The works shown here are from a much larger project, American Power. Mitch Epstein takes ‘power’ in both its literal and figurative senses: the ability to get something done, the capacity to influence other people or events, political authority and control, energy produced by electrical, mechanical and nuclear means, and national strength. However, as wide as the definition of power is, American hegemony is such that Epstein’s clever title immediately focuses our minds on a country at the apex of military, economic and cultural might. In a general sense, Epstein concerns himself with the production, distribution and consumption of power in the United States.
What this means in visual terms is a close look at plants and factories, oil rigs, mines, wind turbines, petrol stations and other nodes, along with the effects our systems have on nature and society, both short and long term: the suburb, the inner city, recreation, pollution and disaster. Epstein’s gift is for the big picture; every image has a primary subject which strikes the eye, but closer scrutiny reveals all kinds of nuance. Behind the bluster of American power, Epstein seems to be saying, is great frailty.
Text by William A Ewing
How to See a Tree
Feb 2012, by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times
For little more than a year, Mitch Epstein has been photographing trees around New York City, often setting out before dawn with an assistant and a 1985 parks-department list of arboreal landmarks. The idea grew out of an earlier series about energy production and consumption in America, in which trees served as foils for oil refineries and coal plants.
That was the America that Epstein found. The tree series shows the world, specifically the city where Epstein and his family live, as he prefers to see it. It also proves that you don’t have to travel far to go on a journey or to be awed by nature.
Coolly romantic and in black and white like Muybridge or Atget photographs, the pictures invert how most of us see the city. Without the focus on buildings and people, New York emerges as a wild place in plain sight, populated by eccentric creatures: Hangman’s Elm in Washington Square Park; a Caucasian wingnut in Brooklyn; an eastern cottonwood on Staten Island; an American elm in Central Park, growing from the rocks along Literary Walk like some giant hand reaching skyward out of the earth.
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Photographer Mitch Epstein’ Best Shot
6th November, 2011, by Sarah Phillips, The Guardian
I was working on a project called American Power and wanted to take some pictures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My theme was energy; scientists were making it clear that deadly weather had some relationship to our consumer society. I'm not a photographer who follows the trail of disasters, so I found a way to make work that wouldn't feel voyeuristic or exploitative, through meeting people.
A friend told me about Martha Murphy, who was from Pass Christian, Mississippi. Her ancestral home sat on the Gulf of Mexico and was washed out in its entirety. But she wanted to do something for her community, setting up a big tent and offering free food. I spent a day with her and Charlie Biggs, the family gardener, who was collecting the remains of her home as mementos.
Although it's a situation, the picture was directed. They are positioned on a remaining porch. Like a proscenium theatre, it was a way to have them above ground but sitting among all the articles they were clearly moved by.
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October 2009, by Richard B Woodward, Bombsite
RICHARD B. WOODWARD When and why did you decide to do a book called American Power?
MITCH EPSTEIN First I’d like to clarify my interest in projects versus books. I’ve made a lot of books. I love making books, and sometimes this is misunderstood. All my projects begin as ideas for pictures that develop into a series. I think in terms of pictures—and the quality of a print really matters to me. So the concept of a book isn’t what motivates me to make a work. That said, I like to see my projects end up as books because they give me an opportunity to form a narrative structure for my photographs. And books are more democratic and enduring than exhibitions. A couple of years ago, a man from a tiny town in Siberia emailed me about a book of mine he’d found and loved. It moves me to think that my work winds its way, over time, across the globe.
So, when did I decide to make American Power? In 2003, I was commissioned by the New York Times Sunday Magazine to do a piece about the small town of Cheshire, Ohio. It sits in the shadow of one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the US, owned by American Electric Power (AEP). There were lots of environmental issues with the plant’s emissions. So the company decided to buy everybody out. Erase the town. I spent a couple weeks there, on two trips, and there was one experience in particular that I couldn’t shake off. About a dozen hold-outs wouldn’t sell to AEP, one of whom was Beulah Hern. She was around 80. Her nickname was Boots.
RW She’s in the book.
ME Yes, there’s a portrait of her. She welcomed me into her house and I was immediately struck by the fact that her windows were armed with surveillance cameras. As she watched her soap operas and nightly television, she could also monitor activity on her lawn. The cameras faced a single tree on a bare patch of grass, and, in the far distance, the AEP cooling tower and stacks.
RW Did you have a sense that she had been approached by the press before and had become media savvy?
ME Boots was part of a group that had been congregating and campaigning against the company. I said, “Would you mind if I took a picture of you?” She sat down in her easy chair, reached into the side pocket and asked, “Would you like to see my gun?” The chair is designed to hold magazines and instead she pulls out a handgun. (laughter) I must have looked scared, because she said, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” and pulled out the cartridge. The fact that she armed herself blew me away. Here was everyman’s granny with a gun. Meeting Boots and watching the Cheshire houses being demolished were what got me started on this project. The rocket ship wallpaper in a boy’s bedroom, the shag wall-to-wall carpet—I found these remnants of human life in abandoned houses, houses that were literally ripped in half by backhoes. It spooked me. It made me want to explore how power had created this perverse situation where people were potentially poisoned and then given a fee to leave their homes and keep their mouths shut.
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