This Week In Photography Books – Mitch Epstein

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m sitting in my library. Diaper packs are stacked around me. Pink blankies peak at me from disparate piles. They mock my attempt to focus. “Enjoy it while you can, Fool,” they say. “Your precious quiet is about to DIE. This is our turf now, Fool. Move along.” Damn pink blankies. Who knew they could be so cruel?

Yes, as I shared with you a few months ago, my daughter’s arrival is now imminent. Any minute now. I sit, and wait. Which leaves a lot of time to think. I channeled much of the anxiety into a fruitless search for a new camera, but really, I was just hiding from the truth. (Big Ups to Rich Andres at Fotocare.) Change is coming. And few things cause more fear in humans than the Unknown.

Understandably, then, change has been on my mind. Beyond the obvious, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to grow as an artist. Thankfully, at 38, I’ve finally managed to have a bit of success. But my ego is healthy enough to admit that I have far to go, if greatness is my goal. We all have our own ambitions, true, but I’m not one to accept that my best work is behind me. Better to jump off the Gorge Bridge and be done with it. (RIP Tony Scott. That “True Romance” face off between Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper was a cinema classic.)

Given the scope of my ruminations, I was fortunate to get my hands on “State of the Union,” a new book by Mitch Epstein. It was published by Hatje Canitz, in conjunction with an exhibition of the artist’s work in Bonn. And, it is unique in all the books I’ve reviewed thusfar.

The oversized hardcover features several essays, and an insightful interview with the artist that alone makes the book a worthy purchase. It is impeccably produced; basically divided into two sets of plates. The first features a set of photos made in the 70′s and 80′s: very obvious temporal references. The photographs are big, each spilling from the right page to the left, and they are terrific. Talk about implied narrative.

Whether we see a man sleeping on a cot, next to a car, in the shadow of the former Twin Towers, or a pack of ladies scrambling to pick something up off of a Madison Avenue sidewalk. (A contact lens? A buffalo nickel?) Snake handlers, snow-cone-eaters, and children chilling in a pack-and-play while their dad pulls in fish off of a nameless pier. All are lovely, all draw you in, and force questions: What is going on here? What are they looking at? Where was this taken? How big is this freaking country?

The photographs are terrific, but definitely fit beside Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston. They were contemporaries, and it shows. Each has a slightly different personality, which emerges in the work, but the similarites outweigh the differences. Here, section 1 gives us a glimpse of the best young Mr. Epstein could offer.

Then, a big jump. Bam. The next set of plates time travels to the 21st Century, each a sample of Mr. Epstein’s recent opus, American Power. Immediately, the style shifts. We get to see Mr. Epstein’s vision at a more mature stage, and his growth separates him from his other famous peers.

These photos were obviously taken with an 8×10 camera, which the text confirms. They are as sharp as a Hattori Honzu sword. Details shine, compositions are more formal. They are excellent images, and the plates are better than many of the prints I’ve seen at portfolio reviews. If you love Mr. Epstein’s work, but are not in a place to buy an editioned print, the quality here is reason number 2 to buy this book.

I loved seeing this before/after mashup. The new photographs, look at the energy industry, and the aftermath of Hurricaine Katrina. Smoke billows from a power plant, a security guard stares through binoculars in the ravaged New Orleans Museum of Art, a newer hurricaine swirls on a projection screen, just outside the 2008 Republican Convention in Minnesota. There are more, but I don’t think it’s necessary to list them all.

So there you have it. This book is worth purchasing for a variety of reasons: the interview, the print quailty, and the potential inspiration it offers. And rest assured, I’ll continue writing these reviews even after my life gets turned upside down. I’ll just have to find a new favorite spot in which to do it. C’est la vie.

Bottom Line: Amazing production, unique in its dual vision

To purchase “State of the Union” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 10 Comments On This Article.

    • Shame that so much of the photo is lost in the gutter.
      Makes it very hard to read it as one image… you almost have to look at it as 2 different shots.

      I’m surprised the photographer is ok with this.

    • Difficult to believe that publishing and critical standards have dipped so low that a book with guttered images ( including one above that loses half a centrally placed figure ) is so highly praised – though, from a large format photographer committed to the integrity of the image, “unique” might well be the appropriate term. And drymounting and hanging the repros? Funny. (Stan B, below).

  1. Agreed! This book is a potent one-two combination. The smaller format work sets you up like a series of sharp, attention inducing jabs- the second half lays you out with stunning full page, large format knock outs that could easily be dry mounted and hung on any museum wall. Master work from a master photographer in a presentation worthy of both.

  2. specialmonkey

    Really like these images, especially the guy napping on cot with Cadillac South of the Trade Towers in 1977 (love how undeveloped that area looked then). I don’t think I mind the photos spreading the gutter too much … given the format, it means you see a bigger more detailed image, and if the price to be paid for that is gutter, so be it.