Art in America
Mitch Epstein at Sikkema Jenkins
Mitch Epstein's new series of photographs, "American Power," focuses on the physical evidence of
America's relationship with the fuel of modern life. Engaging in what he calls "energy tourism," Epstein
seeks out small towns where there are vast power stations, oil rigs, smokestacks and refineries. Yet he
grounds his images - 70-by-92-inch C-prints - in the human condition, combining empathy with sharp social
observation, politics with sheer beauty.
In Poca High School and Amos Plant, West Virginia (2004), a team of young football players in red jerseys
leisurely practice. It's a peculiar sporting pastoral - the surrounding land is dotted with mobile homes,
and the field is dwarfed by an enormous power plant with a trio of active smokestacks. We're struck by the casual
attitudes of the boys and their indifference to the pollution streaming into the sky, which is part of their
landscape and apparently, to them, invisible.
Snyder, Texas (2005) shows a dilapidated gas station set beneath a bank of leafless trees. A faint light
issues from behind its pale yellow door, and we see a collection of small salvaged glass bottles lining the
windows - the defunct gas station seems to have been converted into a low-end thrift store. The paint on one old
gas pump is peeling, another is overgrown with vines. As a portrait of the changing fortunes of American small
towns - their vulnerability to demographic and economic shifts, but also their resilience - it is lovely and haunting.
Epstein captures social nuance, but he also creates images of extreme formal strength. A gray sky is the background
for two downward streaming clouds of smoke in Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio (2003). Only along the uppermost
margin of the frame do we see the tops of the two smokestacks. These landscapes slowly reveal the collateral cost of America's
reliance on power (in both senses). That's a freighted subject, but Epstein, who prefers discretion to sanctimony, never loses
his assured touch - as a colorist he's unrivaled. Beyond the seductive tones, we're left with indelible reminders of the potential
damage, both environmental and, implicitly, political, of our collective behavior. These photographs create a delicate balance,
leaving us neither absolved nor privileged.