Art News, January 2005

Art News, January 2005
Mitch Epstein at Yancey Richardson
By Barbara Pollack

It was difficult not to be moved my Mitch Epstein's show "Family Business," an extended meditation on the final days of his father's real estate and retail ventures in the town of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Like this postindustrial New England town, Epstein's dad is a remnant of the past: a hardworking American shopkeeper, proud of his Main Street furniture outlet but now unable to compete with Ikea and Pottery Barn.

Epstein captured this American tragedy with understated eloquence in a series of photographs. A collection of living-room lamps in Warehouse (2000) silently awaits its fate at auction; a cabinet filled with keys is the last evidence of his father's once-thriving real estate business in Key Board for Epstein & Weiss Real Estate (2000). In fact, it was an accidental fire at one of his run-down properties that caused Epstein's father's downfall: he was underinsured, and the settlement led him to the verge of bankruptcy. Several of the photographs -- especially Apartment 304, 398 Main Street (2001), depicting a burned-out kitchen in a low-income dwelling -- showed not only the fire damage but also how shabby these apartments were, hinting that his father's business standards were not the highest. Yet a portrait of the patriarch himself, Dad, Hampton Ponds III (2002), reveals not a villain but a fragile old man, barely able to balance himself in a pool of water.

Family Business, a book of the photographs published by Steidl in 2003, reflects both Epstein's ambivalence and pride regarding his father's accomplishments. But independent of this psychological tug-of-war, the work is a savvy contribution to the current debate about the impact of globalization and the "Wal-Marting" of America. A final image -- Flag (2000) -- showed Old Glory, dry-cleaned and wrapped in plastic, at a tag sale. An apt symbol for downsizing.