Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book: Mitch Epstein, American Power

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2009 by Steidl (here). 144 pages, including 63 color plates and an essay by the artist. The images in the book were taken across the United States between 2003 and 2008. (Cover shot at right, via Photo-Eye.)

Comments/Context: In the future, when we look back on the first decade of the 21st century, I think Mitch Epstein's American Power will be one of a handful of cornerstone photography books that will be considered thoroughly representative of the post 9/11 Bush years. Its catchy double-meaning title succinctly exposes the focal points of the period: energy, in its many forms and its pervasive impact, and power, in the form of political, governmental, industrial, and corporate influence and how it permeated the fabric of the society.
The essay in the back of the monograph is particularly enlightening in terms of setting the mood for the pictures. During the project, Epstein was routinely hassled and detained, harassed and searched, and generally prevented from making the pictures he wanted to make by the various powers that be; his frustration was real and palpable. As a result, there are very few "insider" images of the power industry in this book; nearly all of the images are taken from afar, settled into the surrounding landscape and given context by the local environment. Unlike Edward Burtynsky's recent work which centers on the massive and monumental scale of the oil industry, Epstein's images of the world of energy are grounded in human sized neighborhoods. The cooling towers, smokestacks, windmills and refinery pipes loom in the distance, hovering over otherwise normal everyday activities (football practice, backyard gardening, a riverside baptism, smoking a cigarette, golf, cattle grazing, fishing), a constant "Big Brother" reminder of the insignificance (and powerlessness) of the ordinary citizen. Fear is never far away in these images as well; bored guards with machine guns, surveillance cameras, fences and barriers, safety refuges, gas pumps hawking "terror-free oil", they all become part of the energy narrative.

What I found impressive about these images is that nearly all of them have subtle details and hidden ironies to discover. Epstein isn't shouting or hectoring. He has put forth an understated narrative that encourages both balanced and conflicted thoughts: the enormous American flag draped across the side of a refinery, smiling "Boots" Hern and her handgun, the mind-numbing boredom of the nuclear regulatory office time sheets and phone logs, the pipeline defaced with "bend over baby", the post-Katrina mattress in the tree, the white "bathtub ring" left by the drought at the Hoover Dam, the nuclear missile in the lobby at the DOE, and the hurricane weather map on the Jumbotron at the Republican National Convention (held at the Xcel Enegry Center of all places). At first glance, it's easy to miss these tiny subtexts and wry jokes; when they are finally recognized, they transform the images into something altogether more complicated and disturbing.
Stylistically, it seems Epstein has used the 1970s mindset of Robert Adams and his views on suburban expansion as raw material, and applied some of the same thinking on a more personal level to the current/recent energy situation. There are also parallels to Alec Soth's The Last Days of W in terms of the overall level of exhausted and resigned angst. Overall, this is an excellent body of work, both well crafted and thought-provoking, and likely to resonate more loudly and fully as the years pass.
Collector’s POV: Mitch Epstein is represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York (here). The works from this series are c-prints, made in two sizes: 70x92 (in editions of 4) and 45x58 (in editions of 6). While Epstein's work has not been consistently available in the secondary markets in past years, the recent Berman sale at Christie's had quite a few of his prints; prices for these lots ranged between $3000 and $15000.

Transit Hub:

  • Artist website (here)
  • Features: NY Times, 2009 (here)
  • Book reviews: Modern Painters (here), Conscientious (here)
  • Interviews: Bomb (here), Foto8 (here), Neiman Storyboard (here)
  • Gallery review: NY Times, 2007 (here)

1 comment:

BC said...

Thanks for this nice review. I recently got a copy (he was signing them at Strand Books a few weeks ago) and have very much enjoyed it.