19 July 2011
State of the Union, Mitch Epstein
Photographs by Mitch Epstein. Published by Hatje Cantz.
State of the Union has the scope and character of a photographic 'Great American Novel' (even if it does not trumpet its status as such) and it's hard to avoid the description 'novelistic' when turning the pages of this handsome, thematically substantial volume. The comparison is somewhat specious, in that authorship here is the business of publisher Hatje Cantz and the Kunstmuseum Bonn - this is, strictly speaking, an exhibition catalogue rather than a monograph - as much as it is of the photographer. Strictly speaking (again) these photos also constitute two chronologically distinct bodies of work rather than one long narrative. However, the description seems to suit work that is as complex and eloquent, and as sensitive to the shifting relations of individual, social and natural scale, as this photography is.
Epstein himself remarks in the engaging interview with Stefan Gronert, that he is working in 'a tradition of projects that address the idea of nation, and specifically America as a nation.' The two photographic projects presented form a coherent, intelligent overview of the artist's engagement with American life, both from a street-level, intimate perspective (more frequently in the earlier Recreation series) and from a wider, more emphatically detached point of view (in American Power). These series have been published previously as discrete monographs, but this volume makes plain how the artist's distinctive vision has persisted - and evolved - over time.
Prevailing characteristics include an ability to 'disappear' into a scene, enabling the photographer to capture intimate, even whimsical, moments in everyday life without the resulting image feeling either too staged or else incoherent. A photograph of four women crowded round an obscured object on the city sidewalk in Recreation, for example, is a cannily snapped piece of street theatre. A dense, hectic, unmistakably urban composition as well as a magical visual moment; four crazily-patterned dresses that are, the photographer knows, a joy to look at, though their owners strain to look elsewhere. There is also a genius for making visually legible the relationships between people and their neighbours, their belongings and their surroundings. In the earlier series, this skill manifests itself most obviously in portraits of groups of people, whether it be a family - strung out in a long line, each member subtly failing to connect either physically or by eye-contact with each of the others - or a crowd of Vietnam veterans, each individuated but not one detached or dispensable in terms of the composition. In American Power, an investigation of energy production, consumption and waste in the United States made in 2009, this skill transfers onto a (literally) larger canvas, where Epstein juxtaposes human beings (rarely individuals), their homes and their industry, all within the setting of grand American landscapes.
It is hard to adequately convey the impact of these wide-angle, densely detailed landscapes, which document domestic American rituals, industrial apparatus and epic landscapes, often all within the same frame. The photographs individually become colder, both in mood and palette, partly as a result of the flattening effect that occurs when elements far and near - a golf course and a wind farm, in one memorable example - are given equal attention and brought into direct visual comparison. This is partly also, as both Christoph Schreier and Stephan Berg point out in their thoughtful, precise essays, because the photographer who was once in-amongst-the-crowd, close to his human subjects, has now distanced himself and resists the vivid, humanistic images he made in earlier, less pointedly political works. The cover photograph of this volume - from American Power, depicting an unfinished concrete bridge cutting through untamed countryside - seems to suggest that the 'State of the Union' is not necessarily cause for optimism; technologized but alienating, ambitious but without direction.
What is equally impressive, however, is the sensitivity and variety of Epstein's response to his surroundings and subjects, so that at no point do the photographs (or the book itself) become heavy handedly didactic or self-righteous. This is a point made variously by each of the three focused, analytical texts that have been contributed to this volume, as well as by the photographer himself, who states that he was keen to avoid a 'simplistic agenda' in American Power. The almost collage-like effect of some of these photographs - showing, for example, a glowing oil refinery at the end of a long avenue of trees, or a vast windfarm in the background of a sleepy small town - does not act simply as an indictment of complacent consumers, or a representation of the impassive face of big business. It is also a manifestation of the difficulties many of us face when confronted with 'energy issues', our blankness when presented with, as Stephan Berg puts it, 'the simultaneity of necessary energy production and the exploitation and destruction it wreaks.'
The book itself makes light work of crafting an enjoyable, absorbing reading experience from two sections of dense, large-format photography, combined with a substantial amount of text in both German and English. The text is handled elegantly through a two-colour, highly readable design, and the two 'plate' sections are laid out in two distinct styles, contrasting the less consistent Recreation works with the more imposing, formal American Power. The only obstacle to the reading experience one may encounter is that the upright format of this book seems wilfully designed to disrupt the large square and landscape-format images - a deep gutter cutting right through the centre of some works. Yet somehow this 'human' orientation does not prove disastrously distracting. The format is dynamic like the work itself and seems to complement images that throw the reader back on his or her analytical skills, as much as on their appreciation for sheer aesthetic skill.
This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 8th July 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are by Mitch Epstein, from State of the Union, published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.