A Conversation with Mitch Epstein

Currently on view at Chelsea’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co. is a series of New York images that subvert cityscape clichés by foregrounding what is often merely the background of urban imagery: the city’s trees. In each of these large, black and white photographs, the artist Mitch Epstein portrays a singular tree somewhere in the five boroughs. As Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times, suggests, each of Epstein’s trees is an eccentric character as a well as a monument possessed of its own history. Yet all of them, taken together, challenge us to resist any neat categorizations between our natural, cultural and physical environments. Through exhibitions, publications, installations, films and video, Epstein investigates the complex overlays and interdependencies between these three ways of reading the landscape. Epstein recently sat down with Urban Omnibus to discuss several of his diverse projects and the threads — political, economic, architectural, urban — that connect 40 years of his artwork. –C.S.

Cassim Shepard (CS):

Looking back and reflecting on your diverse body of work, do you think the built environment is a theme that specifically interests you? Or is more incidental to other themes that motivate your process and inquiry?

Mitch Epstein (ME):

I would say the culture of the built environment is always something that has engaged my attention. My pictures are largely drawn from my experience in the real world, and wherever I go, I’m navigating the built environment.

I became committed to photography a­­fter I moved to New York in the summer of 1972 to study art at Cooper Union. New York City enabled me to learn my craft in a very particular way: I spent a lot of time walking the city’s streets, making pictures. The physical layout of New York and finding a way to integrate myself fully into it, had a lot to do with my beginnings as an artist. At this time, my interest in “the built environment” was intuitive. Later, with The City, Family Business and American Power, my interest in the consequences of a community’s infrastructure would become more conscious.

In particular, my recent project American Power – for which I spent five years traveling through the country looking at how energy production and consumption manifest themselves on the American landscape – pointedly reflects on the built industrial environment and how we, as a society, have both prospered and suffered from it.

CS:

Tell me more about American Power. How did the project come about and what were its various components?

ME:

The project was instigated by a commissioned piece that I did in 2003 for The New York Times Magazine. I was asked to photograph the death – in fact, the erasure – of a town. Cheshire, Ohio was built around a coal-fired power plant owned by one of our larger utility companies, American Electric Power (AEP). But due to the environmental contamination of the plant’s immediate environs, AEP offered to buy the residents out and razed the town. I was unnerved by the stories of the handful of renegade residents who refused to sell, and I was struck by the complex relationship between corporation and community, and the questionable choices corporations have made to sustain the growth of energy production. These themes stayed with me after I left Cheshire, the gestalt got under my skin. And so I designed a project that over the next five years took me to regions that were rich in various kinds of energy production. I wasn’t interested in making a strict, documentary account of power plants. Rather, I was interested in looking more deeply at the inter-relationships between various kinds of power and our cultural and political attitudes towards the theme of energy.

I quickly ran into a lot of trouble, in this post-9/11 era, with corporate security from power plants and local law enforcement. I was told that photographing “infrastructure” was not allowed. I stood my ground, but I certainly wasn’t interested in getting arrested. The limits I ran into prompted me to find other ways to broach the subject of energy. I looked more deeply at consumption and the politics behind the business of energy. For example, by the end of the project, I had traveled to both the Democratic and Republican 2008 national conventions. In Denver, the clean coal campaign was propagating its message on big trailer trucks moving through the city. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the convention was held in the Xcel Energy Center, an arena whose corporate sponsor is a large public utility company. The relations between these various institutions, between business, government, people and nature, revealed a complex web that intrigued and troubled me.

ME:

American Power is a series of pictures presented in an exhibition context as well as a publication with an accompanying essay. After the work was finished, there was a lot that remained unsettled for me and also for my wife, Susan Bell, who collaborated with me editorially on the project. We felt compelled to experiment with a public art component to the project, to use the work outside the white box Chelsea gallery context.

So we raised a modest amount of money and took over a number of billboards in Columbus, Ohio, where AEP has its headquarters, and in Cincinnati. We also made a series of posters with relevant and pithy quotes by American writers. We put the pictures online at whatisamericanpower.com, which shares some of the backstories to the pictures and also offers a curricular guide for high school students.

What is American Power? by Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell | 5456 West Broad Street, Columbus, Ohio | Photograph: Lee Satkowski
CS:

I was struck by one phrase in the curricular guide, that it would equip students “to look harder.” What does that phrase mean to you?

ME:

It means to read pictures. We’re taught to read literature, but we’re not generally taught to read images. Photographs are used for so many different purposes, from journalism to advertising to family mementos. And I think remarkable photography insists upon a critical reading of a well-made picture’s layers, its conceptual tension, its historical depth. Much of the backstories of these pictures are embedded in the pictures themselves.

My goal with the American Power series was to make pictures that weren’t simply illustrative, but would resonant metaphorically, that could speak to the paradox, complexity and confusion of our cultural relationship to energy; that could convey what’s at stake. Each picture stands alone, but they come together as a series to form a narrative that suggests the bigger picture.

CS:

How do you think your work abroad, your investigation of material or social cultures in Vietnam or India, inform the way you look at place and space and culture in America?

ME:

I’d say the single most important thing that came from my time abroad was a deeper sense of humility and awareness of the fact that we have a very short-lived history.  When you are in a country like India that has such an extraordinary history, you begin to question your perspective on things. I am part of an American generation with a profound sense of entitlement, a generation that’s taken a lot for granted. By embedding myself and actively participating in unfamiliar worlds, by relinquishing what I thought I knew, I could approach the United States with a new openness.

The cluttered, chaotic intimacy I observed in Asia contrasts sharply with what I see as a self-insulating impulse in the American environment.  In Vietnamese or Indian villages and cities, people live openly and closely, whereas the largely suburban landscape of the States seems to me to prioritize protection and comfort.  Asia is about the extended family; America is about the independent family. And New York is a separate thing — where you can find Asian social vibrancy alongside European order. I’ve felt most comfortable here for all of my adult life.

CS:

One of your first big projects rooted here in the United States was The City. Is that something you approached as a specific project?

ME:

Yes, in the mid 1990s, after the Vietnam project, I wanted to work in America again. And the city seemed the logical place to start: this was my adopted city; this was where I learned the craft of photography; I had invested a lot here. So I wanted to go back to the city as subject. In the beginning, I spent time simply walking the streets, which is how I had started making pictures in the ’70s. But I quickly realized that this was a different era, and the city’s changes began to shape my process. The presence of surveillance cameras and a certain self-consciousness on the part of the public made me aware of how notions of private and public had become very present on the surface of things. And so, one year into the project I committed to the overlap between private and public as the project’s principal theme.

Warehouse, 2000
CS:

What do the words “public” and “private” mean to you in that context?

ME:

For me, the terms evoke boundaries: what are the social boundaries in public space? Often we behave in very private ways when we’re in public. Or inversely, we put on public poses  in private. I began to think about my own life as an example of what each of us has to do to survive in a city like New York: we all construct friendships and associations in a constantly shifting universe of so much diversity and complexity. I used my circle of connections to people, friends, family, and associates to say something about how people function within the larger sphere of their city.

And I went back to some of the areas where I had first gained a footing as a photographer: 5th Avenue, Central Park, and Times Square, which was undergoing a tremendous metamorphosis from this tawdry, sinister funhouse to a Disneyfied, corporatized urban mall. Neighborhoods were positioning themselves as entrance points for big business to come in and redefine the city for the new millennium. And, looking back, I think there was a lot in the air that perhaps suggested what was to come on 9/11. There’s one picture I made, with the twin towers in full view and the tiniest punctuation of a surveillance camera. Obviously, we are in a very different city now than we were in the mid-’90s. And I’m excited by how contending with notions of public and private continues to be a vivid topic for urbanism.

American Elm, Central Park, New York, 2011
CS:

And now you’re making a different kind of portrait of the city with the trees. How did your most recent project come about?

ME:

With The City, it took me a year of making pictures before the central theme of public and private emerged as something I wanted to investigate. And in 2008, I was making work in Berlin as a fellow at the American Academy about the evidence of 20th century history in the present Berlin landscape. That project made me realize that the more specific my starting point, the more possible it would be to draw something vast. Family Business began with a single man, my father, and its subject grew into something much larger. American Power began with a single town and a single theme, energy, and also grew.

Trees have long been a leitmotif in my work, especially in American Power, where the trees in the photographs provided a counterpoint to the overriding evidence of industry within the landscape. Initially, I thought, let me look at trees and see if this is something I can explore in depth. With this project, my approach shifted: I wanted, at least for a time, to stop making pictures that responded to the world I’d inherited – my downtrodden hometown, my disappointed, burdened father, the ravaged landscape of my country – and make, instead, pictures of the world I’d prefer to see. And so I chose to bring individual trees forward as the protagonists in this project. I shot in black and white to keep the viewer’s focus on the trees more than the surrounding human world (color can distract). But I still wanted to photograph these trees in the context of the contemporary landscape. I wanted to draw a broad portrait of the city through some of its extraordinary and idiosyncratic trees.

CS:

How did you choose them?

ME:

I did a lot of research, with books and a lot of looking, walking the city’s streets and parks. In part, I followed a list that the Parks Department had come up with in the ’80s that designated about 100 “great trees.” The project took me into neighborhoods and worlds that were utterly unfamiliar, and it enabled me to look at the city from a vantage that was fresh. These trees came long before me and will live long beyond me; they have been a kind of witness to the longer history of the city.

There’s a picture when you walk in to the show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co of an American Elm up by Central Park in the mid-’90s. The tree sits in the foreground and off to the side are two men in repose. And one of them has his arms folded in a pretzel-like gesture that echoes the gesture of the tree. To be open to, to use this kind of serendipity is important to me. You asked earlier about how my experiences in places like India informed my practice. Well, in India, as a photographer, you’re dealing with a sense of chaos that’s much more extreme than the kind of chaos we might know in America, even in New York. I think that prepared me for part of what photography can capitalize on: how to bring together what might initially seem like unrelated events or elements and link them in a way that can find new meaning through their juxtaposition. That’s part of what photography has the ability to do well.

With the tree pictures, there is a clear inversion of roles. In American Power, trees support — as a foil or counterpoint – the built environment, which is center stage, whereas in this current work, the architecture, environs and people recede into the background; the trees take center stage.

Eastern Cottonwood Tree, Staten Island II, 2011

Mitch Epstein’s photographs are in numerous major museum collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Modern in London. His eight books include Berlin (Steidl & The American Academy in Berlin, 2011); American Power (Steidl, 2009); Mitch Epstein: Work (Steidl, 2006); Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988 (Steidl 2005); and Family Business (Steidl 2003), which won the 2004 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Award. Epstein has worked as a director, cinematographer, and production designer on several films, including Dad, Salaam Bombay!, and Mississippi Masala. Epstein is a vice president of the Architectural League’s board of directors. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.