Gil Blank
Misc Fields
A satisfying anachronism of the current boom in photography books means that some older bodies of work that might have languished in their day are now being lavished with the kind of attention and high octane production values that most artists would never have originally dreamed of. While the trend can lead to the surplus publication of work probably better left forgotten, it also allows for the birth of some material in a form that might never otherwise have come about. Such is the good fortune of a series of photographs from the 70s and 80s by Mitch Epstein, a photographer of steady working habits who has enjoyed a surge in exposure in recent years, an early part of which consisted of a substantial portfolio feature in this magazine. Recreation assembles a selection of sixty–six images from a much larger archive of Epstein’s documentary work as he followed the classical model, traveling through the great American phantasmagoria. You can’t help but hear echoes of Simon and Garfunkel, resounding not only in all the flared pants and Pintos, nor even from the photographer’s characteristically humane point of view, but from that peculiar Kodachrome palette that screams “Dad’s slideshow”.


Smartly laid out, with one image per spread in oversized, full-bleed thirty-five millimeter aspect ratio, the book allows you to imagine yourself looking through one of Epstein’s personally edited portfolio boxes. Perhaps it also ought to allow you to imagine yourself looking through a window onto America, but then that’s precisely the rub; the generational displacement going on here never convincingly cedes a complete transparency the way that even older photographs by the likes of Walker Evans or Berenice Abbott so readily do. The question of why that happens is answered most keenly by the intrinsic character of Epstein’s style, which in its observational neutrality allows the anecdotal specifics of clothing, cars, and colors to overwhelm the more universal potentiality of photographic meanings.


What makes Mitch Epstein such a decent person—his inability, or at least unwillingness, to exploit the clichés of the alleged social comedy as gratuitously as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus—not only made him out of sync with his artistic contemporaries (and thankfully so), but ultimately leaves the work supine to its own referents, a container for the spectacle of old tastes, fun and fascinating to ogle, in the same way as a trip through a vintage store or the chintzier parts of the abandoned Vegas strip might be, a chance to indulge in some harmless retro-ironizing. Or, as I once heard someone most acerbically (and disingenuously) summarize Stephen Shore’s work, “Swell. Old cars”.


Looking closely enough though, you can detect a subtlety of construction that in its best forms, as in Miami Beach I, Florida, 1976, creates the kind of unique photographic space that far transcends more glib conventions and attains the rarer gift of grace. In a single image like this, you can see, in perhaps what is the clearest and most fulfilled example of Epstein’s work published to date, the essence of the photographer’s heart and oeuvre. There is empathy that doesn’t stoop to condescension of either subject or viewer—a lesson Arbus never learned—and a taut equilibrium of emotions that is so much more commonly dashed in coarser hands.


© Copyright Gil Blank

Mitch Epstein: Recreation
Published by DAP/Steidl

Originally published in Issue magazine, Number 8, 2005