Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mitch Epstein: American Power

I first became aware of photographer Mitch Epstein’s new book American Power late last summer after seeing his cover image on the summer 2009 issue of Granta. Inside were 15 images and an essay “American Power” by Epstein, the essay in essence the afterword for his new book which was published last fall. The Granta cover image was Epstein’s photograph “Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia, 2004.” That cover alone, of the Poca high school football team practicing on their field near the power plant’s cooling towers, made that issue of Granta a must buy for me.

While on our “Follow the River” vacation last fall when my husband and I traveled between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh following the Ohio River (as well as a side trip along the Kanawha River) through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, the landscape was often dominated by the coal-fired power plants along our drive. We’d
recently begun taking photographs of our own in Ohio River towns, but Epstein was already ahead of us in his vision. American Power was six years in the making, and the 63 photographs which made the final cut into his book will make you hold your breath as you think about energy – environmentally, economically, and politically.

Epstein, who has been photographing for thirty years, has published five books and his photographs are part of the permanent collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum, New York Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum. The photographs in American Power are color images, taken with his primary tool of choice, an 8 x 10 view camera. Making the photographs was often a challenge given the post-9/11 Homeland Security atmosphere, which serves to add an additional layer of irony to his images, to his story, and even to his project’s title.

An October 2009 New York Times article, “Capturing a Nation’s Thirst for Energy” by Randy Kennedy, recounts the 2004 incident of Epstein being run out of Shippingport, PA for taking photographs from a public sidewalk in town of the power pla
nt there. From Epstein’s essay “American Power” we learn of a similar incident happening to him in the town of Poca, WV.

Jorg Colberg (founder and editor of the fine art photography blog Conscientious, and a research scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), in his interview “A Conversation with Mitch Epstein” (PopPhoto, September 2007) asks Epstein about his role as a photographer. Epstein replies, “I don’t think in terms of having a ‘role’ as a photographer, nor do I consider my purpose to ‘record.’ I am compelled to interpret, not record the world around me.” Later in that same interview, Epstein describes the experience of being questioned by local law enforcement officers and FBI agents because of Homeland Security: “I have been stopped more than once on public property for photographing distant coal stacks . . . This project calls into question so much of what I’ve taken for granted. One thing I’ve taken for granted (aside from endless natural resources for me, my children and grandchildren) is my freedom to photograph in public space in the United States of America.”

I have also stood on a public sidewalk in Shippingport, PA and snapped images of a community swimming pool with the power plant in the background, as well as a public playground in the shadow of the power plant. But working with a 35mm camera is much quicker – no need to set up a tripod for a large, heavy camera or peek under a dark cloth in order to view the image on the ground glass back of the camera – and I doubt that anyone noticed me. Had I been working with a larger format camera, it may have been a different story. I hesitate to even share my shots here since they are nowhere near the league of Epstein’s shots, but given that they were taken in Shippingport they may help show how it’s nearly impossible to not see the power plant in town, making his experience there all the more alarming. Someone mistaking a tripod for a rocket launcher in itself shows how fearful we’ve become.

Playground at Shippingport, PA, 2009 (copyright by Dory Adams)

(Click on images for larger view)

Swimming Pool at Shippingport, PA, 2009
(copyright by Dory Adams)

If nothing else, Mitch Epstein’s photographs should make us think about our energy consumption, and about the effect that consumption is having on the climate and the land. Last week American Power was one of several photography books I bought as a birthday gift for my husband. This is the book I keep picking up and paging through. Staring at the images. I can’t stop looking at these photographs.

I hope you’ll take a look at Epstein’s work. You can see fifteen of the images showcased by James Estrin at the Lens blog at the New York Times.

Photo Credits:
Top: “Playground at Shippingport, PA” copyright © 2009 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
Bottom: “Swimming Pool at Shippingport, PA” copyright © 2009 by Dory Adams, all right reserved

News: I’m the Curator of the Week over at She Writes, where I’ve chosen and reviewed three blogs for the week of January 24th-29th: Caroline Leavitt’s blog CarolineLeavittville, Lauren B. Davis’ blog View from the Library Window, and Lisa Romeo’s blog Lisa Romeo Writes.

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1 comment:

Ben said...

thanks for introducing me to Epsteins work...