Art in America, Exhibition Review, October 1981

Art in America, Exhibition Review, October 1981
Egypt: Mitch Epstein at Light
By Sally Eauclaire

Mitch Epstein's earlier photographs typically seem the products of the playful fantasies and meditative wonderment of an American abroad. However, the 19 photographs in this exhibition—all taken in Egypt in 1980—include enough candid photographs of natives engaged in everyday tasks to indicate that Epstein has come to balance enchantment with an exploration of the brooding and jarring evocations of otherwise ordinary events.

Using a hand-held 6-by-9-centimeter camera, Epstein shoots intuitively and omnivorously. His sensuous visual correspondences seem choreographed out of the chaos of life, rather that contrived by academic means. In particular, the photographs of urban scenes confirm Epstein's debt to black-and-white street photography: buildings lean rakishly, and information sometimes seems startled out of the surrounding darkness by the camera's flash.

The higher contrast induced by these techniques—and by the dark clothing worn by many Egyptian natives—demand different pictorial solutions than Epstein has selected in the past. Rather than textures that blur and bleed into sensuous color-field images, Epstein now sprinkles bright colors across the picture surface. Man of his photographs display a limited palette of umbers and ochers, wherein black functions as a visually generous and active element—not as dead space. When, in his view of Cheops's Pyramid, he composes with alternating blocks of black and orange, the black becomes as vital as the more sun-struck colors.

Though Epstein is seduced by the beauty of exotic places and invests considerable emotion in his pictures, his sure formal instinct and chromatic restraint distinguish him from the myriad photographers of the picturesque. He thus avoids the bazaar-like busyness so typical of travelogue photographs. Precise description is equally vital to his strategy. His passages of shimmering color, arising form meticulously recorded detail, are more magical than the blurry sensationalism so frequently proffered by photographers in the name of emotion and imagination.

Epstein's earlier photographs of Italy and India often suggested imaginary worlds or ideal states. Rife with genies, apparitions, Pyqmalionesque statues and breathing bushes, those pictures only occasionally hinted at an underlying psychic tension. In contrast, the Egyptian photographs frequently appear portentous, even menacing: figures clad in dark garments huddle against pink ceramics, lurk in alleys, convene or cruise at night. Though this body of work is far less resolved than Epstein's previous efforts, and includes far fewer definitive single images, it is clear that he is no longer content with his more capricious early visions.