Photograph, July/August 2005

Photograph, July/August 2005
Photo Books
Review by Vince Aletti

Mitch Epstein follows the extended narrative of Family Business (Steidl, 2003) with yet another retrospective volume, Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988 (Steidl), in which every picture tells a story. Working in an assured, anecdotal style reminiscent of Garry Winogrand, whose influence and teaching he acknowledges, Epstein maps the freakishly mundane landscape of American leisure, from motel swimming pools and airport waiting rooms to state fairs and national parks. There's a polish to these photos that sometimes seems at odds with their funky subjects - the drag queen in the doorway of a French Quarter dive, the Halloween cavewoman popping out of her makeshift pelt, the raucous college kids partying in a hotel elevator - but the dissonance keeps viewers on edge, which, I suspect, is just where Epstein wants us. For all its affection and humor, this is not a comforting picture of Americans at play. Epstein's subjects can be foolish, vain, self-satisfied, self-absorbed, and spoiled, but they're also touchingly human and fragile. The photographer is happy to leave the contradictions unresolved and his images ambiguous enough to get under our skin and handsome enough to stay there.