New York Times Arts and Leisure, November 9, 2003

New York Times Arts and Leisure, November 9, 2003
Family Business A Town, a Father and a Fire
By Mia Fineman

When the photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his hometown, Holyoke, Mass., a few years ago, he intended to make an extended portrait of his 82-year-old father, a businessman who ran the family furniture store and rental real estate enterprise. What he ended up documenting in his new book, ''Family Business'' (Steidl), was the demise of a particular version of the American dream.

The project was prompted by a family crisis: on a windy August night in 1999, two boys broke into a boarded-up building owned by Mr. Epstein's father, Bill, and set it ablaze. The fire spread quickly, engulfing a 19th-century Catholic church. When the diocese sued Bill for $15 million, he faced financial ruin. (The suit was settled for $1 million.) At the same time, his once profitable furniture store was beset by family conflicts and losing money. Mitch's brother Rick, who managed the store, decided to call in a national liquidation firm to hold an emergency going-out-of-business sale.

As the oldest son, who left at 18 to pursue a career as an artist rather than joining the family business, Mitch, now 51, is an insider with an outsider's perspective. Through photographs, text, video stills and transcribed snippets of conversation, his book captures the texture and detail of everyday life in a decaying New England mill town, revealing the pathos within the commonplace.

In a recent conversation at his apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Mitch Epstein talked about six of the pictures in ''Family Business.''

Newton Street Row Houses
''These were built around the turn of the century as tenement row houses for the mill workers who served the paper industry in Holyoke, Mass. Early in the century, Holyoke was the largest manufacturer of paper in the world. It was a model New England industrial city that harnessed power by damming the Connecticut River and built a system of canals that could serve the industrial development. My father owned these houses, but like the building at Ferguson Place, where the church fire took place, they were rife with drug problems and violence.''

Churchill Neighborhood
''I was drawn to this landscape because it traces a kind of visual history. Churchill is an area where a lot of federally subsidized housing developments are being put in, and the house here is obviously a brand new creation. Then you have these wonderfully built apartment buildings that the town was once filled with, which have either been abandoned or burned to the ground. And then there's the fertile, empty field with these weeds growing that echo the church spires, holding the whole thing together.''

Apartment 304, 398 Main Street
''This is in an apartment in one of the buildings my father owned; there were two fires there while I was working on this project. This fire was started by two kids playing with matches. There was a strange, Vesuvian quality here because many of the families living in the building were in the middle of dinner or cleanup when the fire started. This picture was made using only the available light in a dark tomb of an interior, so the exposure had to be very long -- 5 to 10 minutes -- which heightens the color saturation and gives the scene an otherworldly quality.''

Dad and Mom II
''My father worked every day. This was on a Sunday, when he was lingering and reading the paper a little more fully. They were having a conversation about real estate properties that was clearly uncomfortable for both of them. My father has a great deal of integrity. He's a deeply concerned, responsible person and, at the same time, frustrated by the things that are impossible for him to reconcile. My mother is the kind of person who has an easier time accepting the things that are intractable in her life. The picture speaks to the space between them, but also to the ways that they're deeply connected. In some way, it also speaks to the overbearing intensity of my father's silences.''

Liquidation Sale III
''When they closed the store, which my grandfather started in 1911, my father, brother and aunt invited in a national liquidation firm, which bought out whatever merchandise Epstein Furniture had in stock, and also brought in millions of dollars worth of their own merchandise. I've always been interested in these chairs as a symbol for an American idea of comfort and luxury. Here I like the way the chairs become personified, the way they become a kind of family or encampment, all waiting together as you descend to the basement level of the store.''

Dad, Hampton Ponds III
''This was a rare occasion when my parents decided to take a few hours off and go to Hampton Ponds, where my father spent much of his early childhood, and where his father had built a large cottage development. The shore was rocky and my father was having difficulty stepping into the water. I gave him my hand and led him into the water, and was struck by his physical vulnerability and how strange it felt to be offering him support. So I guided him in, and as I let go, I picked up my hand camera and photographed him. There were often situations in this project where I had to face the choice: Do I help him or do I go about making the pictures I need to make? It was always a fragile balance. There were times I trusted my instinct and helped him because he really needed it, and there were other times when I helped myself.''