Contemporary 21, Issue 67

Contemporary 21, Issue 67
By Clare Grafik

It is always tempting to group together photographers under certain headings. In Mitch Epstein's case it is perhaps under 'New Colour' or 'Subjective Documentary' that his work most easily falls. Epstein indeed comes from a well-respected stable of American photographers who were using colour in new and exciting ways throughout the 1970s and into the '80s. Along the likes of Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore, he grappled with the legacy of American documentary photography and found new ways to re-engage with the genre. Through colour and an interest in the everyday vernacular these photographs created a radical rupture in the distinction between art and documentary photography, high and low culture and notions of objective and subjective image making. Through this they also proposed a new engagement with the myths and realities of modern day America towards which many, including Epstein, turned their attention. But this is a simplification. What we see with Epstein is a strategic observational mode of working coupled with a flexibility to respond to his subjects in diverse and poetic ways.

Epstein opens his introduction to The City (1995-2001), a series of work and publication about New York, with the following words:

"A populace flows
Through the city.
This is a language, therefore, of New York"

The use of this text, part of a 40-section poem by the modernist poet George Oppen, reflects something in both content and form of Epstein's photographic project. In the poem, Oppen considers the condition of humanity in the face of overwhelming multiplicity, and the importance of the singular experience within it. In Epstein's work, the public spaces of the city are pictured as anonymous, but vivid and colorful. In one image, a surveillance camera casts a long eye over what, we cannot see; in another, a man stands on an escalator with his back to us, his grey suit chiming against the crimson red of the office building. Throughout the book - and books are Epstein's preferred medium - chapters act like vignettes, or sections of prose, rather than constructing a fixed narrative. The spaces pictured have striking formal qualities, but are also meditative and subtle in statement. Placed between these scenes are altogether more personal references. Black-and-white portraits of friends and family both set us off-guard in their intimacy and draw us back from considerations about public space into the emotional world of the photographer himself. Epstein's 'city', in a sense creeps up on you.

It is again impossible to frame Epstein's more recent project, Family Business (1999-2004), in conceptual terms without coming back to the particularities of the author himself. Having left his hometown of Holyoke, Massachusetts at the age of 18, Epstein's mother phoned in him 1999 to say that a block of his father's real estate had gone up in flames. His parents were being threatened by a $15 million lawsuit and with it the loss of the comfortable suburban existence they had worked at for a lifetime. Epstein, ponders, "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?"

It was the beginning of a three-year project for Epstein charting the demise of the family business: and with it the wider implications for a way of life in an America adapting to cultural, economic and social changes. Epstein records the final liquidation of the store, the family's reactions to the situation and, through a series of striking portraits, his own re-acquaintance with a father who until then had remained a traditional, distant, hard-working patriarch.

Family Business is a testament to Epstein's flexibility as a photographer. He employs a poetic mixture of large-format colour photographs, archival material, textual extracts of conversations and video. Part diary and part social study, it is precisely this layering of methods and media that intensifies the juxtaposition of the poignant and peculiar in the everyday. The book that accompanies the project is divided into four sections: 'Store', 'Property', 'Town' and 'Home'. In each there is no clear narrative, but a cumulative and subtle exploration of the tensions between shared and individual memory, an old way of life and the challenges of the new. In some of the most arresting images, objects take on a metaphoric resonance: his father's battered leather suitcase sits forlorn on a blue mattress, out of place on its final resting-place; an army of table lamps stand to attention in an empty storeroom. Video extracts show customers testing armchairs in the sale, the aspirations of home building standing in stark contrast to the gaudy but forlorn setting.

At the heart of Family Business lie the tensions and ambiguities of communication itself; between generations, different cultures, social groups, between those with power and those losing it. It also charts a genuine and searching relationship between the photographer and his medium. With one eye outward and one eye in, Epstein is a master of formal composition with a talent for recognizing when formalism alone is not enough.