The Guardian, March 12, 2005

The Guardian, March 12, 2005
The Freedom Years
by Caroline Roux

For US photographer Mitch Epstein, the 70s and 80s were a time of optimism, contentment and quiet individuality, a time when it was possible to seek pleasure, 'before pleasure was commodified'. Now his images of the era have been collected in a nostalgic look back at Americans at leisure.

Mitch Epstein looks back 30 years to the first road trip he made through the US, one boy and his Leica: "It was lonely," he says. Now one of America's most highly regarded documentary photographers, Epstein was a callow 21-year-old when he set off on the months-long rite-of-passage journey through the homeland. "That's when I discovered that the business of photography is a solitary one, going home alone every night, worrying about where to go the next day." He made it from the east coast to Louisiana and across to California.

It would be easy to imagine cameras are like dogs, that they lure people hither, encourage conversation, invite romance. "Well, you might end up on a date," Epstein says quietly. "But I don't think I did." For him, the adventures were of a photographic nature.

Some of the images Epstein made back then have been collected in Recreation, the latest publication of his work, which rounds up photographs of America at leisure from 1973 to 1988. But don't be fooled by the name. There are no cheerleaders here, no bowling alleys, no crazy Coney Island helter-skelters, fat-bottomed ladies or super-sized hotdogs. There are remarkably few cars, no multi-lane supermarkets, no malls or ball games.

Epstein's world is one of quiet individuality. "It is about the pursuit of pleasure before pleasure was commodified," he says. "Now everything is so packaged." People drink, dance, hold hands and gaze out to sea, independent of the frantically consumerised world growing up around them like a jungle that gradually blocks out the light.

Epstein seeks out people at play and then hovers on the fringes to make his pictures. He stakes out a plantation battlefield in Louisiana (Chalmette Battlefield, Louisiana 1976) and waits for an all-American family to appear on the levee - a piece of raised land that separates house from field - as though they are on a stage. "They embody the American traveller to me," Epstein says. "Looking, because they know they should. But not knowing what to look at."

At Cape Kennedy, Florida (1983), families waiting for the big event - the imminent launch of a rocket - are idling at the nearby Cocoa Beach campsite, the children sleeping on car bonnets in the early morning sun. "To me, the whole project represents the loss of something," Epstein says. "It shows a time when we were more optimistic. There was a sense of freedom. And the camera was less intrusive."

Epstein is a lucky man. At 18, he left his home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where his family ran a furnishing and appliance business that kept them comfortable: "I knew there was something more than this small New England town." He had already started taking photographs as a way of radicalising his school's yearbook in his senior year. He went on to study at Cooper Union in New York under Garry Winogrand, one of America's greatest documentary photographers who had learned from Walker Evans and Robert Frank, then rewritten the rulebook. "He demythologised the business of making art," Epstein says of Winogrand. "He was interested in the way the world looked photographed. He taught me that anything and everything is infinitely photographic, and that is daunting and enthralling."

Epstein lived in a building in the Bowery in a New York that was a far edgier and more fractured version of the city today. "I was mugged in my first year there," he says. "I think it made me more streetwise." Now he lives a block away from that first address, on the fringes of a rapidly gentrifying Little Italy, with his wife, the writer Susan Bell. (He was previously married to film director Mira Nair and was production designer on her Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala.) "You know there's something a bit wrong when you live round the corner from the Bowery Mission (a centre for the homeless) and then a nightclub called the Mission opens down the road."

Like the city, the practice of photography has propelled itself into the 21st century. Digitalisation has made possible infinite reworkings of images, which by comparison makes Epstein's untouched work look traditional, pure and masterful. Current documentary photography tends towards the chaotic, shocking and autobiographical; his is considered and strangely dignified. Presumably, the customers who buy his prints for 10,000 pounds in the New York gallery Brent Sikkema are unconcerned that this work isn't at the height of fashion, drawn instead by an astonishing sense of colour and composition that makes the work as painterly as it is photographic.

"There's a certain nostalgia you get looking at this collection," says Michael Jenkins, director of Brent Sikkema. "It represents a very specific time, and it's interesting to look at it now. The US has seen a lot of changes in the past four years."

Indeed, post-September 11, the man and his camera have run into problems. "With the development of homeland security' you're considered suspect if you are out with a camera," Epstein says. (Funny how the independent camera becomes ever more threatening in a world overrun by corporate CCTV.) "I'm currently working on a project about America and energy, and I'm getting into trouble photographing near sensitive things such as power plants. I'm just back from Ohio, where I was questioned all the way up to the FBI. You're assumed guilty from the get-go. I don't mind the questioning, but I do mind the level of ignorance."

It's all a long way from the final photograph in Recreation, of two elderly model railway enthusiasts and their model trains (Buena Vista, Colorado 1988) cosily ensconced in a perfectly executed model of an old western town. It's an image of pure contentment, as though the 20th century is still about to happen.

Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988 is published this month by Steidl.