Art in America, June/July 2007

Art in America
Mitch Epstein at Sikkema Jenkins
David Coggins

Mitch Epstein's new series of photographs, "American Power," focuses on the physical evidence of America's relationship with the fuel of modern life. Engaging in what he calls "energy tourism," Epstein seeks out small towns where there are vast power stations, oil rigs, smokestacks and refineries. Yet he grounds his images - 70-by-92-inch C-prints - in the human condition, combining empathy with sharp social observation, politics with sheer beauty.

In Poca High School and Amos Plant, West Virginia (2004), a team of young football players in red jerseys leisurely practice. It's a peculiar sporting pastoral - the surrounding land is dotted with mobile homes, and the field is dwarfed by an enormous power plant with a trio of active smokestacks. We're struck by the casual attitudes of the boys and their indifference to the pollution streaming into the sky, which is part of their landscape and apparently, to them, invisible.

Snyder, Texas (2005) shows a dilapidated gas station set beneath a bank of leafless trees. A faint light issues from behind its pale yellow door, and we see a collection of small salvaged glass bottles lining the windows - the defunct gas station seems to have been converted into a low-end thrift store. The paint on one old gas pump is peeling, another is overgrown with vines. As a portrait of the changing fortunes of American small towns - their vulnerability to demographic and economic shifts, but also their resilience - it is lovely and haunting.

Epstein captures social nuance, but he also creates images of extreme formal strength. A gray sky is the background for two downward streaming clouds of smoke in Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio (2003). Only along the uppermost margin of the frame do we see the tops of the two smokestacks. These landscapes slowly reveal the collateral cost of America's reliance on power (in both senses). That's a freighted subject, but Epstein, who prefers discretion to sanctimony, never loses his assured touch - as a colorist he's unrivaled. Beyond the seductive tones, we're left with indelible reminders of the potential damage, both environmental and, implicitly, political, of our collective behavior. These photographs create a delicate balance, leaving us neither absolved nor privileged.