Art on Paper, November/December 2004

Art on Paper, November/December 2004
Family Business Book Review
By Lyle Rexer

America's best working novelist is not a writer but a photographer. Mitch Epstein's Family Business, a combination of still images, video excerpts, interview texts, and his own commentary, sees the history and destiny of America inscribed upon the circumstances of a single family. And the artist, who is also an ambivalent member of that family, stands in as witness for his particular generation.

Like may people who grew up during the 1960s, Epstein saw home as a place to get away from, and he did, to India, Vietnam, and points elsewhere, establishing himself as among the very best of a new generation of photodocumentarians, with a sensibility poised between the fortuitous and the formal and with a knack for anchoring circumstances in visual structure.

By the 1990s, when Epstein was ready to go home again, home had changed, utterly. Holyoke was beset by crime, drugs, and unemployment. His father's reputation as a slumlord was growing while buildings he owned were burning, and his furniture business was on the edge of liquidation. The book includes heartrending images and incredible sequences, as when Epstein's father attempts to relocate tenants from one building to another at night in the midst of a blizzard. Epstein includes portraits of everyone from tenants and police officers to attorneys and secretaries, all of whom become members of a larger family trapped in the same leaky boat.

Faced with overwhelming reality, Epstein often retreats to an uncharacteristic formalism, turning suitcases, lamps, and filing cabinets into totemic objects. But that only heightens the poignancy of his struggle to pay respect and tell the truth.