein's photographs are in numerous major museum collections, including New York's Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Epstein's seven books include the recent retrospective monograph, Mitch Epstein: Work (Steidl, 2006), Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988 (Steidl 2005), Family Business (Steidl 2003), which received the 2004 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Award.
The American Academy in Berlin awarded Epstein the Berlin Prize in Arts and Letters for 2007-08. Other prizes include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003. Epstein has also worked as a director, cinematographer, and production designer on several films, including Dad, Salaam Bombay!, and Mississippi Masala.
Mr. Epstein lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.