Over the course of his career, Mitch Epstein has covered diverse topics such as Vietnam, his father and the demise of the family furniture store, or - most recently - America’s cultural investment in energy. I am very glad I had the opportunity to speak with him about his work.
Jörg Colberg: Before talking about any individual project of yours let me ask you something about photography in general. You have been working as a photographer for quite a while, and you have covered a wide range of topics, all the while both contemporary photography and the world at large have undergone fairly large changes. I would be curious to learn about how you think your role as a photographer and your interest in what you wanted to record have changed?
Mitch Epstein: 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.
As an artist, I wrestle with the challenge of how to bring meaning and new ideas to my work. To keep picture-making fresh and meaningful has been a fundamental struggle since my beginnings. While I began making pictures with a 35mm rangefinder camera in the early 70s, I’m now primarily working with an 8x10 field camera. The possibilities and limitations of these divergent tools have dictated radically different approaches to what and how I make pictures. Changing tools can set off a deep and useful shift in your way of seeing, and in your intention.
I’ve become more of a director in recent years. First, with the making and conception of my individual pictures, and secondly, with the books, films, installations, and exhibitions I’ve conceived of and executed for my projects.
What I want to photograph changes with time. The stakes are higher for me both humanly and artistically, as I get older. I have a family now and a more acute consciousness of the world as a welcoming or non-welcoming place for my child. I have thirty years of photographing behind me, and I’m more demanding with myself than ever — I want those years of experience to support my more mature engagement with making art. I feel like I’ve been building up to or training for a kind of high wire act. I’m using decades of experience to balance me while I try out a way of working (large-format landscape) that is totally new to me. Each picture is now made in a slower, highly deliberate manner that I couldn’t have imagined using twenty years ago.
This slower approach began with Family Business, and has culminated in American Power — what I am currently working on. American Power questions the very idea of the American dream that defined my father’s life in Family Business. What did we, as a country, want to become? So much of who we are now is predicated on the idea of a society without limits. Manifest Destiny. We are a society with too great a sense of entitlement.
I don’t begin my day with a political agenda. The topics of global warming, energy sources, and heavy-handed security are not on my mind in a conscious manner when I make pictures. Formal questions like how to frame the landscape are much more compelling to me then. I only become aware of the political aspects of the pictures as I step deeper into the intricacies of making the work itself. I make a conscious effort to engage with the complexity of our cultural state of things, rather than reduce it to visual sloganeering. Pictures with a clear one-sided message don’t interest me even if I agree with their message; they are mere propaganda.
JC: It is often claimed that the internet is causing rapid changes for the world of photography, with people being able to network more easily and photos becoming increasingly ubiquitous. What is your take on this subject matter? What do you see as strengths and as weaknesses of photography on the internet?
ME: I don’t spend much time looking at photography on the internet. I have been using the internet as a research tool for American Power. I’m astounded by the amount of information at my fingertips on the web, and I’m aware that a similarly huge quantity of photography exists on the web. The challenge of distinguishing interesting work on the internet is fundamentally the same as it is off the internet. However, the rewards of looking at photographs on a computer screen are limited in comparison to the experience of viewing original prints or photographic books with offset reproductions. I feel the same about drawings or paintings viewed on the computer screen. If I have the choice of looking at a Vermeer painting on my laptop or traveling to the Metropolitan to see the original, I’d get on the subway and travel uptown to see the actual painting. While I’ve been intrigued by photography I’ve discovered on the internet, I cannot remember having ever been transported by the experience. Images on the computer screen are ephemeral, their scale is limited, and they don’t invite the critical reading and visceral engagement of a real print.
JC: Coming to your own work, there is one question which I like to ask simply because it touches something that many photographers are struggling with: How do you decide what project to work on, what subject matter to pick?
ME: I never pick my projects, my projects inevitably pick me. I don’t mean that glibly. I’ve learned to listen to what moves and troubles me, and that leads me to where I have to go next.
I have been through many hellish periods where I don’t know what’s to follow after finishing a body of work - a kind of post partem. But I’ve learned that it is helpful to remain patient, open, and necessary to allow myself to relax and pursue other interests beyond photography during these periods.
JC: Your project “Family Business” is very personal work, and I think it might be my personal favourite (if I had to single out a series). I can imagine that that project must have been challenging for you on many different levels. As you write you “became possessed” to find out how your father “ended up a character out of an Arthur Miller tragedy”, something that for many people would somewhat get in the way of taking photos. How did you deal with all the different aspects and motivations that you had? How did you balance the personal and professional, how did you decide what boundaries to set for what to show and what not to show?
ME: Family Business is an example of a project that was not premeditated.
Listening to the cries and worries of my mother over years of distressed phone calls about the woes of my father’s businesses, I initially went home to offer my support, but also to better understand what had happened to my father and my changed hometown. It was never my intention to take on an epic project about something as personal as my father. I quickly realized that there was little I could do to help, but I was spellbound by the dramas, the characters and landscape of my father’s world which I had detached myself from as a New Yorker for thirty years
I worked hard to find a balance between my ruthlessly direct approach to the work and the respect and empathy that I felt for my father as his son.
I frequently made week-long trips to shoot in Holyoke, Massachusetts (my hometown), but at the end of a grueling week I would get to return to the comfort and distance of my own family and home in New York City. This process of ‘coming and going’ enabled me to recover from the emotional and intellectual intensity of my trips, and to assess and gain fresh perspective and strength before I set out again. Even when I spent two summers in Massachusetts in order to work intensively on Family Business, I chose to rent a house in the neighboring town of Northampton so that I could leave Holyoke at the end of the day and gain some small bit of separation.
The rule that I gave myself was to photograph or film people or situations that related to my father. That was essentially my single restriction.
Only once did my father stop me from filming him while he was collecting overdue rents. Other than that, he placed no restraints on me, and I never felt the necessity to censor myself. I always approached my father from a position of respect, even if I disagreed or didn’t understand him. I’m glad I did this project when I was fifty; I couldn’t have had the emotional distance needed when I was younger.
JC: And then when “Family Business” was done, how did it compare with what you might have thought it would be before you set out to shoot it?
ME: I had no idea what “Family Business” would become before I took it on. As I mentioned, I never planned to take it on. And if I had, it might have subscribed to a set of preconceived ideas that I already had about my father. I was more than two years into the project when I devised a workable structure for the Family Business book: Store, Property, Town, Home. I could never have gotten to that structure without making the work first. And the same could be said for my film “Dad,” which has it’s own form drawn from the material I had to work with.
JC: Both your “New York” and your “American Power” series at least in part deal with security (or what we might think of as security). After 9/11, taking photos has been put under restrictions in New York, and if I remember this correctly one can’t just simply take a photo of a power station or an important bridge any longer - something that reminds me of Bernd and Hilla Becher being asked by people whether they were Soviet spies when they were working on their photography of industrial structures. What are you experiences with this? Why did you decide to show “American Power” when it became increasingly difficult to take those kinds of photos?
ME: American Power is particularly difficult, in part because of its geographic and conceptual bigness, but also because of Homeland Security—I have been stopped more than once on public property for photographing distant coal stacks. Once, in Poca, West Virginia, a total of six law enforcement officers, including two FBI agents, questioned me and my assistant for hours. 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’m glad that federal and local American governments take my safety seriously. I don’t want to live in a surveillance-addicted world, however, and I don’t believe that rampant surveillance is the key to my safety. I have been most hassled by corporations that use extreme security to protect their questionable activities. It is when our government protects the secrecy of corporations over an individual citizen’s constitutional rights that we have to worry. My experience on the road says we have to worry.