Art in America, November 2004

Art in America, November 2004
Going Home Again
By Nancy Princenthal

Spectacular falls taken by corporate titans may deliver an unbeatable combination of schadenfreude and sanctimony, but more life-size tales of humble starts, modest triumphs and bitter defeats still satisfy a distinctively American appetite. The family business chronicled by Mitch Epstein was small-town retail furniture with a sideline in real estate, and his patiently plotted bell curve of its history is worthy of Dreiser.

Epstein, an internationally exhibited photographer with half a dozen previous books to his credit, is a prodigal son. Raised in Holyoke, Mass, he left for college (the Rhode island school of Design, then Cooper Union) in 1970, and is now an established New Yorker. He was never tempted by the prospect of working at the hometown store that was founded by his grandfather in 1911 and run by his father and aunt, ultimately drawing in one of his two brothers as well. But when it became evident that the business would not survive, Epstein - himself a new father - returned to Holyoke to document its demise. Of course, the distance implied in "documentation" collapsed in a nanosecond, happily for the production of a complicated, nuanced body of work.

The publication that resulted is a big, beautiful photo book, but it also contains a fair amount of text, including a narrative written by Epstein, interviews with family members and employees, and transcriptions of dialogues between various participants. Epstein's story begins in August 1999, when two Holyoke kids set fire to the property owned by his father, Bill. The fire spread, taking a 19th-century church with it, and engulfed an entire block. Afterward, the church sued, threatening Bill with ruin. Mitch arrived in October with a 4x5 camera, stayed briefly, and returned frequently with additional, more adaptable equipment over the next year or so. A settlement of the lawsuit averted financial disaster, but the liquidation of the store was inevitable, and it closed in March 2000, trailing questions. For starters, Epstein asks, "How had my father, once owner of the largest furniture and appliance store in western New England and the former Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year 1974, ended up a character out of an Arthur Miller tragedy?"

Epstein fils recorded not only the store's slow decline, but also the ongoing emergency that is housing in an economically broken town. Long a center for papermaking, Holyoke experienced a severe industrial downturn starting in the 1970s, along with a major influx of low-wage Hispanic labor. In the book's most gripping vignette, Epstein's 82-year-old father administers a grueling (for everyone) real-estate triage when tenants illegally reoccupy a building temporarily condemned after yet another fire. Without heat or gas on a bitter winter night, the rogue residents nonetheless resist distant relocation. "A small caravan of tenants - television and bedding slung across their shoulders - trudges across snow-covered Main Street to Dad's neighboring building," Epstein writes. In this nearby property, other illegal tenants are displaced to accommodate the refugees. Fury and despair abound. It is after 10 at night before all are settled, and father and son retire to Friendly's for dinner - the only place in town still open.

But the respite is brief. The next night, the Epsteins get a call about an injury suffered by Mitch's youngest brother, who is mentally impaired and a resident in a state facility in Worcester. They drive over the following morning, Sunday, after Bill has already spent some time at work. When they return to Holyoke, he goes back to his office. Willy Loman, by comparison, was a slouch.

Some of the visual material in the book is archival. There are family photographs of the Epstein clan's early days in western Massachusetts; a newspaper clipping from 1930 heralding founder Israel Epstein's plans for lakeside cottages; handwritten notes from a 1963 sales conference, emphasizing enthusiasm and courtesy; a worn advertising brochure that seems to be from roughly the same time, the illustrated goods bathed in a lurid golden light that suggests prosperity and domestic warmth.

Epstein's own photographs, though, tell most of the story and are eloquent. The book's first section, "Store," begins with a full-frontal image of a big, empty deep-red velvet sofa, close behind which is the upside-down reflection of a sign hand-lettered in fuchsia paint, the visible fragment of which reads "forever." A broken-hearted Valentine of a photograph, it is, formally both open and suffocatingly shallow. Yet like most of the work in Family Business, it is also an emotional canyon, lined with family history all the way down.

Color is key to psychological dynamics throughout Epstein's photographs, as in an image that looks down, past yellow walls, to a basement showroom, where ranks of reclining armchairs sit on worn carpet, all in shades of undersea blue - a lost Atlantis of unused furniture. Often the palette is generic mid-century, running to fleshy pink and swimming pool aqua. When these dominate, especially where the compositions are most minimal - two spent fluorescent tubes leaning in a corner of an empty room, battered leather suitcase on a bare mattress - Epstein comes closest to pathos. But much of the work has a rueful humor. One image reveals that pseudo-Rococo painting is available by the yard; another catches a shopper, hefty and happy, checking out the Matissean merits of a big, soft armchair.

"Store" also includes a couple of outdoor photographs, cast in bluish light that feels like a sudden hit of oxygen. Thus in a sunny, leafy shot of the family house (a 60s-modern affair with lots of glass, fieldstone and dark, rich wood), Bill stands in the doorway, small in proportion to the building but defiant and visibly impatient. In the next photograph, he is back where he obviously feels most at home, at his desk, gazing thoughtfully into the distance, pen poised. A giant American flag hangs behind him. It would be a perfectly cliched business portrait if the light from the window behind him weren't a dead-white glare that draws down the vitality of the aging executive, who is dwarfed by the emblem of an ethos he's striven so mightily to uphold.

The book's second section, "Property," opens with an apartment interior burned to charcoal. The following picture shows a street of boarded-up brick row-houses, in slant Hopperesque light, the sky a cloudless but dull blue. In this section, too, mute objects are cast as character actors, there is a close-up of an overstuffed accounts receivable file; a forgotten doll in a room painted pink; an empty Barcalounger, its vinyl cracked and its footrest dislocated; a metal baseball bat propped against a sealed doorway in the otherwise barren room. Even blunter is a photograph of firearms tagged as evidence by the police. In a pair of images that face each other across a page of dialogue, we see the elder Epstein arguing with the building manger, a tough, capable-seeing Latino with a thankless job. Arranged storyboard style in a series of shots taken during the night of the relocation, infernal nocturnes blurred by snow. Inside, while tenants argue in a hallway, a teenager holds a baby in one arm, the better to suck her thumb.

The third section is "Town," a kind of miscellany in which there are more boarded-up buildings, virtual mausoleums inside which bundles of rags or stacks of paper seem to have come to ret forever. The progression of photos suggest, however, that these structures also belong to businesses, which, like the Epstein enterprises, limp on. "Why did the city of Holyoke, which at one time was the jewel of New England and the first industrially planned city in America, the Paper City of the world... why did Holyoke go down?" Bill asks. One answer his son's photographs suggest is that it is caught in the grip of a powerful time warp, most apparent in a shot of town officials presiding over a St. Patrick's Day celebration and looking uncannily like subjects for Ben Shahn. Elsewhere, the inexorability of social change is apparent, as in the shot of a generic neo-classical facade tilted Former Holyoke National Bank, Future Hispanic chamber of commerce. As earlier in the book, where there are relatively formal portraits of store employees ("Store") and of a lawyer and policemen ("Property"). Epstein pays guarded respect in "Town" to pillars of the community: the major (smiling), the treasurer (jowly, big-bellied). But the parting shot in "Town" is a dead-end, weedy walkway, flanked by dour red-brick factories, capped by a leaden sky.

The book's final chapter is "Home," featuring family photos old and new. Generally, the father looks warily at the camera, or away; his wife, if they share a frame, looks at him, a regard that is not reciprocated. Bill's "tyrannical" silences, on which Mitch remarks often, are visible. But then, taped dialogue intercut with the photos in the "Property" section reveals that Mrs. Epstein has never set foot in one of her husband's buildings. In the real-estate business - as in any family - the maintenance of personal boundaries is a never-ending job. In previous work, Epstein has taken his camera to India, Vietnam and the Caribbean, as well as turning it on his New York neighbors. These volumes reveal a keen sympathy for local cultures, matched with a sharp eye for telling isolation of choice subjects and an unrivaled fluency in the language of photographic color. Relevant contemporaries range from William Eggleston to Joel Sternfeld to Alec Soth, new muse of the Mississippi. But Family Business a curious hybrid, in which a nested hierarchy of social and formal concerns is surmounted by the demands of family. In this regard, it can be situated on another spectrum, somewhere between Tina Barney's frosty tableaux of Anglo-Saxon bluebloods and Richard Billingham's dismal portrayal of his alcoholic parent's squalid home life in a Council flat in Britain. By contrast, the preservation of his subject's dignity is the old-fashioned, more or less inviolable principle that distinguishes Epstein's approach. In fact, it is not other photographs to whom he sees closest in Family Business but the rueful, bristly, self-deprecating Art Spiegelam of Maus. For all their projects' obvious differences, the two artists are remarkable close in using their work as a kind of shield - or weapon - against powerful, inaccessible fathers. The questions both circle to include: What does it mean, for the deeply ambivalent son of a proud, difficult, over-burdened father, to get away? And, afterwards, who gets the last word?

In Family Business, Epstein does the valorous thing and demurs. He could press his advantage - the camera, after all, is in his hands, but has declined to do so, with tactful if evident effort. As a result, perhaps, his subjects are neither avidly compliant nor overtly resistant. Instead, they generally maintain a guarded distance, their bare tolerance in some crucial cases a powerful, tight-lipped expression of what can only be love. To recognize this is to see Epstein's remarkable project change relationships and rewrite his own ending - one that is neither triumphant nor tragic, and quite compellingly like life.