Photographer Mitch Epstein, whose new show opens at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. on March 16, spoke with Richard B. Woodward for BOMBsite in 2009.
Check out a slideshow of photos from American Power.
Mitch Epstein’s career recalls that of photographers from earlier decades, the era before academia became an artist’s primary means of support and commercial art galleries the ultimate goal for displaying work. Like his teacher, Garry Winogrand, Epstein has concentrated his efforts on a series of ambitious, independent projects that are subsequently published as books.
The first of these books—In Pursuit of India and Vietnam: A Book of Changes—were personal explorations of Asia. Closer to home was The City, a photographic essay about public and private life in New York City, and Family Business, a multimedia portrait of his father and family’s crumbling immigrant business empire in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Recreation: American Photographs 1973–1988 and WORK were mini-retrospectives that included a generous selection of his pictures from the ’70s and ’80s, when Epstein was among the first photographers to prove that color could be as exciting, flexible, and artful as black-and-white.
All of Epstein’s work expresses a belief that a photographer can engage with issues beyond self-reflexive ones. In the summer of 2009, I sat down with Epstein in his New York apartment, where he lives with his wife and daughter, and where the main topic of conversation was American Power, Epstein’s forthcoming book of photographs dealing with energy production and consumption—the politics of fueling America.
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.
RW Did you set the boundary for yourself that every picture should deal with the question of energy, either obviously or metaphorically?
ME Yes. I gave myself the rule that there had to be some direct relationship to energy in every picture I made—either production or consumption. The first trip I made on my own, after the Times commission, was to West Texas. I wanted to see a landscape of wind turbines surrounded by pump jacks. I liked the irony. I thought it would be an incredible sight: big Texas oil fields co-opted by mega-windfarming. It was.
Soon, though, I was facing harassment from local and federal law enforcement agents whenever I went to shoot in the vicinity of a corporate energy production site, despite being on public property. This got me pretty angry. I was suddenly subjected to national paranoia, not just reading about it in liberal magazines. Cops or the FBI threw me out of town and inspected my pictures. Their actions were illegal under the Constitution as I knew it, before the Patriot Act. The fury I felt about losing my freedom as an artist fueled a desire to keep working and get the better of the system; it made me want to make pictures that would express the tension and fear I felt contending with that system. So, yes, the project began about energy, but quickly became about power in all its dimensions—not only voltage power, but governmental and corporate power. The power of nature. The power of community. An artist’s power. American Power came to mean all these things and question their balance.
RW Before you would take a trip, you did research, right? Did you say to yourself, “Okay, I have coal-powered plants, now I need hydroelectric and nuclear”? Did you run down a checklist that way?
ME I wanted a diversity of energy sources and I wanted the project to have geographical breadth. Going to every region of the country became important. I followed the path of the Columbia River, from near Portland all the way up to Hanford and Washington State, where there’s a series of dams made by the Army Corps of Engineers. I drove the Ohio River from just west of Charleston, West Virginia, and all the way up, just short of Pittsburgh, which is just one coal-fired power plant after another. I went to all the regions in California that had wind, from the Altamont Pass to Palm Springs. I went to photograph the Alaska Pipeline and drove along most of it, all the way from Valdez going north up into the Dalton Pass.
RW When you know you’re going to photograph something like the Alaska Pipeline, did you think beforehand, “I want to take a different kind of picture than I’ve seen before”? How much planning went into these trips?
ME It varies. For Alaska, I read a lot and spoke to the author Elizabeth Kolbert. I liked her book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, so I got in touch with her to get some guidance. She spent time in Alaska with a climatologist and made a trip up the Dalton pass. She made that trip when there were these Dante-esque forest fires, which she described to me. That sounded like something I might want to photograph. When I went, I was shocked by how vulnerable the Pipeline was; the fires had come right up to it. One picture I made shows charred trees within a few yards of the pipe, which has graffiti on it that says: BEND OVER BABY.
I did a little picture research, too. I took note of the tourism that takes place at the Pipeline. People come off cruise ships and get bussed up to Mount McKinley. One of their main destinations is the Pipeline. It’s an American icon and they all go there with tour guides. Sixty and seventy-year-old people look at the thing and kind of caress it. They just stand in awe of it. That was something I wanted to capture, but in the end I didn’t make a picture that worked. Picture research can backfire. It can get me too prepared for a certain image. I work best when I feel like I’m discovering something. I don’t want to know too much pictorially before I arrive; if I do, it’s hard to discover something on my own terms. But picture research has been helpful for finding general landscapes I’d like to visit.
RW Were you shooting 4×5 digital?
ME No, I was shooting film the entire project. I’ve never shot digital other than for family snapshots. I wanted to make large prints and I wouldn’t get the kind of tonal rendering and detail if I were shooting digital. Also, I wouldn’t want the distraction and the cumbersome qualities of digital out in the field. So I never thought about it.
I switched to an 8×10 format for American Power because I was suddenly photographing vast landscapes from a significant distance, from a half-mile or a mile-plus away. I wanted to make pictures that would be really information-rich and not fall apart as a large print. I went back to the oil fields of Oildale, California three times with a 4×5, because I didn’t get the picture I had hoped to. Finally, I realized that the acuity, depth, and richness of information I was looking for could only be had with an 8×10. I made a fourth trip with the bigger camera and got the picture. The 8×10 is the opposite of where I come from: I began by working with a Leica in my hand, and for 20 years even the idea of putting a camera on a tripod was utterly terrifying to me. So it was a challenge and a kind of maturity for me to figure out how to use and love using an 8×10. I think because of my early years with a Leica on the streets I don’t treat the large format as something too precious. I don’t fetishize it. Nonetheless, I have to say that looking at the world as it arranges itself in an 8×10 ground glass is magical.
RW This is the first time you’ve had to deal with the problem of access, right?
ME In a significant way, yes.
RW Shooting 8×10 makes you more vulnerable, more conspicuous, doesn’t it? People in cars or pedestrians see you with the cloth over your head and the camera on a tripod, and they suspect you’re doing something important or mysterious, perhaps dangerous.
ME Once the police got a call from someone who said he’d seen a man with a missile launcher walking up the street. I was the man and the launcher was my tripod. So my equipment made me more noticeable, yes. One day, I was a half-mile away from the Amos Coal Power plant in Poca, West Virginia, on a public sidewalk under my cloth with my assistant standing next to me. First the local police came over, then they called in a sheriff, who called the state police, who called plant security, and finally the FBI showed up. So, in the course of an hour and a half, I went through this intense interrogation with seven law enforcement officials. I didn’t know if I would get out of this one. The FBI agent told me if I were Muslim there wouldn’t have even been a conversation; I would have been cuffed and taken in for questioning. It was a moment where everything I had come to take for granted as a photographer—freedom of movement and the freedom to make pictures on public property—was put on hold. I was told to leave that area, that it would be “good for me” not to spend any more time there. Maybe someone braver would have argued his Constitutional rights, but I didn’t feel like taking on the police and FBI in one shot—especially in West Virginia when I was from New York. I got the hell out of there because I was scared.
RW Did your run-ins with the law influence your project?
ME This paranoia that had been stirred up after 9/11 made me question very carefully what picture was worth gambling my freedom on, worth getting arrested for, since that appeared a distinct possibility the longer the project went on. My attorney said, “It’s not worth getting arrested at any cost and ending up in some small-town jail.” Even without going to jail, the interrogations alone were upsetting, not to mention a distraction. So I went out on each shooting trip with trepidation. I had to think a situation was really remarkable to put myself on the line for it.
RW Did you have an assistant with you?
ME I always had one assistant, because it felt more secure. And 8×10 equipment is heavy! An assistant enables me to work swiftly when I’m photographing something in flux.
RW Also to be a lookout.
ME It’s also just nice to have company. It’s lonely to give up the comforts of home and be at a distance from my family and meet the rigors of the kind of schedule that I keep when I’m on the road, where I’m up at dawn and working into the evening. I’ve had two terrific assistants for this project: Joseph Lopez and Lee Satkowski, great guys with more than good technical skills.
RW So when did you start thinking about American Power as a book?
ME I didn’t think about the book in a concrete way until a year ago.
RW When you had enough pictures that you liked? How many did it take?
ME Probably 50. Maybe more. But the number of pictures was less important than the perspective I got by leaving New York for six months in the spring of 2008. I had a fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin. Living in Berlin helped me detach from the adrenalin of being in the middle of making the work. I studied my prints (I’d brought a box of small ones) and made a list of things to hone in on to bring the project to a close. I started to think about how the photographs might work together as a whole—where each picture stands on its own but can also have a dialogue with the others. This goes to the heart of my bookmaking: figuring out a coherent structure that can contain many very different works without forfeiting their individual impact. The book’s coherence can’t be too obvious and it can’t be too obtuse.
It was also great to be around a bunch of people talking about American politics who were not American or hadn’t lived in America for a long time. I gained a lot from seeing my own country from an outsider’s perspective. I decided to end the project as the Bush administration came to an end. It became clear to me that there was an overlap, that American Power is kind of a testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era. The project contains the themes of that administration.
RW And those themes being?
ME The misuse of power—corporate and governmental—to profit a very few.
RW Also the manipulation of the mass fear of terrorism.
ME Absolutely. Fear of terrorism, and the ends to which we will go as a society to keep in place what we have already instituted. Security was an important theme for me, as it was for the Bush-Cheney brigade.
RW Well, you’ve defined it—American power—widely and in a sense ambiguously, and that’s evidenced in the cover shot, which could be either steam or smoke from an exploding shell. It could be American power, military power, or it could be American energy-beneficent power. Did you have that in mind?
ME I purposefully abstracted the picture to make it more ambiguous. Also, I wanted to make it work well with typography. I cropped the stacks out, so the smoke isn’t simply literal or illustrative. I wanted to convey a tension between terror and beauty through the ominousness of the smoke and its calligraphic quality. It looks a little like Japanese calligraphy—or else the clouds from a Constable painting—something gorgeous and spiritual. But it also looks like death. As you say, you could see energy production as benefiting society, as a good thing, essential to our progress over the last hundred years. But you could also see energy, as it’s been handled in the US, as the essence of capitalist irresponsibility. American Power holds these two sides of the coin, and the viewer will hopefully engage with the tension of this duality.
RW How does that duality affect you?
ME Making this work has made me call into question, more than anything I’ve ever done in the past, what it means to be an American at this point in time and what choices we face as a society. Will we pursue our individualism to such a degree that we become an inefficient, immoral society? Or will we recognize the need for a more lively cooperative life, with humane health care; a new rail system that gets people out of their cars to travel communally, with far lower impact on our environment; and with consumption of more local food and less tomatoes from Peru in January, so that the carbon footprint is diminished. Americans, myself included, need to learn restraint and a greater consciousness of our neighbor’s needs. There is a Native American saying: “Live simply in order that others may simply live.” I’m not saying we should all live a bare-boned existence. I don’t want to give up my dishwasher or washing machine. But there is so much excess these days, so much we could cut out of our lives without sacrificing comfort. Americans need to stop feeling so entitled to every luxury at our disposal—SUVs in the city, 8,000 square-foot homes with energy-inefficient windows and air conditioning. It is hard for the American renegade spirit to adapt to this new era, where social cooperation and compromise are as important as individual rights.
RW When you did the Family Business project on your father as a landlord and struggling family business owner in Holyoke, Massachusetts, you made videos of his interactions with his tenants and with you and your family. Did you consider doing any of that for this project?
ME No, I didn’t feel the need for that the way I did during the Family Business project. I shot video of my father because there were so many things going on that involved dialogue and dramatic action—his interactions with his tenants, employees, family members. This was in no way translatable through a still photograph and it was crucial to that project. With American Power I thought I could and should treat the anguish and possibility of the American landscape as a strictly visual thing, not verbal, and I believed I could do that best with photographs. Here’s the other reason I didn’t make a film: I was burnt out at the end of five years of road trips and making photographs and being hassled by the police and reading about the damage our society has done and seeing that damage first-hand and meeting Americans whose livelihoods depended on that same damage being done—all those people working for coal plants or oil companies who are understandably frightened of losing their jobs to new energy. I’d been living in what felt like a vortex of demoralizing imagery and information, and I’d had enough. I’d said everything I had to say in my photographs.
RW Talk a little bit about your origins as a photographer—who were you looking at in your early years?
ME In high school, Cartier-Bresson was a model. I also had, when I was 17, a wonderful graphic arts teacher named Barry Moser.
RW Oh sure, he illustrated Moby Dick and a number of other books.
ME Yeah, he did a number of classics. He set an example of the rigor that artmaking involves. I didn’t know that I would go further with photography until I ended up at Cooper Union. I went to RISD in between, but I needed the stimulation of living in New York City. The first class I signed up for at Cooper was with Garry Winogrand, and I had no idea what I was in store for. I remember my utter confusion—
RW What sort of a teacher was he?
ME Garry was brilliant and ruthless. He taught through his silences. He absolutely refused to kowtow to explaining a photograph, to telling the class what was making it work or not work. He wanted it to come from us. He taught me how to look harder at a picture and not rely on someone else’s view of it. In the second semester, a few of us said it would be interesting to start shooting in color. That was a breakthrough for me.
RW How did Garry teach color?
ME One day, he brought William Eggleston to class to show pictures that ultimately became part of the Guide exhibition. Those pictures were beyond my comprehension, but they were titillating and unlike anything I’d ever seen. Maybe the single most significant thing Winogrand taught me about color was to forget the fact that I had it in the camera. In those days, Eggleston and a few others aside, color was used almost exclusively for advertising. Color was self-consciously added on as an extra layer to decorate the picture below it, the frosting on the cake. I’d never argue that color is incidental to a picture—it certainly holds meaning and directives—but if treated with a heavy hand—
RW Or a decorative hand …
ME It becomes ornamental. The final lesson I got from Garry was in watching him make pictures. He loved what he did, he was so passionate; making pictures was his daily meal. And to be around that, to see what it meant for somebody to be driven and excited by the pursuit of an artistic practice was thrilling.
RW So what did you do with these lessons?
ME I dropped out and just made pictures. (laughter) I had absorbed Garry’s teaching and that of other teachers like Tod Papageorge, and had begun to draw on the larger language of the history of photography. In those years at Cooper I was up at MoMA a lot studying vintage prints. I also loved being out in New York; it was a laboratory of experience and ideas and other art and cinema to look at and people to engage with. I wanted to make pictures and started to lose patience with being in a classroom, even though Cooper was great.
RW So, what did you do between 1975, when you dropped out of Cooper, and the publication of your first book, In Pursuit of India, in 1987. Give a compressed history of your continuance with photography and early work in film.
ME I went to India about ten times with my first wife, Mira Nair, the filmmaker, and worked collaboratively on several films there.
RW Salaam Bombay!?
ME Yes, but first there was So Far From India, where we followed a subway newsstand worker from his stand at Columbia University back to his home in Gujarat. One valuable experience about film was learning to work collaboratively. The way I did photography then was very solitary. With film, I spent a great deal of time with the subject in front of the camera—the newsstand worker or the Indian cabaret dancers for India Cabaret, another film we did.
RW Did you enjoy that experience?
ME It was extraordinary because the dancers were absolutely generous. We were at a cabaret club that was next to a crematorium. Extremes of sex and death, layered on top of one another—that’s India. I spent a lot of time in the dressing room, which was the size of a closet. The women accepted me in there. They trusted me in a way they wouldn’t trust an Indian, maybe because I couldn’t understand everything they were saying in Hindi. Maybe because I was married to an Indian. I did know the curse words! I knew enough that I could laugh with them.
This freedom to engage with the subjects of a film encouraged me to loosen the strictness that I’d learned at Cooper, which dictated that photographers should never interfere with or alter their subject. I long ago crossed that line, without, on the other hand, becoming an inventor of imagery like Jeff Wall. I still draw my pictures from the real world, I still find facts that are far stranger than fiction, so I haven’t felt the impulse to invent from scratch. But I will move or add or subtract an object or ask someone to be still or turn if I think it helps the picture. I asked Beulah Hern to put the cartridge she’d removed from her gun in her other hand. These are very small shifts, but they still violate the classical notion of street photography.
Now people do all kinds of things digitally and few seem to wonder whether a picture has been overmanipulated. Don’t get me wrong: I love digital. Even though I don’t shoot with it, I print digitally. I’m no purist. But I think it’s easy to get carried away with manipulation, turn it into a game, and forget the value of authenticity.
RW Your wife, Susan Bell, works with you as an editor, doesn’t she?
ME Yes, she is a professional editor and teaches at the New School graduate writing program. She helps me conceptualize and edit a project. She takes time, a day or two a week, from her own work to collaborate with me. She has a lot to do with how American Power—as well as my Vietnam project, The City, and Family Business—all turned out. From 2003 to 2008 she had to put up with my obsession, but she got obsessed, too. American Power has ignited a political engagement in both of us. For over five years we’ve been discussing the topic of energy and how that one topic might express every facet of power in the US. In the end, we both felt the need to do more than create a museum or gallery exhibition and book. We wanted my pictures to prompt people outside the intelligentsia to think harder about protecting their environment.
So, Susan and I are developing this ambitious public art project called American Power Public Art. We are making an art “ad” campaign. As a friend said, we’re “hijacking the tools of advertising” to inspire and educate people about environmental issues. There will be a series of billboards and transportation posters placed in several regions where I made pictures. Hopefully, we can do installations in the coal belt—West Virginia and Pennsylvania—and the West—Texas and Nevada. We want to work with art and environmental organizations on the ground. We just got a Soros Open Society Institute grant to pursue these installations, which is a great vote of confidence. We’d also like to do installations in New York and Washington DC. The billboards will have short quotes from eminent American voices ranging from Walt Whitman and Thoreau to Susan Sontag and Malcolm X. For instance, across the smoke picture is written in bold letters, “This is the air that bathes the globe.” That’s Whitman. Or written across the Hoover Dam is the Sioux proverb, “The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives.” We hope the images and words will inspire people to look harder at their landscape and how they relate to it. The environmental movement can depress and terrify people, or numb them with statistics. We hope our billboards will not only provoke people, but also inspire them. We’re making a website, too, that will contain some of the American Power artwork, but be educational, too, explaining the environmental facts behind the photographs. We’re creating an American Power booklet and curriculum guide for secondary school teachers to use.
The public art project is a natural result of the collaboration I’ve had with Susan. We think we’re at a critical juncture as a society and one filled with possibility.