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Mitch Epstein
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Village Voice, Exhibition Review, August 1977
Dark Days at Summer Light

By Ben Lifson

Mitch Epstein's ten color photographs are the best things at Summer Light and deserve a more prominent place in the show. For Epstein goes on adventures. There is no way to tell from one photograph what the location, colors, or content of the next will be—except interesting, beautiful, and dangerous. All ten create a world where fires, toys, beasts, children, heat, flowers, sexuality, futuristic architecture, industrial landscapes, and exotic oases crop up in unexpected constellations, wear each others' colors to confuse us (like figures in allegory), and enact their passion between vivid earth and sky.

Epstein adds color to the great tradition of 35mm photography and explores it with determination and curiosity. All hues and their various intensities interest him. His flowers can be sullen and dull, as if plucked from a Courbet still-life, or blaze as pink as the dress of Manet's Woman with a Parrot. Just as Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson took cues about the spatial organization for Degas and Matisse, Epstein learns about color from painters as well as from other color photographs.

He doesn't, however, use color superficially. From his pictures we learn how it can make things visible in photographs. In one picture a railroad worker runs urgently toward some box cars. We can see the tiny flare burst of a diamond-shaped flame above the flare he waves because it is so orange against the cool green hillside beyond. It would be invisible in black and white. The orange of the train also helps us see it; the combined intensity of the flare's hue and the train's in turn make intensely visible a child's primitive rocking horse, which is dusky orange but glowing in the shadows to the left. The toy suggests an abandoned world of hand-made innocence which the bright glamour of unexplained threat and heroic rescue in the train and flare overwhelms. So the childhood innocence and grown-up emergency are painted with the same color. In Epstein's world each is informed by the other.

Epstein's color is charged with ambiguity of this kind. No definite meaning resided consistently in any color. His tints belong first of all to the things in the pictures, and their meaning derives from the object's roles in the drama. Epstein has learned to use the colors the way photography has learned to use the grays of objects, gestures, events—for emotional and symbolic intensity as well as for design and visibility.

In one of his most astonishing photographs, four young women sit on a bale of yellow hay, with loose hay all around them; their blonde hair and the yellow hay shine bright golden sunlight. Far in the background, beneath green branches that hang down across the top of the frame a baby in pink overalls lies asleep in the hay. (The same pink appears in another photograph—it's the inviting color of a strip joint.) Already distant from their own infancy, already out of the green-world's innocence and shade, the women are fondling a serpent whose coloration echoes the color and design of their dresses.

Tod Papageorge once said that Garry Winogrand's pictures wrestle with "one of the most difficult problems of all—making parables." Epstein (who studied with Winogrand and Papageorge) meets this problem head-on, creating a tough lyric of innocence and experience on a California hillside in which the yellow hay prefigures death.

The parable with all its ambiguities is repeated in different versions throughout Epstein's pictures. At 25, Epstein's apprenticeship is over, as his work shows. He stands between artistic tradition and originality and makes pictures about abandoned rocking-horses and danger, about middle-age dazzled by spring blossoms, about children confused by sex and beasts. He has leaned the terms of black-and-white photography, and although he adds color, he hasn't abandoned them, loving photography's past while trying to step into its future. Innocence and experience are ambiguous terms. Depending on the vividness we allow our experience to take on, we are all innocent and experienced all the time. Epstein manages to deal with these ambiguities and suspend them in work that seems to come out of intense relationship to life, and opens up places for the medium to go. One can ask for nothing more from new work.