Photo District News, October 2001

Photo District News, October 2001
"Mitch Epstein: The Art of Surveillance"
(The City book review)
By Edgar Allen Beem

Mitch Epstein's The City (powerhouse Books, New York, $50) is a highly personal, purely visual narrative of New York City in a sequence of 64 color and 21 black-and-white images, each printed full page and unencumbered by text or title. More epic poem than urban documentary, The City seeks the myth and mystery in the banal and familiar.

In shooting pictures for his New York project between 1995 and 1999, Epstein used his Mamiya and Fuji cameras as instruments to record vignettes of street life, search for cryptic messages embedded in the multilayered urban environment, make portraits of his friends and family, survey the city landscape for abstract forms from the gritty details for metro life, and spy on New Yorkers in private moments at work and at home. One of the first few images in the book—a remote camera monitoring traffic on the Williamsburg bridge with the Lower East Side and East River mistily aligned beneath—clues the viewer in that The City is very much about the art of surveillance.

"Issues of surveillance and the blurred lines between private and public space were central to the formation of The City," notes Epstein, who is probably best known for his studies of India and Vietnam. "In the early Seventies—when I first photographed New York—the street and public spaces were fair game for a photographer, and people not only tolerated but enjoyed having their picture taken. But in the Nineties, I found myself questioning how a photographer functions in public space: what is acceptable and what is not, because people were, by then, sensitive to the intrusiveness of cameras (of all kinds) in our culture."

Mitch Epstein, 49, grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where his father owned a furniture and appliance store (the subject of Epstein's current project). He became interested in the arts as a teenager at Williston Academy where, as editor of the yearbook, he first picked up a camera in earnest to record the life of the school.

Following a year at Union College in Schenectady, New York, he enrolled at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence where he studied photography with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind before moving to New York in 1972 to complete his photographic education under Garry Winogrand at Cooper Union. Epstein cites Winogrand as his primary influence, inclining him both toward street photography and working in color. "In the early Seventies, there was not a great deal of color photography to turn toward," says Epstein. "It was like uncharted territory. The medium felt new and wide open."

Epstein's early work ranged from New York street life to images of American families on vacation and at play, photographs taken on cross-country trips that broadened Epstein's interest beyond urban life. His geographic range increased even more dramatically in 1978 when he began making regular trips to India with his new wife, filmmaker Mira Nair.

During his marriage to Nair, Epstein learned to control what was in front of a lens by serving as production designer on two of her films, Salaam Bombay (1988) and Mississippi Masala (1992). He was also provided with an insider's view of India that resulted in his first book, In Pursuit of India (Aperture, 1987). Subsequently, photographs taken during six trips to Vietnam between 1992 and 1995 became Epstein's American view of that war-ravaged country in Vietnam: A Book of Changes (DoubleTake/ W.W. Norton, 1996)

Epstein normally shows his color photographs in galleries as 40 x 50 inch prints, but working on the Vietnam project (initially a collaboration with a Vietnamese novelist that had to be abandoned when Epstein refused to submit his photographs to Vietnamese censors) refined his sense of the book as a forum for his vision. When he returned to the United States in 1995, Epstein began planning a book about New York.

"When I was abroad," he says, "the problem was how to know better what wasn't my own, to know the references that would make my photographs meaningful here. Here, I had to learn to move through familiar territory like a foreigner." With his eye refreshed by years abroad, Epstein approached New York by taking nothing for granted and avoiding the obvious and easy. His New York is not the glittering Big Apple of power and celebrity, but rather an unsettling city of strangers, obscure meanings and desolate beauty. "I'm interested in the ways photography can heighten and transform its subjects apart from honest and clear witnessing." Epstein says. "I'm interested in myth making from the ordinary and banal; to use photography through wit and irony to change the nature of things seen."

Manhattan reveals itself slowly in The City. The first image is like a curtain about to rise on the drama of the city, the skyline and the artist's own form silhouetted in a shop window where an offering of oranges in a fed bowl is the only visual merchandise. The book is arranged in a thoughtful sequence of images that might almost be seen as three acts.

The first act consists of color photographs of the public life of the city—a solitary businessman riding an escalator, office workers going about their anonymous business behind a grid work of windows, an artist videotaping himself as he walks down the street, Catholic schoolchildren lined up outside their school in their Sunday best, a gathering of NYPD officers in their blue finery. But there are images far more obscure—a blue bundle lying like a dead body in a field of wildflowers; a TV monitor seen through the green door of a repair shop, the words that "Little Things Mean a Lot…Among My Souvenirs."

The second act is a portfolio of black-and-white portraits of the artist's friends and family—young artists and urbanites, couples with children, gay couples, interracial couples, Epstein's wife Susan Bell (he divorced Nair in 1990) and their little daughter Lucia. The casting of the private world of New York in black and white is somewhat counterintuitive, as one might more logically look at the public face of the city as drab and colorless while the personal side of the city would be lived in living color.

But if act one and act two correspond in the classical sense to the purpose and the passion of Epstein's urban drama, then act three is the perception. And the perception is that private lives are lived in public in a city such as New York. Returning to color, Epstein shows us, for instance, a family in a parked car, prostitutes primping on the sidewalk, a woman being attended to by a blue-gloved medical technician, a couple seen through a window having sex, and a rooftop panorama in which two naked women appear to be performing a private ritual. One of the most arresting images in the book, however, is a picture of a mother, her teenage son and two young daughters standing alone and together in Times Square beneath a big black-and-white billboard advertising Calvin Klein underwear. This color photograph of a black-and-white image reads like a portrait of isolation, alienation and desire in a commodified society. "Times Square was a symbol of how the city is changing very rapidly" says Epstein. "What drew me to New York were the mysterious and forbidding qualities inherent in the city. Now, the mass-market Disney-fication of the city is glossing over all of its surfaces."

Adam Weinberg, former curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and now director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, says Epstein is one of the few photographers he knows who has interwoven black-and-white and color photographs in a single work.

"To my mind," Adam Weinberg, "Mitch is one the photographers who grew up in a generation that was very respectful of the traditions of documentary photography yet, at the same time, was questioning what a document can be and how a document is inflected with personal and contextual meaning. Mitch plays with the story the photographs tell, but his work is not manipulative." The Whitney purchased one of the photographs featured in The City, a witty view of pedestrians passing the boarded-up façade of the Empire Theater as seen through a dirty window across the street. Lettered backward on the filthy window are the peeling words "Clean & Neat."

"For me," says Epstein, "reality is more outrageous than fiction. The fictional quality of the book is a function of mystery…These images were made at a time that was post-appropriation and post-digital image manipulation. Now it's all fair game what pictures end up looking like. What matters to me is individual truth."