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Art in America, Exhibition Review, July 1996
Vietnam: Mitch Epstein at Julie Saul

By Peter von Ziegesar

For nearly two decades, the photographer Mitch Epstein has explored the byways of saturated color and luminous figures pioneered in the '50s and '60s by Harry Callahan and William Eggleston. Epstein took his camera to luxuriant foreign climes, such as India and the Caribbean, where street colors riot beyond any Western conception of tonal balance and control.

But Epstein has always shown a hint of irony and a sense of formal precision that place him closer to the "decisive moment" camp of Henri Cartier-Bresson (also an inveterate traveler). This recent presentation showed Epstein pulling away from clash and clutter to a cooler, more contemplative and psychological domain. The new images, mainly gathered over the past two years on trips to Vietnam, often dwell on his well informed view of the "emerging" world's inherent paradoxes. The Oriental tableau of half-submerged leaves in Lotus Pond contrasts with the image of a young woman in pink curlers under a red, bullet-shaped hair dryer in a Hanoi Beauty Salon.

Epstein hasn't relaxed his formal hold, nor his search for colors which soak into the picture plane with the relentlessness of an oil spill. But strictly formal concerns have moved from foreground to background, allowing the human content to speak louder. Epstein's Hanoi Opera House is a minor fugue of saffrons and ochers, but what arrests the viewer is the bullet hole in the right-hand corner of the wall mirror in which the grand hall is reflected.

In Weight Reader, a woman who makes her living weighing people in a bathroom scale fights to stifle a yawn. Viewers receive not a comforting image of Third World "otherness" but jolt of recognition, of sameness, that wryly speaks of the essential similarity of the human experience—in this case, of work related tedium.

In a show full of small pleasures, little prepares one for the stunning epiphany contained in Perfume Pagoda, named for a religious shrine in the Ha Son Binh province. The young woman who sits with a hand to her forehead as she stares off into space seems caught in a moment of some incredible realization, overtaken by her destiny and her past at the same time, as much shocked by the brutal cleansing of the war as the just-as-clenching adaptation to materialism her country aspires to in the '90s. Still, as a worker (to judge by her standard blue Mao jacket) she's not out of synch with the misty Zen landscape which surrounds her. Few photographers have managed to make an image so loaded and so beautiful at once. One thinks of the woman in the Miami Beach elevator in Robert Frank's The Americans—innocent yet indestructible, a symbol about which one could write a jack Kerouac-style novel.