New Color, New Work, Abbeville Press 1984

New Color, New Work, Abbeville Press 1984
"Eighteen Photographic Essays/Mitch Epstein, India" (In Pursuit of India; excerpts from a critical essay)
By Sally Eauclaire

No country has held Mitch Epstein's imagination more powerfully than India—the country that Jawaharlal Nehru called a "queer mixture derived from old story and legend and modern fact…" Epstein's work from 1981 and 1983 evinces a growing comprehension of the role of theater, ritual, ceremony, magic, and law in Indian life. Epstein's sense of awe still permeates these photographs, but equally apparent is his determination not to overlook the most jarring realities of modern Indian life, which technology has failed to rectify and which mystical religions still mitigate.

Epstein gravitates to India's crowded cities and festivals, enticed by the cacophonous colors, quicksilver gestures, and charged ambience. Coupling the intuitive style of the street photographer with the workings of his rich imagination, Epstein invests otherwise random and mundane incidents with drama through his freeze-framing of gesture, grimace, a posture. Thus India's ordinary people and everyday incidents serve as springboards for his spinning of myths and parables….

By 1983 Epstein had clearly moved away from producing picturesque elegies of worlds sealed off from time in favor of alerting us to the actual complexities of a country attempting to move quickly from a feudal society to a modern one….

Some of Epstein's growth as a photographer working in India can be attributed to the influence of his former wife, the Indian-born filmmaker, whom he married in a three-day Hindu ceremony in New Delhi in 1981…. As the cameraman for her film So Far from India, screened at the 1983 New York Film Festival, he was forced to confront the country in fresh new ways. "The medium was new to me, so it was inevitable that it changed my perceptions and brought new possibilities to what I could photograph later for myself." The film is a documentary about Ashok Sheth, a young Indian immigrant employed in a subway newsstand in New York City, his wife, Hansa, whom he left pregnant in India after only twenty days of marriage, and the unrealistic expectations of her and her family who believe his minuscule wages will bring them all to the Promised Land. The film enabled Epstein to grow close to an Indian family other than his wife's clan. The experience has carried over into all his Indian photography, for he now works more overtly and closely with his subjects that he ever did before. His growing interest in portraiture, which requires the individual's trust and cooperation, is apparently one result.